When you read an unfamiliar word, you need to figure out its meaning based on how it is used. You can use the following context clues to guess a meaning.
let you assemble meaning from prefixes, suffixes, and roots.
The Mars rover has autonomous navigation abilities.
(The prefix auto means “self,” the root nom means “law,” and the suffix ous means "having to do with," so autonomous must mean “having self-rule,” or "self-governing" or "self-guiding.")
clues let you infer meaning.
In the first year of the Civil War, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus so that he could hold rebels in jail without having to bring them to trial.
(If suspending a writ of habeas corpus means that people can be held without trial, the writ of habeas corpus must prevent the government from holding people in jail without trial.)
embedded within the text spell out the meaning.
Ovo-lacto vegetarians consume eggs and milk as well as plants but avoid other animal products.
(Ovo-lacto vegetarians consume eggs, milk, and plants; ovo means "egg," lacto means "milk," and vegetarian means "plant eater.”)
includes an unknown word with known words of the same type.
Whether they spot a brown bear, grizzly, or Kodiak, hikers should keep their distance.
(Since brown bears and grizzlies are North American bears, the Kodiak must also be a species of North American bear.)
provide specific instances of general ideas.
Algebra 1 and 2 and Geometry are prerequisites for Trigonometry.
(Algebra 1 and 2 and Geometry are basic high school math courses, while Trigonometry is an advanced high school math course, so a prerequisite must be a basic course required before taking an advanced course.)
have the same meaning as the unfamiliar word.
For this year's solo and ensemble contest, you could sing a song or an aria.
(An aria must be a sort of song.)
have the opposite meaning as an unfamiliar word.
After months of public appearances, the candidate enjoyed a weekend of reclusion.
(As the opposite of "public appearances," reclusion must mean "being away from other people.")
reveals the writer’s thoughts about a word.
The early summer evening was redolent with apple blossoms, charcoal smoke, and fresh-mown grass.
(The pleasant smells in an early summer evening suggests that redolent means "fragrantly scented.")
As they listen and read, students have learned thousands of new words using context clues. Pointing out these clues will help students take conscious ownership of their vocabulary building.
- Richard Strauss wrote a beautiful piece entitled "Death and Transfiguration."
The prefix “trans” means “across,” the root “figur” means “shape or form,” and the suffix “tion” means the "action or condition," so "transfiguration" must mean "the action of changing form."
- The polymorphous actor transforms for each role.
The prefix “poly” means “many,” the root “morph” mean “form,” the suffix “ous” means "quality of," so "polymorphous" must mean "quality of having many forms."
- The erudite professor knew everything about Renaissance-era British literature.
Perhaps an "erudite" professor knows everything about a certain area of study.
- The experiment on ego-depletion sought to measure how willpower could be worn down over time.
“Ego-depletion” must refer to wearing down willpower over time.
- His speeches are all pomp, excess, and grandiloquence.
Since "pomp" is grand ceremony, and "excess" is too much, "grandiloquence" must mean "excessively pompous and overblown."
- Instead of being diligent in her studies, she was lackadaisical.
If "diligent" means hard working and committed, "lackadaisical" must mean lazy and unfocused.
- We hastily lit a torch, but the flickering light could not penetrate the caliginous cave.
The mood is ominous, and the light cannot penetrate, so “caliginous” must mean dark and forbidding.
- The pneumatic cylinder filled with air, extending the lever arm.
A "pneumatic cylinder" must be a tube that fills with air in order to extend a lever that it is attached to.
- Though I prefer a quiet night at home alone with a book, my wife is much more gregarious.
"Gregarious" must mean "outgoing and extroverted," the opposite of someone who prefers a quiet night at home alone with a book.
- Before setting up base camp, we quickly reconnoitered the terrain.
In the context of setting up a base camp, to "reconnoiter" the terrain must mean to explore and study the land to understand it.
Define words in a text.
Listen to "Excerpt from Walden"
Excerpt from Walden
Henry David Thoreau
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small waves raised by the evening wind are as remote from storm as the smooth reflecting surface. Though it is now dark, the wind still blows and roars in the wood, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest animals do not repose, but seek their prey now; the fox, and skunk, and rabbit, now roam the fields and woods without fear. They are Nature's watchmen—links which connect the days of animated life. . . .
There is commonly sufficient space about us. Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. The thick wood is not just at our door, nor the pond, but somewhat is always clearing, familiar and worn by us, appropriated and fenced in some way, and reclaimed from Nature. For what reason have I this vast range and circuit, some square miles of unfrequented forest, for my privacy, abandoned to me by men? My nearest neighbor is a mile distant, and no house is visible from any place but the hill-tops within half a mile of my own. I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself; a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other. . . .
Yet I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still. There was never yet such a storm but it was Æolian music to a healthy and innocent ear. Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness. While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house today is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too. Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing. If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the low lands, it would still be good for the grass on the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me. Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded. I do not flatter myself, but if it be possible they flatter me. I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.
(Answers will vary.) If the pores are imbibing delight, "imbibe" must mean "bring in or drink."
(Answers will vary.) If the croaking frogs, singing whip-or-wills, and fluttering leaves create a serenity that is "rippled but not ruffled," the word "congenial" must mean "friendly and welcoming."
(Answers will vary.) If "repose" is the opposite of activity, then it must mean "rest, sleep, or relaxation."
(Answers will vary.) If land that is familiar, worn, and fenced is "appropriated" by us, it must mean "taken for one's own, acquired, or shaped into a possession."
(Answers will vary.) A "circuit" can be a loop of wire that carries electricity, and since the "vast range" is Thoreau's circuit, it must be a loop that he travels.
(Answers will vary.) The word "skirts" is used as a verb to describe a fence that "runs along the edge" of a road.
(Answers will vary.) The prefix "mis" means "hate" and the root "anthrop" means "person," so a "misanthrope" is "someone who hates other people."
(Answers will vary.) The word "melancholy" has a synonym two sentences later in "vulgar sadness."
(Answers will vary.) Since "beneficent" refers to the gentle rain that lifts his spirits, "beneficent" must mean "bringing good things, helping, kindly."
(Answers will vary.) The word "kin" means "relative," so the word "kindred" must mean, "related to someone, like in kind."
You can have students practice vocabulary skills with any reading you assign by simply listing words from the reading that they should define using context clues, whether on paper or aloud.