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Supporting Your Children’s and Teens’ Home Learning: Using Context Clues to Understand New Words

Father and daughter writing at kitchen table

Filling out a graphic organizer can help children and teens use context clues to find the meaning of unfamiliar words they encounter in a text they are reading.


Posted on: October 20, 2020

Editor’s note: While learning at home, children can make progress toward grade-level reading and writing standards. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers support children’s and teens’ literacy learning at home.

Vocabulary development plays a prominent role in students’ ability to comprehend a complex text, especially a text in a content area such as science (Reed, Petscher, & Truckenmiller, 2017). Caregivers can support their children’s or teens’ vocabulary development at home by helping them determine the meaning of words in academic and literary texts. Proficient readers of all ages use vocabulary knowledge in conjunction with background knowledge to develop a deeper understanding of a text (Talwar et al., 2018). However, students who are still developing their vocabularies or who have vocabulary difficulties often lack the vocabulary knowledge to support reading comprehension (Quinn et al., 2020).

As students encounter unfamiliar words in a text, they can use context clues, or hints, that authors include in a text to help readers determine the meaning of new words (Nash & Snowling, 2006). Identifying context clues can be challenging for readers of all ages, so it is important to explain the types of context clues clearly and point out examples of them while reading texts. To help caregivers get started, three types of context clues are described in the sections that follow.

Three Types of Context Clues

1. Definition and Explanation Context Clues

Definition and explanation context clues directly state what an unfamiliar word means. These context clues usually are located within the same sentence, but they may be in the sentences immediately before or after the sentence with the unfamiliar word. Words such as: “is a/an,” “or,” “are,” “is called,” or “means” can signal a context clue.

Example: “Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation is a law that granted freedom to all slaves in the United States.”

The words “is a” are a signal that a definition for "Emancipation Proclamation" will follow: “…law that granted freedom to all slaves in the United States.”

Additionally, punctuation, such as a comma or em dash, also may signal a definition or explanation context clue. The punctuation may occur along with a signal word (e.g., “He was a great orator, or public speaker.”), or the punctuation may take the place of those words as in the following examples:

Example: “Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a law that granted freedom to all slaves, in 1863.”

Example: “In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation­—a law that granted freedom to all slaves in the United States.”

2. Synonym and Restatement Context Clues

Synonym and restatement context clues provide the meaning of an unfamiliar word by using other words or phrases that are more familiar and have a similar meaning. Typically, the synonym or restatement is found within the same sentence as the unfamiliar word. However, it also can be found in the sentence before or after the sentence with the unfamiliar word.

Example: “The purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation was to abolish slavery; however, slavery officially did not end until the 13th Amendment was added to the United States Constitution.”

The vocabulary word “abolish” is used in the first part of the sentence. The synonym “end” in the second part of the sentence tells a reader that “abolish” means “to end or stop.”

3. Antonym and Contrast Context Clues

Antonym and contrast context clues help readers understand the meaning of a new word by providing another word that has the opposite meaning. These clues generally occur immediately before or after the new word.

Example: “Although Abraham Lincoln fervently hated slavery, he carefully responded to the call for emancipation of all slaves.”

The vocabulary word in this example is “fervently.” In the second part of the sentence, “carefully” is used as an antonym to the new word “fervently.”

Caregivers should point out these context clues as they are encountered in a book or text and explain how to recognize and use the information to better understand the vocabulary. To support children and adolescents in using context clues themselves, caregivers can introduce the Context Clue Graphic Organizer (see Supplemental Materials for Families) for recording the new words, context clues, and word meanings. Below is a sample of how the organizer would be completed for the vocabulary introduced in the descriptions of the context clue types.

Figure 1. Sample Completed Context Clue Graphic Organizer

Context clue graphic organizer example

For additional support in guiding students to use context clues, view the demonstration video.

Supplemental Materials for Families

PDF iconContext Clue Graphic Organizer

Students can identify and keep track of context clues by writing down the unfamiliar word, the type of context clue, and the word meaning.


Nash, H., & Snowling, M. (2006). Teaching new words to children with poor existing vocabulary knowledge: A controlled evaluation of the definition and context methods. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 41, 335–354.

Quinn, J. M., Wagner, R. K., Petscher, Y., Roberts, G., Menzel, A. J., & Schatschneider, C. (2020). Differential codevelopment of vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension for students with and without learning disabilities. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112, 608–627.

Reed, D. K., Petscher, Y., & Truckenmiller, A. J. (2017). The contribution of general reading ability to science achievement. Reading Research Quarterly, 52, 253–266.

Talwar, A., Tighe, E. L., & Greenberg, D. (2018). Augmenting the Simple View of Reading for struggling adult readers: A unique role for background knowledge. Scientific Studies of Reading, 22, 351–366.