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Building vocabulary: Using context clues to learn word meaning
When authors write, they often include context clues to the meaning of words they use but think that some of their readers may not know. The context clue is usually presented in the sentence or paragraph in which the word occurs. Sometimes a visual such as a picture is provided.
Here are six types of context clues used by authors to help the reader understand the meanings of words. An example is provided for each.
1.Definition context clue
The author includes a definition to help the reader understand the meaning of a word. In the following example, “tainted” is defined as having a disease.
The people of the town were warned not to eat the tainted fish. The local newspaper published a bulletin in which readers were clearly told that eating fish that had a disease could be very dangerous. This was especially true for fish caught in Lake Jean.
2.Synonym context clue
The author includes a synonym to help the reader understand the meaning of a word. A synonym is a word that means the same as or nearly the same as another word. In the following example, the synonym “pity” helps the reader understand the meaning of “compassion.”
After seeing the picture of the starving children, we all felt compassion or pity for their suffering.
3. Antonym context clue
The author includes an antonym to help the reader understand the meaning of a word. An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another word. In the following example, the antonym “eager” helps the reader understand the meaning of “reluctant.”
Joe was reluctant to take on the position of captain of the basketball team. He was afraid that the time it would take would hurt his grades. On the other hand, Billy was eager for the chance to be captain. He thought that being captain of the team would make him very popular in school.
4. Description context clue
The author includes one or more descriptions to help the reader understand the meaning of a word. In the following example, descriptions of President Kennedy as having charm, enthusiasm, and a magnetic personality help the reader understand the meaning of “charismatic.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our 35th president, improved human rights and equal rights for all people. He was a very charismatic president. People were attracted to his charm and enthusiasm. His personality was described as magnetic.
5. Summary context clue
The author makes a number of statements that help the reader understand the meaning of a word. In the following example, statements about being rude, showing no respect, having poor manners, and being impolite help the reader understand the meaning of “impertinent.”
Andrea was a very impertinent young lady. She was so rude that she talked while her teacher was explaining a lesson. She showed no respect for other students. Her manners were very poor. Even her parents thought that Andrea was impolite.
6. Visual context clue
The author includes a picture, drawing, chart, graph, or other type of visual to help the reader understand the meaning of a word.
Using the context clues provided by authors can help you learn the meaning of many new words.
Everyone—from beginning learners in English to veterans in journalism—knows the frustration of not having the right word immediately available in that lexicon one carries between one's ears. Sometimes it's a matter of not being able to recall the right word; sometimes we never knew it. It is also frustrating to read a newspaper or homework assignment and run across words whose meanings elude us. Language, after all, is power. When your children get in trouble fighting with the neighbors' children, and your neighbors call your children little twerps and you call their children nefarious miscreants—well, the battle is over and they didn't stand a chance. Building a vocabulary that is adequate to the needs of one's reading and self-expression has to be a personal goal for every writer and speaker.
Making It Personal
Using some durable piece of paper—white construction paper or the insides of the ripped-off covers of old notebooks—begin to write down words in small but readable script that you discover in your reading that you can't define. Read journals and newspapers that challenge you in terms of vocabulary. Pursue words actively and become alert to words that you simply overlooked in the past. Write down the words in one column; then, later, when you have a dictionary at your disposal, write down a common definition of the word; in a third column, write a brief sentence using the word, underlined.
Carry this paper or cardboard with you always. In the pauses of your busy day—when you're sitting on the bus, in the dentist's office, during commercials—take out the paper and review your vocabulary words until you feel comfortable that you would recognize (and be able to use) these words the next time you see them. The amazing thing is that you will see the words again—even "nefarious miscreants," and probably sooner than you thought. In fact, you might well discover that the words you've written down are rather common. What's happening is not that, all of a sudden, people are using words you never saw before, but that you are now reading and using words that you had previously ignored.
Using Every Resource
Most bookstores carry books on building a more powerful vocabulary, some of them with zany names such as Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. If you've got money to spare or if they're on sale, buy them and use them; they can't hurt. Books that group words according to what they have in common—more in meaning than in spelling—are especially useful.
Newspapers often carry brief daily articles that explore the meanings of words and phrases. These articles often emphasize peculiar words that won't find themselves into your working vocabulary, but they can still be fun. Often you'll find that learning one new word leads to other new words, little constellations of meaning that keep your brain cells active and hungry for more. Make reading these articles one of your daily habits, an addiction, even.
Play dictionary games with your family in which someone uses the dictionary to find a neat word and writes down the real definition and everyone else writes down a fake (and funny) definition. See how many people you can fool with your fake definitions.
A thesaurus is like a dictionary except that it groups words within constellations of meaning. It is often useful in discovering just the right word you need to express what you want to say. Make sure you correctly understand the definition of a word (by using a dictionary) before using it in some important paper or report. Your bookstore salesperson can provide plenty of examples of an inexpensive thesaurus. The online Merriam Webster's Dictionary has access to both an extensive dictionary and a hyperlinked thesaurus. Links allow you to go conveniently back and forth between the dictionary and the thesaurus.
If you have a speedy computer processor and a fast hookup to the internet, we recommend the Plumb Design Visual Thesaurus. Once the program is entirely loaded, type in a word that you would like to see "visualized," hit the return key, and a construct of verbal connections will float across the screen. Click on any of the words within that construct and a new pattern of connections will emerge. Try the Visual Thesaurus with several different kinds of words—verbs, adverbs, nouns, adjectives—and try adjusting some of the various controls on the bottom of the window. We do not recommend this web-site for slow machines; in fact, the bigger your monitor and the faster your computer and connection, the more satisfying this experience will be.
When people use a word that puzzles you, ask what it means! You'll find that most instructors, especially, are not in the least bothered by such questions—in fact, they're probably pleased that you're paying such close attention—but if they do seem bothered, write down the word and look it up later, before the context of the word evaporates.
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