Learn about the most important skill in IELTS reading.
Updated: September 2023.
In the IELTS reading exam, you can’t look up words in a dictionary, and you won’t be able to understand every single word. Furthermore, you shouldn’t read the whole text as you 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 really about vocabulary, so you must work on developing your vocabulary. Guessing meaning from context is another useful skill to develop for IELTS.
In this lesson, I will look at:
1. What is guessing the meaning from context?
2. Example of how this skill works.
3. Why is this skill so important?
4. Useful techniques for guessing the meaning from context.
5. Exercise on guessing the meaning from context.
What exactly is guessing the 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.
Example of guessing the meaning from context.
Blue= context Red = unknown word
The emergency engineers worked on the project for almost two days without a break. By the end of it, the team was completely drained so 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.
Why is guessing the meaning from context so important?
This is important because you can’t use a dictionary or an iPhone to look up a new word in the exam, and you would not have time to do that anyway. Another reason why it’s important is that 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.
Useful techniques for guessing the meaning.
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 the meaning.
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.
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 for ‘very angry’.
Here is a very good YouTube video about context to guess the meanings of words.
Now you can try.
Here is a passage from an IELTS reading. 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
- Futuristic means:
a) advanced technology b) science fiction technology c) scientific
- Marine Life means:
a) people living in boats b) animals living in the sea c) animals that come out at night
- Creatures means:
a) insects b) animals c) all living things
- Nocturnal means:
a) animals that come out at night b) blind animals c) animals that come out in the day
- Crepuscular means:
a) animals that hibernate b) animals that come out at midday c) animals that come out at low light
- The passage of means:
a) the amount of time b) the length of time c) the hours in a day
- Identical means:
a) exactly the same b) nearly the same c) a pair
- Alert means:
a) confused b) sleepy c) very aware
Any questions? leave a comment below…