How to Use Context Clues | 123Read&Write

Understanding How to Use Context Clues

To enjoy the reading process, it's important for children to understand how to figure out vocabulary, which may be difficult for them to understand. Learning how to use context clues is an important strategy to master to enhance one's reading progression. 

Few people understand every word they come across as they read. Proficient readers, however, can often figure out the meanings of difficult words by observing it in context. In essence, the reader can locate clues to a word's meaning by observing the remainder of the sentence; or they may find additional clues in nearby sentences. 


Lesson 1 - Context Clues

Try the examples provided below. Carefully read the words around the italicized term, thereby, utilizing context clues.

  • A salamander is one type of amphibian, which is an animal that lives a portion of its life on land, and part in water. 

The final portion of the sentence offers an explanation of what amphibian means. 

amphibian - an animal that lives part of their life on land, and part of their life on land. 

  • The frightened groundhog darted into the trees.

By using context clues, you can infer that darted means to run quickly because a frightened animal would try to get away from danger quickly and hide (since the trees would offer shelter). 

Lesson 2 - Homographs in Context

At times, a child may see a word that may have two very different meanings. For example, if you were to see the word by itself, you would be unsure of its exact meaning. Take a look at the example below using the word pitch.

The batter waited for the pitch.

The singer had perfect pitch.

The context makes the meaning of pitch in each sentence clear. Homographs are two words which are spelled the same, but have different meanings. 

Look at the examples provided below. Look at the pair of homographs. Then read each sentence to decide on which word fits correctly.

A. state - to say something

B. state - a division of a country

The land is very hilly in the state of California. (B)

“I’d like to state a fact,” said Mr. Jones. (A)

A. range - a stove

B. range - a feeding area

The new range was installed in the kitchen. (A)

The cows grazed on the range. (B)

Lesson 3 - Definitions in Context

At times, unfamiliar words are explained by the author. For example, a writer assists you in a word’s meaning by explaining it in the sentences (i.e. it’s defined within the text). A definition is a statement that offers the meaning of a word.

Look at the examples provided below. The keyword is italicized, and its definition is underlined. 

1. Someone who is gluttonous is a person who eats more than needed

2. A reduction is to make less in size

Another technique an author may use to offer the definition of a word is to utilize the appositive comma rule (by setting off the meaning by a pair of commas). See the examples below.

1. The starfish, a tiny sea creature, can have more than five arms.

2. We studied homographs, words with the same spelling and different meanings, in class today. 

Lesson 4 - Partial Definitions in Context

Throughout the first few lessons, you can see how context cluespartial context clue can help a reader understand an unfamiliar word. However, you will not always find a complete definition every time you encounter a new word. Instead, you may only be presented with a partial meaning of the word. As an example, look at the sentence below for a regarding valves.

As a human organ, the heart has various valves, which control the amount of blood passing through it.

As the reader, you may not exactly understand what a valve actually looks like, or its mechanics; but you can figure out that valves are in charge of blood flow throughout the heart. Therefore, partial context clues can offer assistance to better understand an unknown word, even if the text does not spell it out completely. 

Look at the examples provided below. The keyword is italicized, and its partial definition is underlined.

1. The politician was faced with a grave problem, and he was conflicted about what to do.

By using the context clues provided, the reader could infer that a grave problem, in this instance, means something that is difficult to solve.

2. The shark had bitten the swimmer inflicting a serious wound

By using the context clues provided, the reader could infer that inflicting means causing pain or damage.

Lesson 5 - Using a Dictionary

There are times when context will not offer the reader sufficient clues as to a word’s meaning. If this is the case, you can try another strategy: the dictionary. A dictionary. A can help a reader in many ways:

  • It tells how many syllables a word has.
  • It tells you the phonetic sound of the syllables.
  • It tells you which syllables are stressed.

Try the following word for an example: prepare

How do you pronounce the word prepare? Dividing the word into syllables will most certainly help. By utilizing a dictionary, the word would be divided as follows: pre pare

Now, if you look closer, you’ll see that the word is pronounced as follows: priˈpe(ə)r

To understand how the pronunciation of the word prepare sounds, you should have an understanding of the pronunciation key. See below:


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Additional Symbols

For an example of utilizing the pronunciation key, let’s try the word scowl. Using the pronunciation key, scowl is pronunced as skoul.

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As a reader, the dictionary allows you to understand a difficult word, because it gives you a list of its meanings. Then, by using context clues surrounding the word, you must decide on which meaning seems most plausible. Let’s use the word flock to see how word meaning is important to understand.

Everyone flocked to the sound of the fireworks.

flock (flok). 

1. Noun - A group of animals of the same kind grouped together.

2. Noun - A large number or group.

3. Verb - To come or move together in a group.

4. Noun - The people belonging to a church congregation.

By looking at the dictionary meanings of flock, by utilizing context clues, you should have decided that the correct meaning of flock for the sentence provided is number 3.