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Unlocking Unfamiliar Words When Reading: Context Clues and Word Parts

Reading a text with unfamiliar or challenging vocabulary can be difficult and can affect your ability to fully understand what you’ve read. But authors aren’t generally in the business of intentionally confusing their readers, so they’ll often give hints about tough words in the surrounding text. Savvy readers know how to access these clues and use them to unlock word meanings. Here are some tips about the clues to look for so you can become one of those savvy readers, too.

Using Word Parts

One clue that readers can use to decode an unfamiliar term is to break the new word down into word parts. Often, words are challenging because they are lengthy. Their length may be due, in part, to how they are built. Many words have a root or base word to which a prefix, suffix, or both may be attached. If you come across one of these word puzzles, try breaking the word down into recognizable or familiar parts and considering the meaning of each part.

  • For example, audiophile is an example of a root word and a suffix stuck together. Identifying those parts and considering their meaning can help you create meaning for the full word. The base word, audio, is from the Latin word for to hear”; the suffix *-phile suggests a person who has an attraction or fondness for something and is derived from the Greek word for “love”.

  • Some words are a bit more complicated, such as disappearance. This one can be split into a prefix, root, and suffix: dis- + appear + -ance. As a prefix, dis- indicates a negative: something is not. The root portion, appear, is from the Latin word for to be visible or be seen. The suffix, -ance suggests a state or quality. If we put it all together, we have the state of not being seen or visible—disappearance!

Using word parts to unlock the meaning of strange new words does require a pretty strong understanding of Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes, but knowing some of the more common ones can really go a long way in helping you determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Using Context Clues

Other clues to word meaning require a little less work on the reader’s part. When you look at the text surrounding the unknown word, you are using context clues. Authors often put these in their writing on purpose because they want the reader to understand.

Added Words

An author may use a synonym or antonym in the same sentence as the unfamiliar word, or in a sentence close by.

  • Sometimes just reading a little further along can help you understand what a word means because the author will reference something with which the reader is familiar, but knows by a different term (synonym).

Example: I earned an abysmal score on my math test so my teacher let me retake it since I did so poorly.

  • The author may include an antonym or make reference to a word that means the opposite to show that a word is unlike or different from an unfamiliar word. The reader can pick up on the contrast and, if he or she knows the antonym, be able to make meaning of the unfamiliar word by using that clue.

Example: A bug’s life is ephemeral, but some whales live well over 100 years.


Another way to determine an unfamiliar word’s meaning is to look around it to see if the author provides an example in a nearby sentence. Examples can give a clue to a word’s meaning by providing additional information. They may be included within the same sentence as the unfamiliar word or appear in a nearby sentence.

Example: Marge visited a milliner last week to help her design a hat for Margot’s wedding. The woman was happy to help and showed her pages and pages of appropriate designs from which they selected a lovely springtime hat the woman would custom make in Marge’s favorite color.


Possibly the easiest clue to look for is an actual definition the author might provide for the reader within the text. The unknown word may be literally defined. One key word to look out for is or, as that often signals the start of a definition or the author rewording the term so the reader knows what the author is writing about. The term may also be implicitly defined by being explained within the text, even if it’s not a direct definition. Be on the lookout for those in-text definitions as they’ll save you a trip to the dictionary.

Example: The protesters were accused of fomenting, or stirring up, trouble for the unpopular candidate preparing to visit the area for a rally. As a result, many were arrested or detained.

Knowing how to use word parts and common clues provided by authors can help you become a more savvy reader. Effectively using these tools can help you unlock meaning and increase your overall understanding of a text. It will also help build your vocabulary as you will be more likely to recognize that word if you see it again later. And even if you don’t remember exactly what it means, you’ll have the tools to unlock its meaning.

Using Context Clues

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