Using Context Clues to Improve Reading Comprehension

Teacher Helping Student to Read

Liam Norris / Getty Images

Context clues can help many people with dyslexia to compensate for weak reading skills when comprehending reading passages. Context clues can significantly increase reading comprehension. According to a study completed by Rosalie P. Fink at Lesley College in Cambridge, this continues into adulthood. This study looked at 60 professional adults with dyslexia and 10 without dyslexia. All consistently read specialized information for their jobs. Those with dyslexia scored lower in spelling and required more time to read and indicated they relied on context clues, both during the study and in everyday reading, to aid in comprehension.

Context Clues

When you encounter a word you don't know as you are reading, you can choose to look it up in a dictionary, ignore it or use the surrounding words to help you determine what the word means. Using the words around it is using contextual clues. Even if you can't figure out the exact definition, phrases and words should be able to help you make a guess about the word's meaning.

Some of the ways to use context to help understand new words:

  • Look for examples, illustrations or explanations. Difficult or uncommon words may be followed by information to help discern the meaning. The writer sometimes uses phrases to help identify examples and explanations: for example, such as, including, consists of, for instance, is like. Even without specific words introducing the meaning of an unknown word, phrases and sentences in the paragraph give further explanation, often enough to make a logical or educated guess as to the meaning of the word.
  • Definitions are sometimes included in the text. For example, "After the fire, the entire office was restricted, that is only a few people could enter, for several days." In this example, the author built the definition directly into the sentence.
  • Sometimes surrounding words or phrases contain synonyms of the unknown word. For example, "The boss complained when he was tardy, or late, for work for the third time this week."
  • Antonyms can also be used to help readers figure out the meaning of a word. For example, "Joe was exhausted after the trip but Tom was wide awake and alert."
  • Experiences can also be used to explain unknown words. "Roger was reluctant to volunteer to help at a charity event. Last time he jumped right in and found there was much more responsibility than he was ready to take on and it took up an immense amount of time. This time, Roger decided to take it slow, offering only a few hours a month rather than whatever time was needed. His fear of making a quick decision paid off and he really enjoyed the job once he could control how much time he gave to the organization."

Teaching Context Clues

To help students learn to use contextual clues to learn new vocabulary words, teach them specific strategies. The following exercise can help:

  • Using a textbook or printed worksheet, write down several new vocabulary words on the board. If using a textbook, write down the page and paragraph where the word is.
  • Have students divide a paper into three columns.
  • In the first column, the students should write the new vocabulary word.
  • In the second column, the student should write down any clues in the text that help them guess the meaning of the word. Clues can be found immediately before or after the word, in the sentence before or after or even in the paragraphs around the word.
  • The third column should contain the student's guess as to what the word means.

Students should review the different types of contextual clues, such as examples, synonyms, antonyms, definitions or experiences as they read through the text. If using a printout, students can use different color highlighters to mark the unknown word and the clues.

Once the students make a guess, they should re-read the sentence, inserting their definition in place of the vocabulary word to see if it makes sense. Finally, students can look the word up in the dictionary to see how close they were in guessing the meaning of the word.


  • "Literacy Development in Successful Men and Women with Dyslexia," 1998, Rosalie P. Fink, Annals of Dyslexia, Volume XLVII, pp 3311-346
  • "What Are Context Clues?" Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Sacramento City College
  • "What Contextual Clues Can I Use?" Date Unknown, Presented by Lynn Figuarte, U.S. Department of Education
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bailey, Eileen. "Using Context Clues to Improve Reading Comprehension." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bailey, Eileen. (2020, August 27). Using Context Clues to Improve Reading Comprehension. Retrieved from Bailey, Eileen. "Using Context Clues to Improve Reading Comprehension." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 18, 2021).