Vocabulary in Context

Sometimes when we’re reading, we spot a word that we don’t know. And that’s okay! Here are some techniques to figure out what a word means.

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

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

In fact, cognition — thinking 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.


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