Improve Vocabulary by Using Context Clues

When you’re reading a passage, you will undoubtedly come across words you don’t know. While it’s good to get out the dictionary and look up new words, you don’t have time to do that all the time. And especially in the IELTS reading module, you won’t be able to inspect each new vocabulary in the passage. Besides, the best way to learn vocabulary is through context – how it is used in a sentence and in what situation or topic it is used.

Here are 6 different contextual clues (examples are from IELTS passages):

1) Definition.

Sometimes the vocabulary word is actually defined or explained within the sentence it appears in or in a following sentence.

ex: “Some plastics are derived from natural sources, some are semi-synthetic (the result of chemical action on a natural substance), and some are entirely synthetic, that is, chemically engineered from the constituents of coal or oil.”

Here, two vocabulary words are actually defined “semi-synthetic” with the meaning in parentheses ( ) and “synthetic” which is followed by “that is,” and the definition.

2) Example.

Sometimes an example of the new vocabulary is used in the sentence or in following sentences. While it’s also meant to support the writer’s claim or add details, it’s also meant to help clarify to the reader what the writer intends.

 ex. “There has been a tradition for building underground, not just for transport systems, but for the storage of waste, depositories for books, etc. as in London, where the British Library housing millions of books has been built largely underground.”

Here, “depositories” is followed by an example ” as in…. housing millions of books”

3.) Comparison and Contrast.

Here, a clause is added to the sentence (like —,unlike –,although –) to show a similarity or contrast which can clarify the meaning of the vocabulary word.

ex. “Baekeland’s invention, although treated with disdain in its early years, went on to enjoy an unparalleled popularity which lasted throughout the first half of the twentieth century.”

Here, ‘although’ shows a contrast between “disdain” and “popularity”. You can then guess that in its early years, Baekeland’s invention was not popular, maybe even disliked.

4) Summary

A summary clue sums up an idea. The new vocabulary may be in the summary statement, and so the preceding information should give you a hint about what that word means.

ex. “All of the kelp species are edible but Laminaria saccharina  has a somewhat sweet taste, probably due to its high levels of mannitol and cooks better. It is probably the most palatable.”

Here, “palatable” refers to something that can be eaten (edible), has a sweet taste and cooks better – so we can guess it’s something that is easy to eat or pleasant to eat.

5) Synonyms (words of similar meaning)

These are used often and a new vocabulary word may be restated with a synonym later in the paragraph or passage. It’s important to see the connection between the word and its synonyms.

ex. ” Further, in Buddhist tradition, salt repels evil spirits, which is why it is customary to throw it over your shoulder before entering your house after a funeral: it scares off any evil spirits that may be clinging to your back . . . a handful thrown into the center to drive off  malevolent spirits.”

Here, you can see within this paragraph (I cut out some extra sentences), repels is a synonym to scare off, and evil is a synonym to malevolent.

6) Antonyms (Opposites)

Sometimes the opposite of a vocabulary word is included to add clarity to the writer’s point. If you’re able to understand the antonym, you can then guess the vocabulary word that it is in reference to.

ex.  The opening speech wasn’t very articulate;  rather, it was stilted and unclear.

Here, you can see the opposite of :articulate” is” unclear”. If you don’t clearly understand “stilted”, you can guess it’s a negative characteristic of a speech, so you may guess “awkward”, or “dry” or “stiff” or “boring”, or something to that effect.


Becoming aware of these types of clues and actively trying to guess the meaning of new words as you read will greatly improve your reading skills and vocabulary. It’s also useful in answering questions in IELTS when you aren’t sure what a key vocabulary word means.


I'm an English teacher specializing in IELTS preparation - especially writing and reading. If you have any questions, please ask! You can also sign up for weekly tips and lessons for IELTS and English!

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