If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Using context clues to figure out new words | Reading

When you're reading, it can be frustrating to encounter words you don't know! Try out these strategies, and use the word's context to figure out the word's meaning.

Want to join the conversation?

  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user edmond.ouyang
    what is a grammarian ? hmm
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • marcimus red style avatar for user I.N.V.A
    If you're reading something above your level, and the author expects you to know the words in the book, there wouldn't be that much context. When this happens, what if you don't get enough to figure out what the word means?
    (I'm guessing use the dictionary?)
    (13 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine seedling style avatar for user M&M
      First, try to, like David showed in the video, figure out the word based on the context. If you know this term, a connotation is a word that gives you a certain feeling. Even if you can't really guess the word itself, based on the sentence, you could probably tell whether the word is a good/bad feeling kind of word. Afterwards, if you are still not sure, then you can always search it up in the dictionary. But with time, soon you won't really even need the dictionary anymore!

      EXAMPLE (from a paragraph from "Alexandre Dumas's THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO")

      "He was a man of twenty-five or twenty-six years of age, of unprepossessing countenance, obsequious to his superiors, insolent to his subordinates; and this, in addition to his position as responsible agent on board, which is always obnoxious to the sailors, made him as much disliked by the crew as Edmond Dantes was beloved by them."

      So, in the passage above, I've bolded the words that we needed to figure out.

      First read the whole entire paragraph. So we can conclude that people don't really like him, meaning that this 25 or 26 year old man would most likely have bad traits. Now, let's try solving those words.

      So countenance is kind of like an expression, so I would say that the word "unprepossessing" is a type of expression. Now since the last part of the paragraph let us know that none of the sailors liked him, so I would say that unprepossessing has a negative connotation and so this young sailor probably has a very unattractive, expressive face.

      Obsequious... well they say that he is obsequious to his superiors which means to people of higher rank than him, likely his boss or something. Well, how would you act to your boss? You wouldn't act arrogant to your boss, would you? You would likely be very polite to your boss, right? So we can guess that Obsequious would most likely mean something along the lines of "respectful" or "obedient"

      Now, the last word! Insolent. So, he is insolent to his subordinates . What does subordinates mean? Well, we have subtitles, and sub-chapters. The prefix sub- just means something smaller inside of a bigger thing. And so we could probably guess that subordinates would be a person of a lower rank. We can guess that this is a person, because why would someone be insolent to an object? Sorry, I haven't gotten to the insolent part yet. Well, not that we've identified subordinates as someone of a smaller rank basically, how would someone that acts nice only to his boss, and has a very unattractive and snide expressive face, act to people who are lower than him?
      You guessed it - he would be rude, arrogant, and obnoxious to them.

      So there you are!

      By the way, if you're wondering, here are the actual dictionary definitions to the words:

      UNPREPOSSESSING *
      adjective
      not particularly attractive or appealing to the eye: despite his unprepossessing appearance he had an animal magnetism.

      *OBSEQUIOUS *
      adjective
      obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree: they were served by obsequious waiters.


      *INSOLENT

      adjective
      showing a rude and arrogant lack of respect: she hated the insolent tone of his voice.





      I hoped this helped!
      (24 votes)
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user TinleyS
    you are loved by jesus
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user treyson.holtzclaw
    What are grammarians?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • cacteye green style avatar for user 🌸Desert Flower🌸 #BBB
    How was the “in context” joke, well, a joke?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user Special ed Ted
    Who`s Jane Goodall Sal
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user idirism460
    VOTE ME plz.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user isha.s1
    what is a grammarian?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Natasha Giles
    Animal research is important
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • primosaur seedling style avatar for user Krispin399
    Do you know how to use a dictionary?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

- [Instructor] Hello readers. You know that feeling when you're reading and you see a word you've never seen before and you don't really know how to figure out what it means? Well, that's what we're talking about today: strategies for figuring out new words through context. You're always going to be encountering new words. At the time of this recording, I'm 31 and I run into new and confusing words every day. I read a lot and it's always a fun challenge to run into words like, I don't know, glabrous or limned or nacreous. I know a lot about language and even I have trouble figuring out what those words mean on their own. So it's important to rely on context, the language that surrounds the word. Let's say you're reading a text and you come across a sentence that has a word in it you don't recognize. Here's a bit from a passage about the famous chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall. "Jane Goodall arrived at Tanzania's "Gombee Stream National Park in 1960. "She was considered somewhat unconventional "among other animal researchers. "After all, she had not yet been to college." So let's pause on unconventional. What does that word mean? Well, let me give you some ideas, that's the memory aid I use to keep it straight. IDEAS, it stands for inference, definition, example, antonym, synonym, I-D-E-A-S, IDEAS, which are all different kinds of context clues. Every word will have a different context, so you might need to vary your approach. The way this snippet is written let's try inference first, then I'll rewrite the sentence a few times to show you the other methods. Okay, the I in IDEAS, inference. We can draw conclusions from the context. If we don't know what unconventional means, we can take a look at the rest of the sentence or other nearby sentences to figure it out. Being unconventional seems to make Goodall different from other researchers. She hadn't yet been to college which implies that the rest of them had. That doesn't give us a full answer but it does tell us that she's different somehow. So I think unconventional might mean different than what is normal. And because I'm making an inference about this word's meaning I wanna keep an eye out for it in other places to see if I can confirm or revise that working definition later. D - definition. Context clues like these will just give you the definition of the word in question. So a good example of that would be: "She was considered somewhat unconventional "among other animal researchers. "She hadn't been to college yet, "and this made her different and unexpected." Different and unexpected is a great definition for the word unconventional. This style of context clue occurs when the author expects a word to be unfamiliar to you and builds in a guide for you right there in the text. The E in IDEAS stands for example, and this is somewhere between inference and definition. If the author describes Goodall as unconventional, they'll go on to talk about something unconventional that Goodall did. "She was considered somewhat unconventional "among animal researchers. "For one thing, she hadn't been to college yet." So this is very similar to that initial sentence, except for the transition phrase for one thing, which is a way to set up examples. Antonym - an antonym is a word whose meaning is the opposite of another word, like how night is the opposite of day, or how love is the opposite of hate. So if there's an example in the text of what Jane Goodall was not, we can use that to figure out what she was. So let's say the passage said: "Goodall was unconventional. "She didn't conform, and she wasn't ordinary." There we have two antonyms and our answer. Similarly, synonym just means write another word with the same meaning similar to a definition. "Jane Goodall was unconventional. "She was a nonconformist. "She went against the grain." You can see that I had to rewrite the sentences each time to apply to each context clue strategy, which shows me that you won't find all five context clues every time you need to search for a word's meaning. You need to find the approach that makes the most sense in context. See what I did there, ah huh? And failing that, you can always look up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary. I love to do that. I think that's great, but I also feel a sense of victory when I correctly figure out what a new word means, when I've put it together from context. And maybe if I'm still curious, I look it up later and then I turn out to be right, and I'm all like "Victory at sea, I did it!" Oh, and if you were curious, glabrous means smooth and hairless like a leaf or the skin of a frog. Nacreous means shiny and rainbow colored like the inside of an oyster shell. And to limn something means to draw the outline of or to be highlighted in light. You can learn anything, David out.