In this section, we will discover how to best find the right meaning of an unknown word in a text by using context clues.
Context clues are good to expand our vocabulary and help us guess the right meaning of words by looking at how those words are used in a paragraph or sentence.
This allows us to keep on reading an essay or an article without having to stop and look that word up in our dictionary. This will save us time but still allows us to understand the piece you’re reading.
Using context clues, we have two main advantages for expanding our vocabulary and improving our reading comprehension.
At first, when skipping a word, you don’t know or comprehend, the meaning of the things you’re reading will be somewhat unclear.
It depends on the number of words that you don’t know and the importance of those words in that passage, but sometimes it may seem like you’ve just been reading a whole lot of words without having a clue what they could mean.
Second, when you’ll look up a dictionary each time when you don’t quite understand one or more words, this is not only very frustrating as you repeatedly need to interrupt your reading flow, but that word could actually show many different definitions.
This might get you a bit closer to comprehending the word’s meaning, but it might not bring you any closer to comprehending what the writer wants to convey.
Fortunately, for using clues in the context, we can use a 4-step process if we want to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Step 1 – See if there are examples of your unknown word within the rest of the sentence.
Authors will often be providing examples of the words they use to make sure the readers understand what they want to say. This is actually the easiest method for using clues.
Generally, people are using coniferous trees, like fir, pine, or blue spruce, for Christmas trees.
Do you notice that here, “fir”, “blue spruce”, and “pine” are examples of what we call “coniferous trees.” When you have no clue as to what coniferous trees are (actually trees that will not lose the leaves and color), you may safely take it that these trees are sharing some identical characteristics as firs, blue spruces, and pines.
Step 2 – When you can’t find examples of that word in a sentence, start looking for synonyms or antonyms of that word in that sentence.
We call synonyms words that are sharing similar meanings. For example, you may use words like “reduce,” “decrease,” “lessen,” or “cut,” and still bring across the same idea or point.
And antonyms are words that incorporate an opposite meaning. “Inept” and “competent” and are good examples of what we call antonyms.
Authors will use both antonyms and synonyms in their pieces, so if you come across unfamiliar words in some sentences, you may want to look for an antonym or a synonym that you know will bring you straight to the word’s definition.
I got so terribly infuriated by this pointless, ineffectual instruction manual! My usually good humor had now escaped me for the remainder of the day.
In this sentence, we can see that “ineffectual” is preceded by “pointless” and both words are qualifying that instruction manual. It may be safe if we assume that the words “pointless” “ineffectual” are synonyms.
You may also notice that the word “infuriated” is used as the opposite of “good humor.” This is telling us that these two words or expressions are antonyms. If you wouldn’t have known the precise meaning of the word “infuriated,” you may now understand that a good definition of the word could well be this: “bad humor.”
Step 3 – When you see a word without examples while there are also no synonyms or antonyms, try substituting the unknown word with a familiar word.
Here is an example:
Riding this roller coaster was very exhilarating, and our hearts raced like they did when we were kids.
When you don’t know the meaning of “exhilarating”, take that word from the sentence. So: “Riding this roller coaster was very __________ and our hearts raced like they did when we were kids.” Then start to substitute a few words and maybe you come up with one that will fit all other elements of the sentence.
If we look at our example sentence, the word “fun” could work fine, but the word “thrilling” would be working even better as it matches the element “our hearts raced” even better.
Step 4 – Relying on your experience and knowledge.
Your personal experience and knowledge may very well provide clues for figuring out the meanings of words unfamiliar to you.
Jenny’s mom commended her for cleaning up her room without telling.
When you’re not familiar with the word “commended”, place yourself in Jenny’s or her mom’s shoes. In case your daughter has cleaned up her room without you having asked her to do so, what would you’ve been doing? Most probably, you wouldn’t criticize or complain, would you? You would rather applaud and praise her. So now, you have figured out the word “commend” ‘s meaning without any antonyms, synonyms, or examples.
This fourth step is, in general, more useful in cases when you’ll be reading about something you know more things about.
You will probably not find it helpful in situations like when you attend a sociology, psychology, or anthropology class for the first time and start reading your text.
Next lesson: Overgeneralization
Last Updated on January 10, 2021.