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Determining A Word's Meaning From Context: Different Types of Context Clues

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

My legions of fans (my three year old son, my dog, and my goldfish) have been asking for a follow up article on using context clues to determine word meanings. The day has finally arrived.

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    After teaching different types of context clues to my classes, I felt good. They were able to identify examples of definition and restatement, example, and comparison. But it wasn't enough. They still lacked skills with three different types of context clues: contrast, cause and effect, and inference from general context.

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    Contrast

    Context may reveal the meaning of a word through contrast as in this example:

    In this sentence, the word unlike signals a contrast between stood still and apoplectic. Even if the reader does not know what apoplectic means, he or she can figure out the parent was moving wildly, uncontrollably.

    Other signal words for contrast include:

    • but
    • although
    • on the contrary
    • on the other hand
    • dissimilar
    • on the other hand
    • in contrast to
    • however

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    Cause and Effect

    The cause of an action may be stated using an unfamiliar word. However, if the effect is stated in familiar words, the reader can infer its meaning.

    • His lack of sagacity caused him to make one stupid decision after another.
    • The intrepid warrior led the assault on the well guarded fortress.

    The word sagacity may be unfamiliar to many readers. Understanding that the lack of it causes one to make stupid decisions, a discerning reader quickly infers that sagacity means wisdom. Knowing the intrepid warrior led an assault most would not dare helps the sagacious reader infer that intrepid means fearless.

    Words signaling cause and effect include:

    • because
    • since
    • consequently
    • therefore
    • when
    • as a result.

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    Lesson Ideas

    • Make identifying the type of context clue part of the context clues challenge.
    • Instruct students to write new vocabulary words with different types of context clues.
    • Have students identify types of context clues on standardized tests.

    Not all clues are as obvious as the ones we've discussed, nor can they be tested with simple questions. Often, readers must read more than just the sentence or two surrounding the word. Sometimes a group of words several sentences away may unlock the meaning. Sometimes the supporting details in a paragraph must be examined together to help the reader infer the meaning of a particular word. This is called inference from general context.

    For teaching how to infer meaning from general context, I recommend modeling.

    Find a standards based language arts curriculum map with links to a semester's worth of lesson plans, handouts, and powerpoints on Brighthub.com.