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Getting Smarter through Language

Intermediate Reading Course. Section 1: The Basics

Figuring Out the Meaning of Words While Reading

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Understanding Words You Do Not Know

This has probably happened to you several times before: Someone uses a word you have never heard before, but you understand exactly what it means.

Wait! How is that possible?


If heard the word by itself, it would likely be very difficult to understand its meaning. You have a much better chance during a conversation because the conversation gives the word a context. You can guess its meaning because it “fits” in that context.

The same happens when you read.

The Context in the Text

When you read, you can often understand a new word because the text itself gives you enough information—or context. Sometimes writers themselves actually explain what the word means by giving an example, using another word with a similar meaning, or putting it in a clear context.

Example 1

The word a’aqit below is a made up word. See if you can figure out what it means.

The old woman was preparing the a’aqit in the kitchen while her guests chatted in the next room. Using a sharp knife, she carefully cut the fish into small pieces. She added the fish to the vegetables, which were already cooking in a large pot. The smell of the fresh herbs filled the kitchen.

Based on the context and details provided, you gather than an a’aqit is some kind of dish cooked with vegetables.

The writer mentioned the smell of fresh herbs, so you can assume that they were in the a’aqit.

The point is that you can understand the writer’s description without knowing exactly what an a’aqit is.

Example 2

The word prevaricate in the paragraph below is a real word. If you do not already know it, you can probably understand it based on the context.

Each time his boss asked when the project would be finished, John either changed the topic or told some stories about unrelated complications. Finally, she got irritated and said, “I’ll ask you again, and I expect a direct answer: When will the project be completed?” John had no choice but to stop prevaricating and tell her it would not be ready for another month.

From the context, you can tell that John avoided answering his boss’s question; he prevaricated. To prevaricate means to avoid giving a direct answer to a question by using words that hide the truth.

When a Keyword Gives You No Choice

Unlike the examples above, sometimes you have no choice but to look an unknown word up; otherwise, you do not understand what you are reading. In general, it is a keyword, or a word you must understand so that you can understand the text as a whole.

Example keyword with little context

Let’s say you read this in a technical manual:

Be extremely careful. You must use a T-tap connector to assemble the component; otherwise, you may damage the unit. Self-stripping T-tap connectors are more convenient, but you can use other types.

In this paragraph, a “T-tap wire connector” is a keyword you must understand, but there is insufficient contextual information to figure out its meaning. You have no choice but to look it up so you can understand the paragraph well enough not to damage something.

The Bottom Line

Takeaways from this lesson

You can often just keep reading when you run into an unknown word and the text still makes sense.

You can also figure out what a word means by using context clues.

If the unknown word is a keyword and you have insufficient context to guess its meaning, you may have no choice but to look it up.

Assess Your Learning

Complete Activity 1. Guess the meaning of words from the context.

Using Context Clues to Guess Unknown Words

In this portion of the course, you will learn about the types of context clues that you can often find right there in the text. The next time you run into a word you do not know, you can then look for those context clues instead of panicking and interrupting your reading to look the word up.

Important Caveats

Do not rely on context clues alone in the following situations:

    When when it is important to know the exact meaning of a word.

    When it is important to understand the meaning of a keyword exactly so that the text makes sense.

Note. A “caveat” is a detail that you must consider carefully when interpreting some information.

Up Next: Using Antonyms and Synonyms as Context Clues

Go to the next lesson to learn about synonyms and antonyms as context clues.