Four Types of Context Clues

Understand the Types of Context Clues to Master Vocabulary

Sherlock Holmes mural in a subway station
Baker Street Underground station with Sherlock Holmes mural, London, England. (Mark Harmel/Photographer's Choice RF/ Getty Images)

Just like a detective following the clues that will lead to the perpetrator of the crime, you, my friend, must use the clues hidden in the text of a reading passage in order to determine the meaning of difficult vocabulary words. Context clues are simply that: hints or additional information the author provides (purposefully or not) that can help you understand the meaning of a particular word or phrase. These context clues can be located in the same sentence as the vocabulary word, but they can also appear elsewhere in the passage.  

Why Context Clues Are Important

When you're working on the reading section of a standardized test, you're going to have to employ some serious reading prowess to get you through. Knowing the various types of context clues can help you understand difficult vocabulary words in context, which is a must on a long reading section. The text will more than likely be chock full of words you don't really grasp. Outside of the passage, you may not have any idea what they mean, but inside the passage, where all the juicy tidbits of clues lie, you can figure those challenging words out. Context clues are also helpful when you're working to determine the main idea of a passage and struggling to make inferences because those words can help connect the dots in incredibly useful ways.

Four Types of Context Clues

There are a number of different types of context clues in reading passages because every author writes in a different way. Some authors offer very little explanation for difficult words, throwing tough vocabulary in everywhere with little or no context, while other authors carefully craft their passages to ensure the reader can understand everything he or she is trying to explain. Everything from the restatement of a word to an outright explanation of the word in action can be used to aid in comprehension.

Context Clue #1: Definition or Restatement

The meaning of the vocabulary word is in the sentence itself, usually following the vocabulary word.

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

Context Clue #2: Synonym

The sentence uses a similar word to help explain the meaning of the vocabulary word.

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

Context Clue #3: Antonym/Opposite/Contrast

The sentence uses a word with an opposite definition to give the meaning of the vocabulary word.

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 recommendation from me for another job.

Context Clue #4: Example or Explanation

This type of context clue uses examples to help the reader infer the meaning of the vocabulary word.

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.