4 Types of Context Clues

Understand These to Master Vocabulary

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Just like a detective following clues that lead to the perpetrator of a crime, you as a reader must use (context) clues within a text passage to determine the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary. Context clues are simply hints or additional information the author provides that can help you understand the meaning of a particular word or phrase. These clues can be found in the same sentence as the vocabulary word or elsewhere in the passage, so be on the lookout whenever a new term presents itself. 

Why Context Clues Are Important

With reading comprehension being as important to all aspects of life as it is today, it's no wonder that language skills such as vocabulary are emphasized. You will most definitely encounter vocabulary questions in the reading sections of standardized tests, and you're going to have to employ some prowess to get you through.

Understanding how various types of context clues work can help you to understand difficult vocabulary words, even those brand new to you. A text may be chock-full of words you can't completely crack, but you shouldn't let that discourage you. Inside the passage, where all the juicy tidbits of vocabulary clues lie, you can figure challenging words out.

Context clues are also helpful when you're working to determine the main idea of a passage or struggling to make inferences about meaning because unknown words can help connect the dots in incredibly useful ways.

Four Types of Context Clues

Every author writes differently, so a number of different types of context clues can be found in reading passages. Some authors offer very little explanation for difficult words, throwing tough vocabulary into their writing wherever they can with little or no help; other authors carefully craft their passages to ensure readers follow every step of the way; most are somewhere in the middle. No matter what degree of help you're given, context clues are your friend.

Generally, a context clue can be categorized into one of four types:

  • Definitions or restatements
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms or opposites
  • Examples or explanations

1: Definitions or Restatements

A definition or restatement clue is the most straightforward "hint" you'll ever get—it defines the precise meaning of a vocabulary word in the sentence itself, usually immediately or closely following the vocabulary word.

  • Jack's duplicity—crafty dishonesty—enabled him to steal his coworker's pensions by funneling their money into an offshore account.

Notice how the dashes set off the definition. Commas or parentheses containing a descriptive phrase directly after the vocabulary word (an appositive) can also point you in the right direction by defining or restating.

2: Synonyms

Synonyms are equally easy to spot. Sentences containing synonyms use similar words and phrases to a vocabulary word to help give that word meaning. Sometimes synonyms are used to paint a clearer picture and sometimes they're used for emphasis.

  • The baseball coach punished the team's duplicity or deceitfulness after they admitted to using steroids to boost their batting averages.

3: Antonyms and Opposites

Antonyms are the reverse of synonyms but have the same effect. They use other words, this time opposites, to define unknown vocabulary words. Antonyms show stark inequalities and apply contrast to give meaning.

  • It was your duplicity that caused me to break up with you! Had you been honest, I wouldn't have felt the need.
  • Unlike my last employee, who had integrity to spare, you have nothing more than duplicity and will not receive a job recommendation from me.

4: Examples or Explanations

This type of context clue uses examples to help the reader infer the meaning of a vocabulary word. Just like in any other situation, examples can be helpful illustrations as context clues.

  • His duplicity involved lowering his employee's salaries, increasing their stock options, and then stealing the money he saved by doing so.
  • I was aghast at her duplicity when she stole my diamond earrings, sold them on eBay, and lied to me about it the whole time.

Try Out Your Suspected Definition

After examining the context of a passage for clues, you should have at least a vague idea of what an unknown vocabulary word means. Use your estimate to come up with synonyms for the new word, then try these out in the sentence to see if it still makes sense. If not, keep searching for hints until you've found something that works.