Types of Context Clues
Knowledge of Subject
The first way to figure out the meaning of a word is from its context. The context is the other words and sentences that are around the new word. When you figure out the meaning of a word from context, you are making a guess about what the word means. To do this, you use the hints and clues of the other words and sentences. You won't always be right, but many times you will be. You might not be able to guess the exact meaning of a word, but you may be close enough to get the meaning of the sentence it is in. A basic strategy for unlocking the meaning of an unfamiliar word is to search the context of the sentence in which a new word appears for clues. Sometimes this can be easy to do because the author may have provided a definition or a synonym right there next to or near a term that you can use to unlock its meaning. A definition is a statement giving the meaning of a word. A synonym is a word that means almost the same as another.
For example, read the following sentence: "Don't think of words as separate, discrete items, or entities." What is the meaning of the word entities? The definition is right there – separate, discrete items. But what is the meaning of discrete? The meaning of that word is right there too--separate.
When in doubt about the meaning of an unfamiliar word, look around in the sentence; check to see if there is a definition or synonym clue to help you unlock meaning.
Another kind of context clue (in addition to definitions and synonyms embedded in sentences) is a word or words of opposite meaning (antonym) set somewhere near a word that is unfamiliar. If you find a word or words of opposite meaning and you recognize it or them, you are "home free." You can unlock the meaning of the unfamiliar word.
For example, read the following sentence: "I was not exactly enamored of the travel plans my agent made for me; my lack of enthusiasm was triggered by the eight-hour layover required between flights." What is the meaning of the word enamored? You can use the context of the sentence to reason in this way: Enamored of means just the opposite of lacking in enthusiasm for.
Step 1: Check for synonyms or definitions embedded right there. If you find a synonym or definition, reread the sentence with the new term keeping that synonym or definition in mind.
Step 2: Check for an antonym clue. If you find one, think about its meaning, actually telling yourself the opposite meaning. Then reread the sentence and rephrase it in your own mind.
Context Clues: Substitution
At times, rereading a sentence that contains an unfamiliar term and substituting a word or phrase for it that makes sense can help you to unlock the meaning of the unfamiliar word. To understand the substitution strategy, read the following sentence:
"When we stayed at the military base, each Saturday we went to the commissary to buy the food and supplies we would need for the next week."
Although you may never have visited a commissary, given the use of the word in this sentence, you immediately can substitute the word store for the word commissary. You probably can wrestle an even more complete meaning for commissary from the overall context of the sentence: a store for food and supplies that is located on a military base.
Steps in the substitution strategy are as follows:
Step 1: When you read a sentence that you have trouble understanding because of an unfamiliar word in it, reread the sentence and substitute a word that seems to make sense in the context.
Step 2: Read on. If the word you substituted does not make sense in the context of the rest of the paragraph, try again.
Step 3: If the sentence still does not make sense to you and you do not understand the main point the author is making in the paragraph, look for synonym, definition, and antonym clues. If you are still uncertain, check a dictionary.
Context Clues: Multiple Meanings
As you have learned, a basic strategy for unlocking the meaning of an unfamiliar word is to search the context of the sentence in which a new word appears for clues. This is especially important when a word has multiple meanings that you already know and you must decide the particular one that applies. Try using the following strategy:
Step 1: Check the context for clues: definitions and synonyms given "right there" as well as words of opposite meaning – antonyms.
Step 2: Substitute each meaning you know in the context of the sentence until you find one that makes good sense there. (Hennings, p. 48)