Chapter 25: Context Clues and Close Reading for Literature

Phyllis Nissila

Context Clues

Besides clues to help you determine the pattern or genre of a reading selection, there are clues to help you figure out the meaning of specific words that are unfamiliar to you. Here are the five most common:

  1. Definition/Explanation Clues: sometimes the meaning of a word or phrase is given right after its use.
    Example: Taxidermy, the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals (especially vertebrates) for display or for other sources of study, is popular among museum curators.
  2. Restatement/Synonym Clues: sometimes a word is presented in a simpler way.
    Example: Stuffing dead animals has been a dream of Stedman Nimblebody, author of  Taxidermy Through the Ages, ever since his pet snake died when Steddie was six years old. He still misses Mr. Scaly Face.
  3. Contrast/Antonym Clues: sometimes the meaning of a word is clarified by presenting a word or phrase opposite of its meaning.
    Example: Little Steddie wanted to visit the Taxidermy Museum but the rest of the family preferred a trip to the Zoo to see live animals.
  4. Inference/General Context Clues: sometimes the meaning of a word or phrase is in the surrounding sentences, or must be inferred or implied by the general meaning of a selection.
    Example: When Steddie finally got the chance to visit the Taxidermy Museum, he was very excited. He even found a stuffed snake that looked exactly like Mr. Scaly Face! “Just think,” he exclaimed to his parents, “If Mr. Scaly Face was stuffed, I could still tease the cat and the dog with him!”
  5. Punctuation: the correct use of punctuation helps a reader get the meaning of a term, phrase, or thought. Likewise, incorrectly placed or missing punctuation sometimes gives an entirely different and incorrect meaning across.
    Missing punctuation: Is it time to eat Grandma?
    Corrected: Is it time to eat, Grandma?

There are many examples online of punctuation errors in signs that change the meaning. Create a chart such as the one below for 5 of the signs that you really like.


Close Reading

Person hiding behind a pile of books
“Books” by Wokandapix is in the Public Domain, CC0

In addition to using reading comprehension skills such as predicting, visualizing, “talking to the text,” skimming a textbook before reading, and noting context clues, another strategy called “close reading” is helpful. This is popular with literature professors; however, the skills involved in close reading are applicable to any complex reading assignment.

Since this kind of comprehension starts with knowing nothing about the elements of a story, novel, poem, or essay, I stand with my arms spread wide.

I then discuss, briefly, each element of a work starting with the title as a place to begin comprehension, while slowly moving my arms toward one another, a few inches per element.

Titles, for starters, particularly of non-fiction works, usually tell you precisely what the main idea, or thesis, is. For example, a book about “The History of the Roman Empire” usually gives you just that–the history of the Roman Empire.

This is not usually true, however, for works of fiction, for which inference is the key to comprehension. For example, “Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, while it might seem to be something about time, also suggests it is about something other than a clock ticking away seconds and minutes, and indeed it is.

I next add the author, as this might aid comprehension. For example, most students are familiar with Stephen King, who writes in the horror genre. Knowing this element brings the arms in a bit closer as the reader will know to anticipate (and predict) a horror story with a lot of plot twists and turns in some horrible ways. Prediction has begun.

Next, I briefly discuss how knowing about the remaining elements – plot, characters, and setting – help the reader close in on meaning enough to be able to discuss the theme or themes of the work with reasonable evidence to support one’s conclusion.

This visual of the arms getting closer together can continue through a discussion of close reading of small passages, individual sentences, and even specific words. Each level of careful attention and thought helps a reader “read between the lines” when meaning is not overtly stated, when themes are inferred rather than explained outright.

Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, previously shared:

How to Learn Like a Pro! Authored by Phyllis Nissila. Located at: and  License: CC-BY Attribution.
Adaptions: Changed formatting, Changed title of chapter to Context Clues and Close Reading for Literature, combined chapter with content from Close Reading for Literature, removed Patterns content and exercise.

“Books” image by Wokandapix is in the Public Domain, CC0

This chapter is adapted from Chapter 25: Context Clues and Close Reading for Literature in Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon.


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Blueprint for Success in College and Career Copyright © 2018 by Phyllis Nissila is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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