You learn words throughout your life. According to a 2003 article by E. D. Hirsch, it’s estimated that the average twelfth grader preparing for a competitive college knows about 80,000 words! How is it possible to learn that many words? Certainly not by looking each one up in the dictionary or by deliberately studying long vocabulary lists. You learn most new words, believe it or not, based on the words around them.

The words that surround a word and can shed light on its meaning make up the word’s context. This lesson focuses on ways of searching through the context for clues to illuminate unknown words. Unknown words interrupt the flow of your reading, and, like a bump in the road, slow you down. This lesson will help you to look for the context around the troublesome word. Often a writer will include hints to its meaning, getting you over the bump and enabling you to continue reading.

Using context clues to learn new words and confirm the meaning of words you sort of know is a strategy you can use independently. Understanding how writers include context clues will not only make you more alert to the possibilities of expanding your vocabulary but will also help you climb to the 80,000 mark.

A word cloud of thirty or so jumbled words (orange, maroon, black) that relate to the topic of this lesson, with “context,” the largest word, in the middle.