Vocabulary in Context

Context Clues and Approximate Definition

While a dictionary can give you the most accurate meaning of a word, taking time to look up words is distracting and will cause you to lose track of what the passage meant.  Instead, using the context clues to understand the word keeps your mind on the topic and helps you determine an approximate definition.

When Russia was under the control of Josef Stalin, dissidents were routinely shot or imprisoned in hospitals for the mentally ill.  Stalin did not allow anyone to express disagreement or discontent with his policies.

dissidents ≈ people who disagree


Four Common Context Clues

Example The author includes the behavior, attitude, or event associated with the word.

The discussion was becoming increasingly belligerent; no matter what was said, someone in the group would challenge it in an angry voice.

Contrast The author tells you what the word does not mean.

At first the smell was almost flowerlike, but in a matter of minutes it became harsh and acrid.

Restatement The author gives you a synonym or word close in meaning.

His behavior was eccentric; but in New York, it wasn’t all that unusual for people to be odd.  

NOTE: In textbooks, the authors are more likely to give you an exact definition enclosed by commas, parentheses, or dashes.

Cognitionthinking or knowing — has been the subject of numerous studies.

General Knowledge The passage describes an experience or event with which you are likely familiar.  If you are from another country, these will be the hardest to use. Learning more about American culture will help.

Football and basketball coaches are frequently known for their volatile tempers.



Underline the clues, then try writing an approximate definition


  1. According to the myth, the hero Achilles was vulnerable in just one area of his body.  He could be killed only if he was wounded in the heel.

Vulnerable means



  1. The candidate had expected to win but instead she was trounced by her opponent, who won by a landslide.

Trounced means



  1. Before allowing someone to deliver a personal opinion on the air, most television news programs issue a disclaimer that denies all responsibility for the views expressed.

Disclaimer means



  1. The Chinese novelist Ha Jin is an amazingly perceptive writer, who understands human behavior in a way that few novelists can.

Perceptive means



  1. In his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, novelist John Steinbeck movingly describes the plight of migrant farm workers in California forced to work under brutal and dehumanizing conditions.

Plight means



  1. Inventors don’t necessarily care if their inventions are lucrative; often they just have an idea they are desperate to make reality, and money doesn’t matter.

Lucrative means



  1. Looking filthy and disreputable after being lost for a month in the woods, the children were finally discovered by a team of hunting dogs.

Disreputable means



  1. The parents realized that Jonah was a child prodigy when his teacher told them that the eight-year-old was reading books written for high school students.

Prodigy means



  1. The soldier was a member of an elite group of special forces who had been highly trained just for such international emergencies.

Elite means




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What is an Inference?

An inference is an idea that is suggested by the facts or details in a passage.

Most writing suggests more than it says.  Conclusions may be missing from the things you read, so you have to draw your own.  An author may not include information for several reasons:

1. They may think you already know it

2. It may not seem important to them

3. They may want you to find the result


How to Make an Inference

1. Observe all the facts, information, and arguments given by the author.

2. Consider what you already know from your own experience.

3. When faced with multiple choice answers, determine whether each is true or false based on the information in the passage: 

The woman waited nervously in line. When the counter was empty, she carefully unloaded her items from her cart. Lines creased her forehead as if to show the calculations ringing up in her head. Finally, the cashier began ringing up the items as the woman clutched her purse.

→ Inference: The woman may not have enough money to cover the cost of her groceries.

4. Think about the facts of the passage and what may result from them.

5. Think about causes and effects.  Sometimes, the writer may only provide a list of effects, so you have to figure out the cause:

The child stood on the sidewalk clenching her ice cream cone. Beads of sweat collected on her little nose as she furiously licked at the ice cream dripping down her hand.→ Inference: It must me a hot day because her ice cream is melting, and she is sweating.

6. Try saying, “If . . . then . . .”

If the girl is sweating, then it may be warm outside.


NOTE: For better or worse, many writers make assumptions about shared cultural experiences they believe their audience will recognize.   For that reason, learn as much as you can about the cultural context of the story. Some ways to learn about a culture:

1. Ask friends in that culture about their childhoods.

2. Watch movies and television from that culture, including from several decades back.

3. Read, read, read.  



Turner almost wished that he hadn’t listened to the radio. He went to the closet and grabbed his umbrella. He would feel silly carrying it to the bus stop on such a sunny morning.


Which probably happened?

a. Turner realized that he had an unnatural fear of falling radio parts.

b. Turner had promised himself to do something silly that morning.

c. Turner had heard a weather forecast that predicted rain.

d. Turner planned to trade his umbrella for a bus ride.


“Larry, as your boss, I must say that it’s been very interesting working with you,” Miss Valdez said. “However, it seems that our company’s needs and your performance style are not well matched. Therefore, it makes me very sad to have to ask you to resign your position effective today.”


What was Miss Valdez telling Larry?

a. She would feel really bad if he decided to quit.

b. He was being fired.

c. He was getting a raise in pay.

d. She really enjoyed having him in the office.


Every day after work, Paul took his muddy boots off on the steps of the front porch. Alice would have a fit if the boots made it so far as the welcome mat. He then took off his dusty overalls and threw them into a plastic garbage bag; Alice left a new garbage bag tied to the porch railing for him every morning. On his way in the house, he dropped the garbage bag off at the washing machine and went straight up the stairs to the shower as he was instructed. He would eat dinner with her after he was “presentable,” as Alice had often said.


What type of job does Paul work? __________________________________________________


Describe Alice: _________________________________________________________________


What relationship to Paul and Alice have? ___________________________________________


What might “presentable” mean to Alice? ____________________________________________


Kayla | 2016

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Skimming & Scanning


This is a method of getting a quick overview of an entire selection. The adept skimmer locates and identifies valuable and important parts of a reading selection by moving through the reading from beginning to end, gaining a general idea of the central point and important supporting details.  

Look for: titles, headings, topic sentences, visual aids, introductory and concluding paragraphs, and major subdivisions of information in the form of a list of ideas, items, steps, or reasons.

Practice: The following text passage contains a number of kinds of information that might be the object of a research project.  Here is a suggestion – run your finger quickly along each line of print, following along with your eyes, stopping only when you detect the details you are seeking.

  1.    Scan the following passage and highlight or underline dates.
  2.    How many dates did you note? 
  3.   List the dates in the order in which they appear in the text. 
  4.   Now, places.
  5.    How many places did you note? 
  6.   List the places in the order in which they appear in the text. 
  7.    What type of places did you find? 

The treaty of Utrecht inaugurated an era of peace and expansion for England’s continental colonies. Their population had grown from about 85,000 in 1670 to 360,000 in 1713.  By 1734, it had quadrupled again to about 1,500,000. This increase owed much to heavy migration of non-English people – Irish, Scots, French, and German – favored by a liberal naturalization act of the British Parliament in 1740.  Only two new colonies, Nova Scotia and Georgia, were founded between 1713 and 1754, but the area of settlement almost tripled. In the North, it spread into the hilly interior of New England, the region west of the lower Hudson River and central Pennsylvania.  In the southern colonies, it spread into the Piedmont Plateau area between the fall line of the rivers and the Blue Ridge and Smokey mountains.


This is a way of finding a specific bit of information within an entire reading selection.  Imagine you are taking notes for a paper you must write, studying for a test, or concentrating on just one element of a piece of writing, such as references to the color red in a novel.

Look for: names, dates, places, key words or phrases, italicized or bold-faced terms, numbers, or punctuation.

Practice:The following article is similar to the kind you might find during research for a class assignment.  Here is a suggestion – move quickly from beginning to end of the article noting the same types of information you need for your argument.

  1. Skim the article below and highlight words or phrases related to the distraction caused by cell phones.
  2. Now, skim the article again and circle words or phrases related to who might be affected by cell phones in schools.

To the Editor:

”With Ban Nearing End, City Works on How and When to Allow Cell phones at School” (news article, Nov. 1):

Permitting New York City public school students to bring their cellphones to schools will inevitably lead to more distractions in classrooms, more conflicts between students and teachers, more cyberbullying and more competition among students to see who has the latest and greatest device.

When teachers have to spend more time policing and less time teaching, students will be spending less time learning. New York’s students cannot afford this. They are under more pressure than ever to excel on the new state-mandated Common Core exams, which only about 30 percent are now passing. The last thing they need is another source of distraction and a loss of instructional time.

RICHARD KAVESH Nyack, N.Y., Nov. 2, 2014

The writer teaches at a public high school in the Bronx and is a former mayor of Nyack.


Kaylan | 2016 

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Identifying Main Ideas

Explicit Main Idea

A main idea is the author’s controlling point about the topic.  It usually includes the topic and the author’s attitude or opinion about the topic.  To identify the main idea, ask yourself:

  1. Who or what is the paragraph about?  The answer is the topic.  The topic can be stated in just a few words.
  2. What does the author think about the topic?  The answer is the point. The point can also be stated in just a few words.

Once you’ve identified these pieces, you can combine them to state the author’s main idea in a single sentence.

Topic= the cool-down period

Point = important parts of exercise workouts

The cool-down period is an important part of an exercise workout.

Topic + Point = Main Idea

Often, but not always, the main idea of a paragraph is written as that paragraph’s topic sentence.  A topic sentence is a single sentence that states the topic and words that qualify the topic by revealing the author’s opinion about the topic or the author’s approach to the topic and also reveal the author’s thought pattern or organizational strategy. When you’ve identified both the main idea and the thought pattern, you can identify the topic sentence.

Main Idea = The cool-down period is an important part of an exercise workout

Thought Pattern = several reasons

The cool-down period is an important part of an exercise workout for several reasons.

Main Idea Thought Pattern = Topic Sentence

Placement of Main Ideas & Topic Sentences

General to Specific

The topic sentence is the one sentence that is general enough to include all the ideas in the paragraph.  Therefore, a topic sentence that begins a paragraph or appears within the first few sentences of a paragraph signals a move from general ideas to specific ideas.  

Specific to General to Specific

At times, an author begins a paragraph with details to stir the reader’s interest in the topic.  The flow of ideas moves from the specific to the general and back to the specific.

Specific to General

Sometimes, an author waits until the end of the paragraph to state the topic sentence and main idea.  This allows the details to build up to the main idea and is sometimes called “climactic order.”

Implicit Main Idea

Implied Main Idea

This is a main idea that is not stated directly but is strongly suggested by the supporting details in the passage.  Many paragraphs in college textbooks do not provide a topic sentence, instead using supporting details to imply the main idea.  To determine the implied main idea, look at:

  1. The topic
  2. The supporting details: facts, examples, descriptions, and explanations given
  3. The author’s thought pattern
  4. The author’s purpose

Read the sample paragraph below:

Egypt’s pyramids are the oldest existing buildings in the world.  These ancient tombs are also among the world’s largest structures.  The largest pyramid stands taller than a 40-story building and covers an area greater than that of ten football fields.  More than 80 pyramids still exist, and their once-smooth limestone surfaces hide secret passageways and rooms.  The pyramids of ancient Egypt served a vital purpose: to protect the pharaoh’s bodies after death.  Each pyramid held not only the pharaoh’s preserved body, but also all the goods he would need in his life after death.  

1.The topic of the paragraph is pyramids

2.There are three groups of supporting details, discussing: age, size, and purpose

3.The author has organized the supporting details into “characteristics” or “traits” of the pyramids.

4.The author purpose seems to be trying to define a pyramid.

Implied Main Idea: Pyramids are structures with several distinctive traits.

Remember, the main idea must be broad enough to cover all the details in the paragraph without being so broad that it includes details not mentioned.  



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Fact vs. Opinion


Facts are statements that can be verified.  They can be proven true or false. Statements of fact are objective — they contain information but do not tell what the writer thinks or believes about the topic.

Example: My car payment is $250 per month.

Questions to Identify Facts:

  1. Can the statement be proved or demonstrated to be true?
  2. Can the statement be observed in practice or operation?  Can you see it happen?
  3. Can the statement be verified by witnesses, manuscripts, or documents?


Opinions are statements that express a writer’s feelings, attitudes, or beliefs.  They are neither true nor false. They are one person’s view about a topic or issue.

Example: My car payments are too expensive.

Types of Opinions:

  1. Positions on controversial issues
  2. Predictions about things in the future
  3. Evaluations of people, places, and things

Words to Identify Opinions:

  1. Biased Words (bad, worse, worst, good, better, best, worthwhile, worthless, etc.)
  2. Qualifiers (all, always, likely, never, might, seem, possibly, probably, should, etc.)

Informed Opinions

The opinions of experts are known as informed opinions.  As experts in their field, they may make observations and offer comments that are not strictly factual.  Instead, they are based on years of study, research, and experience.

Example: According to Jane Goodall, primate expert and ethologist, chimps are in massive danger of extinction from dwindling habitats. 

Questions to Identify Informed Speakers:

  1. Does the speaker have a current and relevant background to the topic under discussion?
  2. Is the speaker generally respected within the field?
  3. Does the speaker carefully signal, via judgment words, to identify when they are presenting opinions vs. facts?


Vanessa Flora-Nakoski | This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/.