Using contextual clues in reading

Contextual clues are clues which are given within the text that help the reader to find the meaning. This is one of the best techniques to use for better comprehension in reading especially if the reader has limited vocabulary. You will find these contextual clues very useful when taking IELTS academic reading or any reading test for that matter.

There are many varieties of contexual clues. Some of them are reading between lines,direct definition, synonyms and antonyms.

Reading between lines

I will be using some of the lyrics of Coward of the County by Kenny Rogers to elicit what reading between lines is.

Disclaimer: Lyrics used here belong to the registered copyright owners. They are used here for educational purposes only.

Example 1:

He was only ten years old when his daddy died in prison. I looked after Tommy 'cause he was my brother's son. I still recall the final words my brother said to Tommy:

Question: Kenny Rogers is Tommy's ________________.

a. brother b. son c. neighbour d. uncle

Although the song doesn't mention the word uncle, but reading between lines, the answer would be letter D (uncle). Why? The second line says that Tommy is his brother's son, and therefore he is the uncle of Tommy.

Example 2:

Tommy opened up the door and saw his Becky cryin'. The torn dress, the shattered look was more than he could stand. He reached above the fireplace and took down his daddy's picture. As the tears fell on his daddy's face, he heard these words again:


What happened to Tommy's girlfriend, Becky?

a. murdered b. jailed c. raped d. mauled

The obvious answer is letter C (raped). The torn dress, the shattered look found in the second line are the contextual clues that give us reason to pick letter C.

Direct definition and Antonym

Another useful clues for better reading comprehension are direct definition and antonym. An example of which is given below.


Supermarkets and manufacturers must not use non-biodegradable materials-those that do not perish or melt for a period of time.

Question: What does biodegradable mean?

a. non-perishable b. perishable c. does not melt d. living things

Now, you need to have a better look at the question to find the right answer. Notice that the word biodagradable in the question is the direct opposite (antonym) of the word non-biodegradable in the given statement. Non-biodegradable is directly defined in the statement as those that do not perish.

Therefore, the answer to the question is letter B (perishable)because the negative word non is not given in the question. So its opposite is given, thus letter B.

From Contextual clues to Academic Reading


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