Consider this sentence:

A photograph of some tools, a hammer, a crescent wrench, and a box wrench.

Source: Steampunk Tools 2, felishumanus, Flickr

Learning strategies for understanding new words is an important and maybe even an indispensable tool for readers who want to understand what they are reading.

Let’s say that the word indispensable is unfamiliar to you. Without looking it up in a dictionary—which of course is a perfectly fine thing to do when confronted with a new vocabulary word—how could you use the words surrounding indispensable to figure out its meaning? Take a look at the activity below that shows how to use context clues. The sentence is repeated in the box below. Click to highlight three words or phrases that help you figure out the meaning of the word indispensable. If you click on a word that’s not so helpful, you will be prompted to try again until you click on the three words or phrases that are most helpful.

icon for an interactive exercise

Context clues are our friends. You can find them in the same sentence or in sentences in the surrounding text. Context clues provide hints as to what an unfamiliar word means. These clues come in different types as well. Below are examples and explanations of different types of context clues. In the examples, the unfamiliar words are red, and the context clues are underlined.

Context Clues
Definition/Example A mammal, such as a human being or a dog, has hair covering its body.

Both parties asked for an arbitrator, a person chosen to settle disagreements.
This type of context clue often uses signal words like such as, while, that, called, and that is along with punctuation marks, such as commas, parentheses, and colons. Note in the first example, you see examples of mammals. In the second example, you see a definition for arbitrator.
Synonym The general’s uniform was impeccable.

In other words, it provided a model of the perfect dress expected of the soldiers.
We know that when something is perfect, there are no mistakes or flaws. By using a synonym for perfect, the reader is able to infer the meaning of impeccable. Signal words for synonym context clues may include in addition to, in other words, and, both, also, and known as.
Antonym The soldier was intrepid in battle, but the private next to him was a coward. This context clue includes the signal word but to show that coward has the opposite meaning of intrepid. Other signal words for antonym context clues may include but, however, in contrast, and instead of.
General/Inferential People considered Martha to be ostentatious. She wore flashy clothes, maintained a unique hairstyle, spoke loudly, and liked attention. The words in the second sentence provide information that refers directly to the sentence before it, thus helping define the word ostentatious. For general context clues, readers must use their background knowledge to help connect to the other words surrounding the unfamiliar word. In other words, readers must make an inference, a logical guess.