What are the Different Types of Context Clues?

This article explains context clues, describes the different types of context clues, and provides some helpful examples. 

Put it into context

Whether you’ve ever heard the term before or not, you probably use context clues all the time – maybe without even realizing it. Think about the last time you came across an unfamiliar word while reading. What did you do? Did you Google it? Or ask Alexa what it meant? Maybe. Or just maybe, you figured out what it meant all on your own. How? With context clues.

What are context clues?

Context clues are hints – or “clues” – to the meaning of a word that are quite literally hidden in plain sight, right there in every reading passage you or your child has ever encountered. Context clues are hints in the passage, paragraph or individual sentence that, if considered, can tell you the meaning of a word you are not familiar with. Sometimes even the title of a piece or the illustrations that come with it offer context clues, as well.

These clues help us decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words in two different ways. The first is simply the basic meaning of the word. Take “paleontology,” for instance. In an article about research into dinosaur bones, you could use context clues to decide that “paleontology” means the study of dinosaurs.

Context clues can also help when a word has more than one meaning. These words are called homographs. Some simple examples are “bank,” “live,” and “rose.” Context clues allow us to choose the specific meaning the author intended for that word, at that time. If you’re reading about a bear racing through the woods, for example, and he climbs a bank, context clues tell you it’s a mound of dirt, not a place where people keep their money.

What are the Types of Context Clues?

There are five basic types of context clues. If you can help your child understand what they are, and how they work, she’ll have an ever-ready tool kit to use whenever she’s reading and finds herself stumped by an unknown word.

  1. Synonym or restatement clues – When an author uses these types of clues, he or she will say the same thing twice: once with the more difficult word, and then again in a more simple way, often right in the same sentence. If your child doesn’t understand a word in a sentence, tell her to keep reading. A restatement clue may be coming right up.
  2. Antonym or contrast clues – These types of context clues give us hints to the meaning of words by telling us what they’re not. Often the word “but” is included in the sentence to tell us that an opposite thought is about to be presented. That opposite is the antonym we’re looking for. Point out the antonym to your child. Then ask her, “What’s the opposite?”
  3. Definition or explanation clues – With this type of context clue, the definition of the word is literally given to the reader in the form of an explanation. Sometimes the author will add very specific words to tell us an explanation is upcoming. These can include phrases like “which means” or “that is” or “in other words.”
  4. General or inference clues – These types of context clues are a little more subtle. They usually require readers to look beyond the sentence they’re reading for understanding, sometimes even at the entire passage, the topic of the piece or the illustrations. If other, more specific context clues are missing, looking for inference clues is your child’s best bet.
  5. Punctuation or font clues – The clues hidden here are found in capitalization, italicization, quotation marks and even parentheses. These clues tell the reader that the word could be a name, a book title or even that, in the case of parentheses, the word is being defined for us.
  6. Tone or mood clues – Sometimes the mood that the author has set for us helps us guess at a word’s meaning. If the setting is a ghost story for instance, and the protagonist is “brooding,” we can be pretty sure it doesn’t mean he’s happy. Asking your child how she would feel in the setting of the story is one way to clue her into the meaning of a new word.

Know when to use context clues

While context clues are an invaluable reading tool, they can’t replace a dictionary – or Google! – completely. If your child has tried using context clues while trying to understand the meaning of a new word she has encountered, but is still struggling, it’s time to suggest a more straight forward approach. Help her look up the word she’s trying to understand using an online dictionary – or a good, old-fashioned paperbound one. Once she’s found the meaning of the word, have her re-read the passage and see if it makes more sense. She can even replace the word she didn’t understand with a synonym from the dictionary. Ask her again, “Does the sentence make sense now?”

Context Clues Examples

Need more clarity? Here are some Context Clues examples!

Synonym or Restatement Context Clues:

Miguel was very loquacious. He really loved to talk.

The rambunctious kids ran out to the bus and climbed on board. They jumped and yelled and just couldn’t settle down.

It was a frigid winter night; even the lake was frozen solid.

We all lined up at the cafeteria. Thank goodness it was time to eat lunch.

Antonym or Contrast Context Clues:

Everyone said that Yesinia could be very stubborn. She would never let someone else talk her out of something once she’d made up her mind.

The team felt victorious. They knew they would never lose again.

“Don’t sulk,” said Lin’s mother. “I need someone to talk to me today.”

We were all very suspicious. We didn’t know who we could trust.

Definition or Explanation Context Clues:

Police officers often must interrogate witnesses, that is, the officers must ask their witnesses important questions and try to get truthful answers.

Every time that Jamal went to the library, he tried to expand his understanding of the world, which means he tried to learn something new.

The ancient Chinese used the abacus, a device with movable beads that can be used as a calculator.

Every time Taylor went to the store he was very conspicuous. In other words, he stuck out like a sore thumb.

General or Inference Context Clues:

Sheila spearheaded the new product line. She learned what people were buying. She started the new advertising campaign. She even designed the webpage and product logo.

The relationship between the native people and the new government was complicated. Sometimes they got along and everyone was happy with the outcome. Other times, there were disagreements, arguments and fights.

Coyotes have a voracious appetite. They eat insects, lizards, snakes, rabbits, squirrels, grasses and even fruit.

Nikola Tesla was an enigmatic figure. His inventions contribute to many of the modern conveniences that we use to this day. But, he also had visions, thought that he could speak with beings on Mars, and died a pauper.

Punctuation or Font Context Clues:

Everyone at the theater really enjoyed Idomeneo.

Every morning the teacher checked the classroom barometer (a device that measures atmospheric pressure).

Terri retained – kept – the keys to the old mansion.

The ancient clock only rang once in a millennium (a thousand years).

Tone or Mood Context Clues:

When the children at the birthday party saw the cake, the balloons and the clown, they were ecstatic.

Tired from the long march, the hot sun and the bad food, the boy scouts sat down by the trail in despair.

The doctor’s office was so clean and shiny that Merton thought even the chairs must be sterile.

The three little ponies threw up their heads and trotted around and around the meadow with ebullient grace.