It is highly likely in the IELTS Reading test that you will come across words that you don’t know the meaning of in the texts. In many cases, it won’t be necessary to know the meaning in order to answer the questions. Sometimes too, even if the word features in or is related to an answer, it is often possible to answer that question without fully understanding the meaning of a specific word, because the answer is clear for other reasons.
But there may be a time when you need to guess the meaning of a word in order to answer a question correctly and in this case, the best strategy is to guess the meaning. There are a number of techniques you can use to do this.
Using context: The most intuitive way is to guess the meaning from the context. What does this mean? It means using the words around it to work out the meaning, as well as what you know and understand of the topic of the text. Context is the surrounding information in the text. Clues to understand your unknown word may be in the immediate context – the sentences before and after the one you are uncertain about or it could in the wider context – elsewhere in the paragraph, or even the whole text.
So, the question to ask yourself in this situation is: Can you deduce the meaning of the unknown word from other words nearby?
An example of immediate context:
The average urban resident, for example, rouses at the eye-blearing time of 6.04 a.m., which researchers believe to be far too early. One study found that even rising at 7.00 a.m. has deleterious effects on health unless exercise is performed for 30 minutes afterward.
Does deleterious have a positive or negative meaning? How do you know?
(Answer: phrases such as ‘eye-blearing time’ and ‘far too early’ suggest that getting up at 6.40 am is not good for you. Therefore ‘deleterious effects on health’ must be a negative thing, therefore ‘deleterious’ probably means ‘harmful’ or ‘unhealthy’.)
In the following case of wider context, a question to ask yourself is: Can you guess the meaning from the general topic/theme?
A reading text titled The Triune Brain is all about the three cortexes of the brain – the reptilian cortex, the limbic cortex and the neocortex. The first sentence of the text begins:
The first of our three brains to evolve is what scientists call the reptilian cortex.
The full article is organised in paragraphs that describe in turn the various functions of each of these areas of our brain. So in this case, by understanding the topic of the text – that the brain has three parts with different functions – it’s easy to guess that ‘triune brain’ must mean something like ‘the brain with three parts’.
Using Prior Knowledge:
A question to ask yourself in this case is: What do I already know about this topic that can help me guess accurately? Consider the sentence below.
Understanding the triune brain can help us appreciate the different natures of brain damage and psychological disorders.
In the example above, you might not have come across the phrase psychological disorders before but you most likely know enough about how the human brain works to know that brain damage can cause mental and emotional problems, therefore you can use this prior knowledge to guess that ‘psychological’ relates to mental and emotional states and ‘disorders’ are ‘problems’ or ‘issues’.
Using Word Root, Prefix or Suffix:
The question to ask yourself here is: Do you know what type of word it is? Can you recognise a part of the word?
A starting point is to think whether the word is a verb, noun, adverb or adjective. Then look at parts of the word, where relevant, to see if you can use the parts to figure out the meaning. Parts of the word may include prefixes or suffixes.
Consider the word ‘triune’ from the example above. You might know that tri- is a prefix meaning ‘three’ and ‘une’ can refer to ‘one’ or ‘singular’. This would help you guess that ‘triune’ means ‘three in one’.
Consider another couple of sentences from the same article.
When we are with others of “our kind” – be it at soccer practice, church, school or a nightclub – we experience positive sensations of togetherness, solidarity and comfort. If we spend too long away from these networks, then loneliness sets in and encourages us to seek companionship.
-ness, -ity and -ship are all suffixes that show the word is a noun; a state of being. You might not know the words solidarity or companionship but you do know the word together. So the fact that these three words are all nouns and appear next to each other in the text, added to your knowledge of the meaning of together, enables you to guess that they are all related to the feelings that human beings experience when they are together in a group.
Recognising words that signal answers in the text:
One feature of academic texts is that difficult or uncommon words will often be followed by a brief explanation for the benefit of the reader, and certain phrases or words are used to do this. Phrases such as for instance, such as, a type of, like, for example, that is/this is are all useful clues to pay attention to because they will usually be followed by a definition of the word or information that you can use to accurately guess meaning.
When it comes to humans, chronobiologists are interested in what is known as the circadian rhythm. This is the complete cycle our bodies are naturally geared to undergo within the passage of a twenty-four hour day.
What is the circadian rhythm in the above example? How does the second sentence relate to the first sentence?
(Answer: it is a full cycle of natural processes that the human body experiences every 24 hours. We know this because the second sentence gives a definition of circadian rhythm; the definition is signalled by the phrase ‘this is…’.)
Using opposites and synonyms:
Another useful trick is to look out for words or phrases that follow which signal a contrast, for example in contrast to, however, although, on the other hand, unlike and despite. These phrases will be followed by words that have the opposite meaning to your unknown word, which should make the unknown meaning clearer.
The recommended course of action is to follow an intense workout with a carbohydrate-rich breakfast; the other way round and weight loss results are not as pronounced.
How are these two clauses related to each other? Which clause is positive? How do you know? Therefore which clause is negative? Can you now guess what pronounced means?
(Answer: the two clauses oppose each other. We know this because they are connected by the phrase ‘the other way round’. The first clause has a positive meaning (we know this from the use of the word ‘recommended’) so the second clause must have a negative meaning. Therefore, we understand the general meaning of the sentence is along the lines of ‘following the recommended advice is good, doing the opposite is bad and the results will not be as successful.’ Now it becomes easy to guess that ‘not as pronounced’ means ‘not as successful/effective’.)
In conclusion, guessing the meaning of words is an important exam skill to practise before your IELTS reading paper. The more advanced a reader you are, the more instinctively you will use these techniques so lower level readers should practise them a lot before the exam to improve their comprehension skills.
Bear in mind though, that you should only use these guessing strategies for words that you can see are important in order to answer specific questions – you will not have time and shouldn’t do this for every unknown word in a text. It is not necessary to understand every word in the IELTS reading texts.