Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

Increase Your Vocabulary Using Context Clues

What are context clues? Context clues are hints that writers provide to help readers understand unfamiliar words.

Everyone encounters words they have never seen before, including people who are reading in their first language. This is true of people of all ages. Avid readers are able to figure out the gist of the new words through context. Before turning to a dictionary, they try to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words. After trying to figure out a word’s meaning, they can verify their guess by checking a dictionary.

What is Context?

Context refers to the nearby and related information of a situation or something written or spoken. Depending on the context, the meaning of a word can change in English. “I’m going to the bar.” means something different depending on the context. One imagines two different things depending on whether the statement is spoken in a ballet studio (in this case, the spelling is ‘barre.’) or in response to “What are you doing Friday night?”

Without context, words like nascent and marcescent are mysterious on their own. However, using context (the language that surrounds a word) can shed light on the meaning of words we do not know. When we see these words in sentences, we can begin to get a feeling for their meaning. While you may still be in the nascent stages of using context clues, with practice, you will begin to do it effortlessly. Like a marcescent tree holding on to its leaves, you can hold on to this skill as you continue to expand your vocabulary.

How to Learn Words Using Context Clues

To learn words in context, you use the words you know to help you understand the words you don’t know.

By looking at what comes before and after something you do not understand, you can figure out the meaning of a word you haven’t seen before.

Strategies for Learning New Words Using Context Clues

Every word has a different context, so the way you figure out the meaning may be different too. This lesson teaches you 4 types of context clues. You can remember them with the acronym EASE.

EASE stands for example, antonym, synonym, and explanation (EASE).

  • Example: A writer may give an example of the word to help you understand it.
  • Antonym: An antonym is an opposite. In this case, an opposite meaning may be provided to show a contrast.
  • Synonym: A synonym is a word with the same or similar meaning and can be a great indication of a word’s meaning.
  • Explanation: Sometimes the meaning of a word or phrase is explained in the words that follow it.

Practice Exercise

Let’s look at some examples. Try to identify which type of context clue (example, antonym, synonym, or explanation) is given in each example. You’ll find the answers at the bottom of this page.

  1. Her father is loquacious, unlike her mother who doesn’t talk much at all.
  2. He was completely flummoxed by her anger, and his utter confusion made her more furious.
  3. She sat by the pool sipping a Negroni, an Italian cocktail made of one part gin, one part sweet vermouth and one part Campari, garnished with orange peel.
  4. She was guilty of three infractions, including neglecting to stop at a red light.

In addition to these four types of context clues, you can also infer or guess the meaning of a word based on the words around it.

For example, “The doctor hoped that the pain medication would mitigate the patient’s suffering.”

To infer meaning, think about the situation. What do you think a doctor would hope that pain medication would do to a patient’s suffering? Certainly not make it worse or increase it. Based on the context, we can guess that the doctor wanted to decrease the patient’s suffering.


  1. Antonym
  2. Synonym
  3. Explanation
  4. Example

Related reading: Increase Your English Vocabulary

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