Using Context Clues | Reading

December 26, 2014 thetasctest
iStock_000027064217Small Have you been studying vocabulary? The answer is probably. Whether you’ve been memorizing new terms or just looking up unfamiliar words while you’ve been reading the practice passages  for the TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™, you’ve been expanding your vocabulary just by preparing for your high school equivalency (HSE) test. However, vocabulary isn’t the only thing the TASC Reading subtest is testing. Unlike older tests, you won’t be asked to complete analogies. When it comes to defining unfamiliar words – and to making conclusions about the passages – you should practice your contextual skills. It’s more helpful to know how to define a word in context rather than simply memorizing a long list of words. By context, we mean the other words and sentences that are around the unfamiliar word. As the educators at Cuesta College note, “when you figure out the meaning of a word from context, you are making a guess about what the word means. To do this, you use the hints and clues of the other words and sentences. You won’t always be right, but many times you will be.” In other words, you can get pretty close to a new word’s definition just by using the passages that are available to you on the test. Teachers commonly encourage their students to focus on specific types of context clues, including:
  • Definitions: A word or phrase typically placed in a clause immediately after the unfamiliar term, which provides an explanation.
  • Synonyms: Words around an unfamiliar term that mean the same or nearly the same as the word; similar to definitions, but usually a single word rather than a phrase or clause.
  • Antonyms: Words around an unfamiliar term that mean the opposite or nearly the opposite of the word.
  • Examples: Often given in the following sentence and directly elaborate on the previous information in general and the unfamiliar term in particular.
  • Knowledge of Subject: Prior knowledge of the topic discussed helps you understand the unfamiliar term.
Use this quick strategy to identify any of these specific types of context clues:
  1. If you are using a paper-based test (or you’re reading a printed article or book), you should first circle the word or phrase you don’t understand. Use scratch paper when using a computer-based test.
  2. Underline key phrases and ideas in the sentence, and the main idea of the paragraph.
  3. Look for definitions, synonyms, antonyms, or examples in the sentence and surrounding sentences.
  4. Try to put the sentence in your own words. If there are no synonyms available, this can help you find your own synonyms to understand the term.
  5. Reread the sentence replacing the unfamiliar term replaced with your synonym to see if the sentence still makes sense.
If the steps don’t work well for you, you can also ask yourself questions. Judy Zorfass and Tracy Gray of Reading Rockets  suggest focusing your questions on the unknown word and the possible clues to its meaning:
  • What are the surrounding words?
  • How do these offer me clues?
  • What does this word mean in terms of the context?
When you have the context, these questions can be much more specific. For example, if you are reading about birds and you see the word ornithology, you can ask yourself: How does the information I see here about birds help me understand this word? (Ornithology is the study of birds.) Apply these steps while you are reading, and you will quickly get into the habit of using context clues to further your understanding. You should practice this whenever you read – not just when you are practicing for the TASC test. Though it’s a great reading study tip, it’s also a great habit to have. The more you practice, the more habitual it will be.
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