Definition and Examples of Context Clues

How We Infer Meaning

African man gesturing with hands
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In reading and listening, a context clue is information (such as a definition, synonym, antonym, or example) that appears near a word or phrase and offers direct or indirect suggestions about its meaning.

Context clues are more commonly found in nonfiction texts than in fiction, though they are found in children's literature, often with the goal of building readers' vocabulary. Words can have multiple meanings, so being able to infer the correct meaning from context is a valuable reading comprehension skill.

Types of Context Clues

You learn new words through context of the words around them, inferring their meaning through what's going on in the story or what has already been explained in the article. Clues to deciphering a word's meaning can be subtle hints or straight-out explanations or illustrations of meaning. 

Context clues can be synonyms, antonyms, definitions, explanations, word-structure clues, comparisons (such as metaphors and similes), and contrasts. For example:

Synonym context clues will have words nearby that mean the same thing:

  • Synonym: The annual fete is scheduled for the last day of school. It's always a great party.
  • Synonym:  "That charlatan!" he cried. "That absolute fake!"

Antonym context clues will have words nearby that mean the opposite.

  • Antonym: "You look pretty content about it, not like you're all languishing in worry," he said.
  • Antonym: "No, no, that didn't literally happen," she said. "I was just speaking figuratively."

Definition context clues just spell out the meaning in a straightforward manner:

  • Definition: In Britain they call a car's trunk its "boot."
  • Definition: "The department super, as we call them," she explained to the new hire, "is Jerry, the utilities superintendent." 

An explanation or illustration can also show the context of the word:

  • Explanation: She looked at the random stuff that had been thrown in the packing box at the last minute, from toothpaste and razors to spatulas and sticky notes. "Well, that's quite the melange, isn't it?" she thought.
  • Explanation: "No, no, that's just a crane fly, not a gigantic mosquito," he explained.

Word-structure clues come from a reader or listener understanding, for example, a base word and a prefix and inferring meaning of their combination, such as knowing anti- means against or knowing one word when hearing something very similar, such as understanding that a memorial is for someone who's died:

  • Word-structure: "I'm absolutely anti-establishment," the candidate declared.
  • Word-structure: The book was listed in memoriam of his father.

Comparison context clues will show the meaning of a word through similarities to other items or elements, similies or metaphors:

  • Comparison: He looked absolutely flummoxed, like a toddler staring down at his feet on the floor and who just isn't sure about this whole "walking" thing.
  • Comparison: "No," she said, "I'm as carefree about it as a bird floating among the clouds."

Contrast context clues show meaning through dissimilar elements:

  • Contrast: "It isn't exactly the melee that I expected by your description," he said. "The kids are just roughhousing a little. I expected them to be bruised and bleeding."
  • Contrast: I know she said she could reconstitute the dried fruit, but a wet raisin just isn't a grape any longer.

Limitations of Context Clues

Learning new words this way has its limitations, as contexts aren't always informative; they'll likely give a reader only a general idea of a word, not a full meaning. If the sentences in which the new word appear don't clearly spell out the definition of the word, the meaning may not be retained by the reader's memory for long. For long-term retention, a reader needs to see a word multiple times, and having some instances include a definition will increase the likelihood of a person remembering the word. 

Michael Graves wrote in "The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction," "All in all, the descriptive research on learning from context shows that context can produce learning of word meanings and that although the probability of learning a word from a single occurrence is low, the probability of learning a word from context increases substantially with additional occurrences of the word. That is how we typically learn from context. We learn a little from the first encounter with a word and then more and more about a word's meaning as we meet it in new and different contexts."