What are context clues?

Context clues are hints that an author gives to help define a difficult or unusual word. The clue may appear within the same sentence as the word to which it refers, or it may follow in a preceding sentence. Because most of one’s vocabulary is gained through reading, it is important that you be able to recognize and take advantage of context clues.

There are at least four kinds of context clues that are quite common: 1) a synonym (or repeat context clue) which appears in that sentence; 2) anantonym (or contrast context clue) that has the opposite meaning, which can reveal the meaning of an unknown term; 3) an explanation for an unknown word is given (adefinition context clue) within the sentence or in the sentence immediately preceding; and 4) specific examples (an example context clue) used to define the term.

There may also be word-part context clues in which a common prefix, suffix, or root will suggest at least part of the meaning of a word. A general sense context clue lets the reader puzzle out a word meaning from whatever information is available – and this is the most common kind of context clue. Others describe context clues in three ways: 1) semantic or meaning clues, e.g., When reading a story about cats, good readers develop the expectation that it will contain words associated with cats, such as “tail,” “purr,” “scratch,” and “whiskers”; 2) syntactic or word order clues where the order of the words in a sentence can indicate that a missing word must be (for example, a verb); and 3) picture clues where illustrations help with the identification of a word.