Dealing with unknown words

Dealing with unknown words in your IELTS reading or listening test
The reading test uses articles and extracts that cover a wide-range of topics and no specialist knowledge is needed to answer the questions. However, you will encounter unfamiliar words and you need to work on strategies to deal with these. You should not waste time reading and re-reading a sentence just because you don’t understand one word. Good readers can understand what the general meaning of a sentence or paragraph is without knowing what every word means. Furthermore, when skimming do not waste time to think about a word as you can deal with a difficult word later when you come to answer the questions.

 STRATEGY 1: Skip words you do not need to know to answer a question.
Many questions can be answered without knowing the meaning of a word in the sentence that contains an answer. Remember you are scanning for keywords and extracting answers and that you should only take time to think about the meaning of a word if it is critical to answering the question.

EXAMPLE QUESTION:   How long does the pupa stage last?
EXAMPLE TEXT:            The pupa stage lasts about 7 days.

 In this instance, we do not need to know what the meaning of the word pupa is. We only have to find out how long this lasts. Which is 7 days.

STRATEGY 2: guess the meaning from the context.
Good readers always seek to establish a context for a text they are reading. A context is the circumstances of an event or idea. If we can clearly establish a context then we can guess the meaning of words within the context. In the example below, we might guess the meaning of hatched based on our knowledge of an egg. An egg that hatches means an egg that opens.

A caterpillar emerges from an egg. The caterpillar is hungry once it has hatched and it first eats the leaf that it was born on.

You may not know what a cocoon is, but if you understand the lifecycle of the butterfly you might deduce it. If you can’t work it out look back at the picture of the life cycle of the butterfly and the cocoon is the bottom-right picture.

reading guessing butterfly

After eating sufficient leaves the caterpillar spins itself into a cocoon.

Looking next to the word camouflage, this one’s a bit more challenging but you should be up to work out that it means a form of protection by disguise.

Camouflage is the only protection of the cocoon against enemies. This is achieved by making the cocoon seem like a natural part of the tree.

STRATEGY 3: Guess by recognizing parts of the word.
Some words are made up of different word parts. If you can recognise a part of an unknown word it can give you clues as to the words meaning. For instance, a butterfly has fly in it and it is some sort of flying creature. In the sentence that follows you might notice the word herbivores and recognize within the word herb. Most caterpillars are herbivores and only eat leaves. A herb is a plant and herbivores only eat plants.

10 Most Common Prefixes
anti-             against         anticorruption, antibody, antifreeze
dis-              not              distrust, disown, disagree
inter-           between     interact, international, interpret
mid- middle       midnight, midway, midlife
mis- wrongly     mishap, mistake, misfire
non- not       nonsense, nonaggression, nonbeliever
over- over       overview, overtake, overlook
pre- before       prefix, preface, predict
re-             again       return, repeat, relearn
un-* not       unfriendly, unpopular, untrue 

STRATEGY 4: Use connecting words to understand an unknown words function in a sentence.
Conjunctions and other connective words show how information is related. We can use this information to help guess the meaning of an unknown word. In the sentence below we can work out that the word pest is related to chewing off the best vegetable leaves. We can deduce that this is something negative for gardeners as no gardener wants to lose their best leaves. More specifically a pest is a destructive insect or other animal that attacks crops or food.

For many gardeners, caterpillars are a pest because they chew-off the best vegetable leaves.

Strategies for dealing with unknown words

For more reading strategies see my IELTS reading book:

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