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Using context cues

If you have to stop often to look up the meaning of words, you are going to slow down your reading. More importantly, you may miss the main point of the text. The SQ4R strategy is a process of reading which encourages you to read for main ideas. You can look up the meaning of words that seem important  because they recur or are highlighted in the original text – after the reading. Instead, look for:

  • context cues to determine meaning
  • punctuation, italics or abbreviation to understand relationships between sentences:
    • The comma (,) is often used to set off extra information such as a definition or clarification or an example. 
    • The semicolon (;) introduces a sentence that provides information related to the previous statement.
    • The colon (:) is used to introduce a list which might serve as a definition or as examples.
    • Dashes (– ... ) or brackets ( ) set off additional comments about a statement, to define or clarify.
    • Italics is a special type of print that often defines or explains specialised vocabulary.
    • Abbreviations (in non-academic texts) commonly used for clarification are eg and ie.


Context cues (note the punctuation)

 Text                                            Context cueMeaning
It was adversity, not prosperity, that shaped the lives of the early European settlers.
contrast (not prosperity)hardship, poverty

Emily Dickinson, an important 19th century American poet, spent most of her life secluded in her father's home in Amherst, Massachusettes; she rarely went out and almost never entertained friends.

example (semicolon introduces examples of being secluded

kept away from contact with people


The adversities of winter – that is, the hardships and calamities that the family lived with daily – disappeared with the warmth of spring.

definition (the dash and that is, dash sets off additional comments that define or explain)

difficulties, problems

Death control can be achieved autonomously; in other words, the death rate can be cut without anything else changing.

clarification (in other words, the semicolon introduces a clause that provides information related to the previous statement)

on its own, independently

The settlers never gave up. They struggled through the early years, dealt with the difficulties, and in the end, overcame their adversities.

parallel structures; logical reasoning by using other known words in the sentence or passage

difficulties, hardships

Pioneer women met adversity head on; they used paper for windows, carried water for miles for the weekly washing and made do with cornmeal rather than flour for the daily baking.

example, your knowledge of the world and personal experience

life of the pioneer women was very difficult; they managed with what they could find.

Practise with context cues

Read the following sentences; write the meaning of the bold word in the space provided as well as the context cues that helped you figure out the word meaning. 

Example: Although the small cygnets appeared awkward and unattractive, the adult swans were elegant and graceful.

Meaning: baby swans    context cue: contrast (although, small/adult)


Now you try:

  1.  Just as the Great depression of the 1930s brought forth the Keynesian Revolution, so the apparent inability of the Keynesian model to resolve the stagnation problems of the 1970s and 1980s has spawned a new theory of macroeconomics. 
  2. During the Civil War in the United States, families were often tragically divided on the issue of the Union. It was not unusual for brothers to be estranged for the rest of their lives.
  3. Though classed with the carnivores, the grizzly bear is largely vegetarian and rarely eats flesh.
  4. Not all newcomers turn out to be film producers, directors, or Hollywood starlets; the majority end up doing mundane tasks such as typing and filing in order to survive.
  5. The young men spoke affably throughout the night, cracking jokes and telling stories until dawn. 

[Show answer]

Possible answer:


Meaning: generated; produced      

Context cues: Comparison (use of just as and so); parallel structure sentence (Just as X brought forth..., so y spawned...) allows you to figure out that brought forth is a synonym (same meaning word) of spawned.


Meaning: not together, separated, alienated, not friendly towards each other.

Context cue: Parallel sentence structure; the second sentence gives an example of families being divided during the Civil war. We can deduce from the parallel relationship of families (were) often tragically divided and brothers (to be) estranged that tragically divided and estranged share a similar meaning.

3 carnivores

Meaning: meat-eating; flesh-eating animals

Context cue: Contrast (use of though and contrasting idea the grizzly bear is largely vegetarian and rarely eats flesh)

4 mundane

Meaning: ordinary, commonplace, boring, not exciting

Context cue: Contrast (use of not all and the majority); example of mundane tasks (typing and filing); general knowledge about Hollywood and the world of film.

5 affably

Meaning: friendly, sociable

Context cue: Example (cracking jokes and telling stories)

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