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The Roadrunner's Guide to English: Vocabulary, Context Clues, and Acquiring a Word



One of the most important parts of reading and writing is vocabulary. You may not realize it, but the more words you know, the better your speaking and writing skills will be. College freshmen typically know around 20,000 words (need citation). Your goal is to increase this number of words so that both your speaking and reading vocabulary will grow, but what happens when you come across a word you don’t know?

Context Clues

Many times students struggle when they come across a word they have never seen. For a long time, students were told to “look it up” when they encountered a word they did not know. That is fine if you have access to a dictionary, but what if you don’t? What if you are taking a test and don’t recognize the word in a passage?

Context clues will help you. They are words that appear before, after, or close to a word whose meaning you might not know. All you do is keep reading and see if there is a clue to the unknown word’s meaning either before, after, or close to the unknown word. Here is an example:

The gregarious student spent too much time socializing and not enough time studying.

Let’s say you don’t know the meaning of gregarious. Take a closer look at the sentence. What does the gregarious student do? He (or she) likes to socialize and talk to others. This type of student is definitely social, so another way to describe this student is outgoing; therefore, a gregarious student would be someone who is outgoing and who likes the company of others.

Context clues typically fall into four categories: synonym, antonym, example, and general sense of the sentence.

A synonym context clue means that there is a word in the sentence that contains the same meaning as the word you may not know. Take a look at this sentence.

The math test was arduous; students spent the entire class working on the difficult exam, and many needed extra time just to complete it.

Looking at the sentence, you’ll notice there is a word that seems to describe arduous. What word is it?

If you said difficult, then you are right. Think about it. If a test requires the entire class period and students still need extra time, then that is one difficult test!

An antonym context clue means the opposite of what another word means. Here is an example:

The class completed the easy grammar test in thirty minutes, but the arduous math test took the entire class period.

Here’s our word arduous again. What word in the sentence means the exact opposite? If you said “easy,” then you would be right, but how do you know if the context clue is a synonym or an antonym? Look at the wording in the sentence. It contains the word but. This word, like however and yet, shows a contrast, something that is the opposite in meaning. When you see these words used in a sentence, what comes after them will not be the same in meaning as what has come before.

Probably one of the easiest types of context clues is the example. Sentences with these types of context clues give illustrations of the difficult word. Take a look at this sentence:

Our pond is home to amphibious creatures such as frogs and turtles, who enjoy swimming in the clear water and then sunning themselves on the rocks.

If you don’t know the definition of amphibious, then you might consider what frogs and turtles have in common: they swim in the water and then spend time on the rocks. Therefore, they live on the water and on the land, so amphibious creatures are at home both in water and on land. Sentences with example context clues contain words that let you know an illustration or example is coming: such as and to illustrate are two common wording patterns that are used. When you see these, you know an example or illustration is in the sentence.

Using your general sense of the sentence is also a great help when decoding words. You can look at what the sentence is saying and figure out the meaning of an unknown word. Take a look at the sentence below.

The student received an expeditious answer to her email because her instructor was online and answering student questions.

You would probably assume that since the instructor was online and answering questions that the answer to the email came quickly. If so, you would be correct.

Learning to use context clues takes time. It isn’t a skill you will acquire overnight; however, always stop and think when you come across a word you don’t know. Reread the sentence, and then go back and read a few sentence that lead up to the sentence you are studying. If you don’t see a clue, keep reading because the context clue may be after the sentence. Just don’t give up. Study the sentence and the sentences around it until you find a clue that might help you decode the word you don’t understand.

Author: Dr. Lydia Postell