Context Cues: Meaning & Examples (2023)

"Fast as lightning, the streaked tenrec dashed across the sand and gobbled up the mosquito with its long tongue." If, like us, you have no idea what a streaked tenrec is, then context cues might help you find the answer.

By looking at the context and syntax of the sentence, we can safely assume a streaked tenrec is some sort of animal - unless you know any mosquito-eating people who dart around the desert.

This explanation will look at the different types of context cues, their usefulness, and some examples of context cues in writing and communication.

Context Cues Meaning

Context cues are useful hints and clues within a sentence, paragraph, or wider context that help a reader/listener 'decipher' any unknown meanings of words.

We can also use context cues to understand the intended meaning of a word with multiple meanings. For example, in the sentence, "Sorry I didn't see your email, it ended up in my spam." the context cue email lets us know the speaker is talking about their spam box and not processed meat.

Context cues can come in simple forms, e.g., images, synonyms, and antonyms (opposites). Or, they can require a little extra work, such as examining the sentence's syntax and figuring out which part of speech the word must be (maybe it's a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.).

Using context cues to teach yourself new words is a fantastic way to build up vocabulary, as you're more likely to remember something if you learned it yourself!

Types of Context Cues

The different examples of context cues (we'll cover those next) fall into three main categories: semantic, syntactic, and visual. Let's look at each one in detail now.


Before we delve into the world of semantic context cues, let's remind ourselves of the definition of semantics.

(Video) Context Clues | Award Winning Context Clues Teaching Video | Comprehension & Reading Strategies

Semantics - a branch of language and linguistics that looks at meaning. It looks at the multiple different ways words can be interpreted and how words interact with each to create meaning.

Semantic context cues, therefore, revolve around looking at the meaning of surrounding words to help gain the meaning of an unknown word.

For example, if you were reading an article about marine life in Colombia and came across an unknown word, you could reasonably assume the word has something to do with marine life and not, say, baking.

Semantic cues can also help us understand which meaning of a word the speaker/writer intended. For example, if your friend told you they needed some money and were heading down to the bank, semantic cues tell us they're probably going to a financial bank and not a bottle bank or a river bank.


Another tactic you can use to understand new or unknown words is examining the syntax of a sentence.

Syntax - The arrangement of words and phrases within a sentence. Syntax ensures sentences ate grammatically correct and easily read.

According to syntax, sentence structures follow a few basic rules. Firstly, every sentence must contain a subject (the person, animal, place, or thing the sentence centers around) and its predicate (words or phrases that give details to the subject. Predicates must contain a verb). If your sentence appears to be missing a subject or a verb, this could be a good indication as to what your unknown word is.

Here are a few other general syntactic English rules that could work as context cues:

  • Most sentences follow the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) pattern, e.g., "The girl (subject) kicked (verb) the ball (object)." Syntactical cues can help you recognize which part of speech is missing.

  • Adjectives always appear before nouns, e.g., "The garrulous boy would not stop talking." Even if the word 'garrulous' is unknown, we know from syntactic cues that it must be an adjective. We can guess from semantic cues that it means something similar to 'talkative.'
  • Adjectives follow a "Royal Order," which goes as such: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose noun. For example, "The funny, short, old, grey-haired, Brazillian man." Looking at the position of an adjective could help you understand its meaning.

  • Adverbs come directly before the word or phrase they modify and can appear anywhere in a sentence. Adverbs function like adjectives, except they can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. If the word you're looking for isn't an adjective, it might be an adverb.


Visual context cues are arguably the most powerful and effective and are considered vital in the teaching and learning of languages. The most obvious example of visual context cues are images - these could be photographs, illustrations, flashcards, charts, and diagrams, but they can also be visual representations, such as timers.

Context Cues: Meaning & Examples (1)Fig. 1 - Textbooks often contain visual cues in the form of photographs.

Other visual cues include facial expressions and body language. Imagine you're surrounded by people talking in a different language to you; do you think you would know if the conversation was about a happy topic or a sad one?

Examples of Context Cues

Now that we know the main categories for context cues let's look at more specific examples. We'll begin by looking at content cues in writing then we'll look a little at context cues in communication.

Context Cues in Writing

Context cues can be a powerful tool in reading and writing. As a reader, you have the time to look back and forward in a text and pick out as many context cues as possible to help you understand the text better. As a writer, you can set context cues to guide your reader through new terms and vocabulary. When looking for context cues in writing, you should consider both semantics and syntax.

Synonyms and Antonyms

One way we can understand a word's meaning is by looking back or forward for any synonyms. A synonym is a word or phrase with the same or similar meaning to another word, e.g., weak and fragile.

Here is an example sentence with two synonyms, the more well-known word appearing first.

(Video) Context Clues | English For Kids | Mind Blooming

Even though it would be risky, she knew what she had to do and began the perilous journey.

An antonym is similar to a synonym, except it refers to words with an opposite meaning, e.g., up and down.

You'll never meet two brothers so unlike. Greg was outgoing and never stopped talking, whereas Callum was reserved and taciturn.

By looking for contextual cues, we can see that taciturn is an antonym for outgoing and talkative.

(Video) Using context clues to figure out new words | Reading | Khan Academy

Context Cues: Meaning & Examples (2)Fig. 2 - Yes and no are common antonyms.

Definition or Description

Sometimes you don't have to look too far for the meaning of a word, as the answer could be right there in the sentence, in the form of a definition or description.

She went to the doctor because of the pain in her infrascapular - her ribcage area.


Sometimes a sentence/text will provide examples, which can help when it comes to determining the meaning of an unknown word.

The lake is inhabited by many different aves, such as kingfishers, swallows, and starlings.

(Video) Context Clues Video and Worksheet - Synonyms, Antonyms, Cognates, and Examples

Here we can infer that aves refers to birds.

Mood or Tone

Understanding the general mood of language but examining the tone and the use of adjectives can help with understanding an unknown word's meaning. Although this might not lead you to an exact definition, it can help with context.

The crowd was laughing and joking, cheerful music pumped through the speaker, and a convivial atmosphere filled the room.

Although we don't have any synonyms or definitions to help us understand the meaning of convivial, the overall tone of the sentence suggests it is a positive adjective.

Context Cues in Communication

Context cues in communication, sometimes called social context cues, refer to the non-verbal ways we communicate meaning with others. These include:

  • Facial expressions

  • Eye contact

  • Body language

For example, if everyone in the group is silent and someone makes direct eye contact and 'wiggles' their eyebrows at you, they are giving you the social cue to talk.

Context Cues - Key Takeaways

  • Context cues are useful hints and clues within a sentence, paragraph, or wider context that help a reader/listener 'decipher' any unknown meanings of words.
  • We can also use context cues to understand the intended meaning of a word with multiple meanings.
  • Context cues can be semantic (related to meaning), syntactic (relating to syntax and where a word falls in a sentence), or visual.
  • Context cues in written language include synonyms, antonyms, descriptions, and examples.
  • Context cues in communication include facial expressions, body language, and eye contact.
(Video) Context Clues Use Inference to Interpret Word Meaning


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