Vocabulary in Context

Contributor: Emily Love. Lesson ID: 10859

Context is king! To understand difficult words, it helps to look for surrounding clues. Read some classic novel excerpts, take a quiz, and have great expectations about growing your vocabulary.



learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Each one of these words has at least two definitions:

  • assume
  • badger
  • doctor

Try to come up with two definitions for each word using only your brain. Set a timer for two minutes to see how quickly you can do it!

  • How did you do?

Assume has two different verb definitions. It can mean to take as granted or true without proof. It can also mean to take on something new, such as a responsibility or an attitude.

Badger can be both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it means a burrowing, carnivorous mammal. As a verb, it means to pester or annoy.

Doctor can also be a noun and a verb. As a noun, it means a person licensed to practice medicine. As a verb, it means to tamper with or alter.

Now, what if you were asked to give only one definition for each word.

  • How would you know which definition to provide? 
  • Would it help if you were given the words in a sentence?

You most likely said, "Yes."

Sometimes, the only way to know the correct definition of a word is to understand its context. For example, who is saying the word? Is the character frustrated or excited? If the rest of the paragraph is describing a feast, could that unfamiliar word be related to food?

According to Janet Richland's Entryways into College Reading and Learning, you will encounter five types of context clues when reading:

Definition (synonym or restatement) The word will be directly defined in the sentence:

  • As autumn arrives, many birds migrate, or relocate, south.
  • Migrate: to move from one region to another, particularly according to the seasons

Contrast The word will be placed in contrast with another word in the sentence:

  • William was a self-denying, grateful young man; unfortunately, his sister Polly was selfish and rude.
  • Self-denying: willing to deprive yourself

Examples The author will include examples to illustrate the word's meaning:

  • Jeremy thought it rather unfair for his aunt to comment on his every peccadillo, from biting his nails to tapping his foot in time to the radio.
  • Peccadillo: a small mistake or fault not to be regarded as very serious

Clue from another sentence The author will give an example or restatement in a nearby sentence:

  • Claudia prided herself on her sartorial taste. Her father had always told her one of the keys to being successful in business was to be impeccably dressed in the most elegant styles.
  • Sartorial: of, or relating to, clothes

General sense of the sentence The sentence will include other words that may help the reader pick up on the scene's mood or the author's tone:

  • At the press conference, the mayor gave Max a citation for his bravery in saving the baby from the burning building.
  • Citation: a formal public statement in praise of a person for doing something brave or good

Using these strategies can help you figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words, or familiar words being used in a new way!

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