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What to do if you encoutner unknown words on IELTS

James Liu July 4th, 2018

An essential and often overlooked academic reading skill is to guess the meanings of words from the context. When you are doing the IELTS reading test, you will encounter words you don’t understand. Since it is a test, you are not allowed to use a dictionary to look up those words. In this scenario, you do not want to let these words stop you from understanding the rest of the passages, which is where being able to guess the meaning of a word based on the context it is used in comes into play.

So what does guessing the meaning of a word from the context mean?

First of all, the context is the surrounding information around the word you don’t understand. Next, based on the context and how the word is used in it, it is possible to guess the meaning.

Let’s look at an example.

For most of human history, we have foraged (hunted, fished, and collected wild plants) for food. Small nomadic groups could easily supply the necessities for their families. No one needed more, and providing for more than one’s needs made little sense. The organization of such societies could be rather simple, revolving around age and gender categories. Such societies likely were largely egalitarian, beyond distinctions based on age and gender, virtually all people had equivalent rights, status, and access to resources.

So what does the word “egalitarian” mean? I’m sure a lot of people don’t know what it means, probably even native English speakers, but a native English speaker can probably make an accurate guess based on the overall context of the passage.

Let’s look at the context around this word.

Such societies likely were largely egalitarian, beyond distinctions based on age and gender, virtually all people had equivalent rights, status, and access to resources.

What do you see? Let me highlight the sentence that describes what an egalitarian society is.

Such societies likely were largely egalitarian, beyond distinctions based on age and gender, virtually all people had equivalent rights, status, and access to resources.

So from that sentence, you can guess egalitarian means that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

Let’s look at another example.

Chronobiology might sound a little futuristic – like something from a science fiction novel, perhaps – but it’s actually a field of study that concerns one of the oldest processes life on this planet has ever known: short-term rhythms of time and their effect on flora and fauna. This can take many forms. Marine life, for example, is influenced by tidal patterns. Animals tend to be active or inactive depending on the position of the sun or moon. Numerous creatures, humans included, are largely diurnal – that is, they like to come out during the hours of sunlight. Nocturnal animals, such as bats and possums, prefer to forage by night. A third group is known as crepuscular: they thrive in the lowlight of dawn and dusk and remain inactive at other hours.

Again, I’ve highlighted the sentence that can help us guess what diurnal means

Chronobiology might sound a little futuristic – like something from a science fiction novel, perhaps – but it’s actually a field of study that concerns one of the oldest processes life on this planet has ever known: short-term rhythms of time and their effect on flora and fauna. This can take many forms. Marine life, for example, is influenced by tidal patterns. Animals tend to be active or inactive depending on the position of the sun or moon. Numerous creatures, humans included, are largely diurnal – that is, they like to come out during the hours of sunlight. Nocturnal animals, such as bats and possums, prefer to forage by night. A third group is known as crepuscular: they thrive in the lowlight of dawn and dusk and remain inactive at other hours.

From this sentence, 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.

To sum up, if you are going to take an IELTS test, you will probably come across some unknown words in the reading section. Very often you can just skip it and keep reading because more than likely, you’ll find the context reveals enough about the word to understand the meaning.

Quick Tip: Try practicing this skill when reading articles, magazines, or newspapers.



 

 
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