Without a Dictionary: Finding the Meaning of Unknown Words

A common problem for students, from elementary to grad school, is figuring out the meaning of a word they do not know. Understanding the words in a reading passage is important for comprehension. Fortunately, there are several ways of determining the meaning of these unknown words. These approaches are called context clues because the context or environment in which the words are used help to explain their meaning. In this post, we will look at three context clues and they are Definition or synonym clues, Contrast clues, and Example Clues.

Definition or Synonym Clues

The definition clue is the easiest way to determine what the meaning of an unknown word is. In this approach, the author tells the reader the meaning of

the word. Below are some signals that the author uses to define the unknown word. A sentence using the signal is provided for each one and the signal is in bold. The unknown word for each sentence is the word convoluted.

–phrases such as the term, is defined as, means, is known as

  • The word convoluted is defined as something that is complex
  • The word convoluted means something that is complex

–a definition following a comma, colon, or dash, or enclosed in parentheses, brackets or dashes

  • The text is convoluted (complicated) so the students complained about reading it
  • The text is convoluted-really complicated-so the students complained about reading it

–synonyms introduced by or, in other words, that is, is also known as, by this we mean, etc.

  • The book is convoluted or complicated
  • The book is convoluted and by this we mean it is complicated.

Of course there are other ways that author defines words but this serves the purpose of providing a foundation for knowing when this happens.

Contrast Clues

Contrast clues define unknown words by providing a word that has the opposite meaning of the unknown word. Below is a list of signals with examples and the signal is in bold when possible. The unknown word again is convoluted.

–Words such as but, however, on the other hand, nevertheless, yet, in contrast, and some . . .others

  • Women are convoluted but men are simple.
  • Women are convoluted, however, men are simple.

–Opposite words (e.g., men and women; Democrats and Republicans; ancient and modern)

  • Women are convoluted and men are simple

Example Clues

An example clue illustrates a word through providing examples. Below is a list of signals with examples and the signal is in bold when possible. The unknown word again is convoluted.

–Examples are typically introduced by  for example, to illustrate, for instance, and such as

  • There are many examples of convoluted machines in nature such as the human body
  • For example, a convoluted machine would be the human body.

There are several other ways to define unknown words that have not been discussed yet. In the next post, we will look at the last two clues for determining the meaning of unknown words.

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4 thoughts on “Without a Dictionary: Finding the Meaning of Unknown Words

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  2. Pingback: Part II of Without a Dictionary: Finding the Meaning of Unknown Words | educationalresearchtechniques

  3. Pingback: Learning Styles and Strategies | educational research techniques

  4. Pingback: Teaching Vocabulary to ESL Students | educational research techniques

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