IELTS Reading: Guessing meaning from context

Learn about the most important skill in IELTS reading.

In the IELTS reading exam you can’t look up words in a dictionary, and you don’t have the time to understand every word. Another point is that you shouldn’t read the whole text as you just won’t have the time.

Understanding where to find the answers and spotting how words are paraphrased is a crucial skill. The reading section is also is where guessing meaning from context becomes an important skill to develop.

In this lesson we will look at:

1. What exactly is guessing meaning from context?
2. Example of how this skill works.
3. Why is this skill so important.
4. Useful techniques for guessing meaning.
5. You can try, exercise on guessing meaning.

 

1. What exactly is guessing meaning from context?

If you don’t understand a word, you will need to look at the information around that word. This means looking at the sentences before the difficult word and the sentences after it. Another method is to look at the paragraph before and after to get a better idea of what the meaning could be. The context is the surrounding information in the text or the theme of the text.

Native speakers also have trouble understanding certain words from the reading text in IELTS, however, it is possible to make an accurate guess. The title of the text will also give you a good idea of what the word could mean.

Key point: You do not have to understand every word in the IELTS reading texts and you shouldn’t read the whole text.

 

2. Example of guessing meaning from context.

Blue= context    Red = unkown word

The emergency engineers worked on the project for almost two days without a break. By the end of it all, the team were completely drained, after that everyone went home and slept for most of the day.

Can you guess what ‘drained‘ means here…(you probably already know anyway)

If you were working for two days without a break how would you feel? very tired I think.. also the clue: ” …everyone went home and slept for most of the day..”   This shows that “drained ” means very tired.

 

3. Why is guessing meaning from context so important?

This is important because you can’t use a dictionary or a phone to look up a new word in the exam, you would not have time to do that anyway. Another reason why it’s  important is because you will feel more relaxed about doing the reading section, rather than feeling anxious when you find a new word.

If you are stressed when you come across a new word in the IELTS reading test, then you will panic and have problems completing all the questions in the reading tasks.

 

4. Useful techniques for guessing meaning

1. Words that signal answers in the text:

for instance, such as , a type of , like,  for example , that is.. usually this is followed by a definition or a hint where you can use logic to accurately guess meaning.

(you can download the full reading here from the British council)

Examples:

In the above example you can get a good idea of the meaning. The word ‘diurnal’ means that animals usually come out in the daytime. We didn’t need a dictionary to guess that one.

 

Again in the example above you can see a clear definition for the word ‘circadian rhythm’, using the phrase “this is…” and then a definition.


In this example above, the word ‘rouses’ is the unknown word, but there is a time and a hint in the following sentence.. I can guess correctly that ‘rouses’ means gets up or wakes up.. the word eye-blearing is not necessary to understand, its just extra information here.

2. Using opposites and synonyms

Some words in the text show opposites such as: in contrast to, however, although, on the other hand , unlike, despite.. Often this means there is an antonym or opposite phrase which helps to define unknown words.

 

In the example above the key phrase “in contrast to” shows that the 2 unknown words are opposite, when looking at the whole sentence you can get a very good understanding of the meaning.


In this example above you can see how synonyms work.. ‘infuriated’ is a synonym of ‘very angry’.

Here is a very good Youtube video explanation of getting meaning from context with more examples.

 

Now you can try.

Here is a passage from an IELTS reading (you can download the full reading here from the British council) Go through the passage without a dictionary and see if you can answer the questions below related to the highlighted words.


Choose the best answer

  1. Futuristic means:
    a) advanced technology    b) science fiction technology    c) scientific
  2. Marine Life means:
    a) people living in boats     b) animals living in the sea      c) animals that come out at night
  3. Creatures means:
    a) insects      b) animals     c) all living things
  4.  Nocturnal means:
    a) animals that come out at night     b) blind animals      c) animals that come out in the day
  5. Crepuscular means:
    a) animals that hibernate     b) animals that come out at midday   c) animals that come out at low light
  6. The passage of means:
    a) the amount of time        b) the length of time         c) the hours in a day
  7.  Identical means:
    a) exactly the same       b) nearly the same         c) a pair
  8. Alert means:
    a) confused       b) sleepy        c) very aware

 

Answers below

  • Futuristic means:
    a) advanced technology
  • Marine Life means:
    b) animals living in the sea
  • Creatures means:
    c) all living things
  •  Nocturnal means:
    a) animals that come out at night
  • Crepuscular means:
    c) animals that come out at low light
  • The passage of means:
    b) the length of time
  •  Identical means:
    a) exactly the same
  • Alert means:
    c) very aware


Any questions? leave a comment below…