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Working out unfamiliar vocabulary

Working out unfamiliar vocabulary

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When reading a passage in the IELTS test, it is most likely that you will come across words with which you are unfamiliar. Be prepared for this. You may not need to understand the exact meaning of an unknown word unless there is a question directly related to it.

If you do need to know the meaning of an unfamiliar word, do not panic. There are various strategies that you can use to work out the meaning of unknown words.

TIP #1 - Using common roots, affixes to guess the meaning of unknown words

Sometimes knowledge of common roots, affixes can help you to identify the meaning of unknown words

Using prefixes

A prefix is a word or letter(s) placed at the beginning of another word (a base word) to adjust or qualify its usage or meaning. Prefixes can express the ideas of negation, direction, quantity, etc.

For example:

biological means of biology. Prefix bio- means of life and living things.

interchangeably means which can be used in place of each other/something. Prefix inter- means between, among.

maltreatment means the action of treating roughly or cruelly. Prefix mal- means bad or badly

Using suffixes

Suffixes are groups of letters attached to the ends of roots, words, and word groups. Suffixes serve a grammatical function. A suffix can indicate what part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb) to which a word belongs. Suffixes can also modify and extend meaning. Learning something about how suffixes function in the English language can help you to improve general reading comprehension. Suffixes help you to use context and etymological clues to make educated guesses about the meaning of unfamiliar words.

For example: politician__abusive ___intensify____ exhaustion_____ helpless    

Suffix -ian expresses a noun which means a person with a certain career or status or characteristics. It is added to the noun politics to form the noun politician which means a person or member of a government or law-making organisation.

Suffix -ive expresses an adjective which means having a tendency to do or cause an action. It is added to the verb abuse (to use or treat someone or something wrongly or badly) to form the adjective abusive which means using or containing unkind, cruel, or rude language.

Suffix -ify expresses a verb which means to make or become. It is added to the adjective intense (extreme and strong) to form the verb intensify which means to (cause to) become more intense.

Suffix -ion expresses a noun which means the action, state or process of. It is added to the verb exhaust {to make someone extremely tired) to form the noun exhaustion which means the state of being tired out.

Suffix -less expresses an adjective which means lacking, without. It is added to the noun help (the process of helping someone or what you do to help someone) to form the adjective helpless which means unable to look after oneself or to act without help.

Using roots

Many words are made up of a root (or base word) and an affix. Sometimes knowledge of common roots, affixes and possible similarity of words in another language can help you to identify their meaning.

The root is the main part of a word to which affixes are added. Knowing the “building blocks” of the English language - prefixes, suffixes and root words - helps you to understand the meaning of new words and their spelling convention.

Root words are very useful in a moment of doubt.

For example: sensitive_

The root sens- means one of the natural abilities that most people have to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch things, known as the five senses. The suffix -tive is added to it to form the adjective sensitive which means quick to be aware of the presence of something.

TIP #2 - Examining the context to guess the meaning of unknown words

When reading a passage, you should ask yourself this question: Are there any clues in the surrounding words or phrases? Look particularly at the words just before and just after certain unfamiliar words (such as definitions, explanations, synonyms, antonyms, and examples), or use your personal experience or background knowledge to guess their meaning. Observe the relationship of the unknown word - ‘X’ - to other words and concepts with which you are more familiar. Often this is enough to answer questions that include ‘X’.

Definitions, explanations

Sometimes writers realise that a certain word is an uncommon one, so they define, restate, explain or give an example. Words that signal meaning often include is, means, refers to, that is, consists of.

Example 1

The hardest parts of your body are not your bones, as you might expect, but your teeth. Bone is very hard, but it cannot cope with years of cutting and chewing. To eat your food, you rely on enamel — the mineral coating of your teeth that is so hard that it can last a lifetime.

What does “enamel” mean in the paragraph? enamel______

enamel seems to be a new word to you, but reading on, you can easily understand its meaning thanks to the definition given right after it: the mineral coating of your teeth that is so hard that it can last a lifetime.

Example 2

Unlike us, many mammals are nocturnal, which means that they are active by night and sleep through the day. Long ago, the first mammals moved about under the cover of darkness to escape predatory dinosaurs. Many of the smaller mammals have remained nocturnal, and mammalian predators, such as foxes, are active at night in order to catch them.

What does “nocturnal” mean in the paragraph? nocturnal____

The new word nocturnal is modified by the adjective clause which means that they are active by night and sleep through the day, which can help you to know its meaning.


Most of the questions in the IELTS Reading test require candidates to find out the same information in a reading passage. Yet, the particular information that is asked to be looked for is disguised with only two different masks, namely, synonyms or antonyms and paraphrases. A synonym is the exact equivalent of any particular word or expression.


Erosion from overfarming the land caused millions of acres to be withdrawn from production. Further, the use of chemical fertilisers, which was increased greatly between 1950 and 1984, had an adverse, or harmful, effect on water supplies.

What does “adverse” mean in the paragraph? adverse___

harmful is the synonym of adverse. If you know the meaning of harmful, then adverse will likely become a familiar word.


Another useful clue for better reading comprehension is antonyms. An antonym is a word that has the opposite meaning of a given word.

Example 1

Tunisia is the smallest country in the North Africa. It lies between Algeria and Libya. On the north is the Mediterranean Sea. The northern part of the country contains very fertile soil while the southern area is very dry. The two areas are separated by the Atlas Mountains.

What does “fertile” mean in the paragraph? fertile_____

The conjunction while joins the two parts of a complex sentence to show contrast. Thus, fertile and dry mentioned in this sentence can be inferred as opposites of each other. If you are familiar with dry, you can guess the meaning of fertile.

Example 2

Positive events can produce stress, but negative ones are generally more stressful. In part, negative events are more likely to cause stress because they place more demands on US. We actively try to avoid negative events. When they occur, we have to find a way to solve the problem. This takes time, effort, and energy. In sum, it is stressful.

What does “positive” mean in the paragraph? positive____

The conjunction but in a compound sentence also shows contrast. So, negative and positive in this sentence can easily be understood. If you have known the meaning of negative which means giving more attention or emphasis to bad possibilities than good ones, you can then easily guess the concept of positive (giving more attention or emphasis to good possibilities than bad ones).


An example is something that the writer mentions in order to show the type of thing that he is talking about and to help to explain what he means. Examples can help you to guess the meaning of unknown words.


The tasks of an assistant for any of the above counselling careers are many. They may include helping a client get benefits such as health or life insurance; examining tax returns to see if the client is eligible for federal aid such as welfare or food stamps; or arranging transportation for a patient to get to group meetings, adult day care programmes, or doctor’s appointments.

What do “benefit” and “federal aid” mean in the paragraph?


federal aid_____

Health or life insurance is an example given to show the meaning of benefit (money or help that an insurance company gives to somebody)', welfare or food stamps is an example given to make clear the meaning of federal aid (money, food, or other help that the national government gives to an area where people need it).

Personal experience or background knowledge

From the information in a passage, you can use your own personal experience or background knowledge to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words.


Your teeth, like those of most hunting mammals, do not grow once they have been formed. To make up for this, you change teeth as you get older. Your first set, called “baby teeth,” starts to appear when you are about six months old. They are quite small, and are gradually replaced by your adult or permanent teeth, which are much bigger. Sometimes your first adult teeth can look much too big for you, but the rest of your body eventually catches up in size.

What does “permanent” mean in the paragraph? permanent______

This paragraph introduces the development of human teeth. The phrases baby teeth and adult or permanent teeth could help you to guess the meaning of permanent which means happening or existing for a long time or for all time in the future.