Getting Started with Reading Skills

One of the most important strategies to help build your vocabulary, increase your reading speed and how much you understand is by learning vocabulary in context. “In context” means using the situation that you understand in the sentences you have read so far to guess the meaning of new vocabulary without depending on a dictionary constantly.

Guessing the meaning of new words using the context of the situation also means using a dictionary less. When you are reading something, if you stop and use a dictionary every time you come across a new word, not only do you use more time, but you may forget what you learned from the reading and you won’t remember the new vocabulary as well. In addition, many words in English have several different meanings depending on the context. As much as possible, try to guess the meaning of the vocabulary using context clues. You could make a note of the new word and look up the meaning in a dictionary after you read, just to confirm your guess against the dictionary definition, but wait until you have finished reading a page or two before you use a dictionary. Also, of course you should use a dictionary if what you are reading becomes confusing and it is difficult to understand.

There are many different strategies you can use to help you build your vocabulary without becoming dependent on a dictionary.

Learning Vocabulary in Context Strategies

The following practice questions for each strategy contain both vocabulary you have read or will read in future stories and GRE vocabulary words–ones that are more commonly used in English. (Except “hydrangea” and “enchilada.” I just like those words.)

Identify the part of speech

Before you guess the meaning of the new vocabulary, you need to know how it functions in the sentence. Is it an action (a verb)? Is it a thing or a person (a noun)? Is it trying to describe something (an adjective)? Is it trying to describe an action (adverb)? You can also use your knowledge of word roots, especially suffixes, to guess its part of speech. That will be practiced later.

Practice: Guess the part of speech of the word in bold.

  1. Apollo played on his lyre and the Muses sang.
  2. He broke a twig off the tree and started writing in the dirt with it.
  3. During the meeting, the secretary documented all important discussion topics and later emailed the notes to all workers in the office.
  4. There is empirical evidence that shows that human activity is contributing to global warming.
  5. There’s no doubt it was a hate crime–he walked into a predominantly black church and started shooting.

Identify word roots, prefixes, and suffixes

If you recognize part of a word, there’s a good chance that the new vocabulary will be related to that same meaning. This strategy doesn’t always work, but most of the time it will work. If you know the meanings of common word roots from Latin and Greek, it can help you guess the meanings of new words you’ll see in the future. Prefixes often change the meaning of the word, and suffixes not only carry the grammar of the word but they also have their own meanings.

Practice: Guess the meaning of the words in bold using word roots. Underline the word root(s) that you notice.

  1. His beneficent actions earned him a charity donation award.
  2. If you are not a fan of gardening, you may want to try planting perennials, like lilies and daffodils, which will bloom year after year.
  3. I know you have to write a 500-word essay, but this paper is too verbose.
  4. The fast-growing kudzu plant could be a viable option for a more renewable and sustainable fuel source.
  5. It’s going to be difficult for Trump to get back coal miners’ jobs. In addition to the coal industry becoming an anachronism due to decreasing demand and its negative effects on the environment, many of the jobs lost were taken over by technology.

Identify word families

“Word families” mean that some words have the same or similar meanings, but the grammar or function of the words are different. Again, they don’t always have the same meaning, but they do more often than not. This might be the case for some words that have the same noun and verb form, but the pronunciation is different. For example, present as a noun and present as a verb have different meanings and also different pronunciations. However, water as a noun and water as a verb have the same pronunciation and related meanings.

Practice: Guess the meaning of the words in bold.

  1. During the meeting, the secretary documented all important discussion topics and later emailed the notes to all workers in the office.
  2. After their short romance, Steve didn’t know that he had fathered the woman’s twin girls.
  3. The people of Vesuvius underestimated the destructive power of the volcano.
  4. The use of the word “friend” as a verb was popularized by Facebook.
  5. Right before I started dinner, I saw him snacking on some potato chips.

Does the sentence make sense if you replace the new word with a synonym or a general guess?

If you don’t know the meaning of some new vocabulary, try replacing it with a synonym and see if it continues to make sense. Also, do not feel that you have to guess or know immediately exactly the meaning of the new word. Sometimes it’s just as helpful to be able to guess the general meaning of the new vocabulary. Of course, you can find the word in a dictionary later to see if your synonym is close to the actual meaning.

Practice: Guess the meaning of the word in bold using a synonym or general topic.

  1. Lovely purple hydrangeas were in bloom in the gardens.
  2. Yesterday for dinner I had a delicious enchilada.
  3. Apollo played on his lyre and the Muses sang.
  4. The father said to his son, “I do not condone this behavior. You must be punished. Give me your smartphone now!”
  5. Universal healthcare would naturally increase American’s taxes, but also alleviate many problems in the current American healthcare system.

Is the new word necessary to understand the sentence?

Although it doesn’t help you remember or guess new vocabulary, a great strategy to use is to just delete the word if you don’t know it and it doesn’t affect your understanding of the sentence, especially if you tried using a synonym and it doesn’t seem to fit well. Skip the word and see if you still understand what is happening in the reading. If you still understand, then keep going! Don’t come back unless you see the word repeated. Then you might want to try to guess the word or use a dictionary to find the meaning.

Practice: Is the word in bold necessary or unnecessary to understand the sentence?

  1. The mayor is vehemently against Trump’s travel ban.
  2. This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult presidencies in American history.
  3. If you have ever been in a museum of Western art, you will have seen many beautiful paintings and sculptures about these stories.
  4. When Zeus was grown, he fed his father a drugged drink. It caused Cronus to vomit, throwing up Rhea’s other children and the stone.
  5. He found ready and unanimoussupport from the nine countries.

Does the sentence explain the meaning of the new word?

Many times, especially in academic course textbooks, the author expects the reader may not be familiar with special vocabulary. In these cases, they may add the definition of the word in the sentence or the next one. This is one of the easiest strategies to use. There are several ways writers might do this, specifically with punctuation:

  • X is Y (defenestration is the act of throwing someone out of a window)
  • X, that is / i.e., Y (defenestration, that is, the act of throwing someone out of a window)
  • X, or Y (defenestration, or the act of throwing someone out of a window)
  • X, which means Y (defenestration, which means the act of throwing someone out of a window)
  • X (Y) (defenestration (the act of throwing someone out of a window))
  • X -Y (defenestration – the act of throwing someone out of a window)

Practice: Find the definition in the sentence for the word in bold.

  1. The monomyth, or hero’s journey, is a common story type where a hero goes on a quest towards a goal.
  2. Being aware of language learning strategies can enhance, that is, improve,your language learning ability.
  3. Opossums are North America’s only marsupials–mammals that carry their young in a small pouch.
  4. Opossums travel by arboreal locomotion, i.e. by climbing and walking around on trees.

Look for words that show similarity in the sentence.

Think about the transitions you use in your essays to give additional ideas, like also, in addition, and, and furthermore. Words that give more information and details about a topic can help explain new vocabulary. Also, words that show similarity, like just as, like, is similar to, and the same as can be used to guess that new vocabulary has the same meaning as vocabulary you already know in the same sentence.

Practice: Guess the meaning of the word in bold.

  1. When Zeus was grown, he fed his father a drugged drink. It caused Cronus to vomit, throwing up Rhea’s other children and the stone.
  2. Reading Shakespeare is a daunting task for most high school students. Even many of their teachers find it difficult English to understand.
  3. Not only is the mobile phone tech industry burgeoning, but also the number of operating systems they run is increasing.
  4. She shows a lot of fervor and energy in her work, so you should give her another chance.
  5. In the US, it is illegal to rescind an apartment lease contract due to someone’s race, just as it is illegal to deny someone a job because of their skin color.

 Words that show differences are in the sentence, so we can guess the new word has the opposite meaning.

Not only can transitions that talk about similarities be used to guess new words, but also transitions that describe differences, such as on the other hand, unlike, however, and but. These transitions can show that the new vocabulary probably has the opposite meaning.

Practice: Guess the meaning of the word in bold.

  1. Unlike Mohammed, who is loquacious, Vivian is quiet.
  2. Although my mother often spent money as soon as payday arrived, my father was much more frugal.
  3. It’s strange how good of friends they are–they seem like total opposites. Brad is an introvert while Sam is gregarious.
  4. The Herpes simplex virus lies dormant within the nervous system. It will not appear unless there is a trigger, such as cold weather, stress, or a change in hormones.
  5. Even if you meticulously check your essay over and over again, there will always be some grammar error that will be overlooked.

The next few sentences explain more details or give examples.

When you see new vocabulary, sometimes you’ll need to read the next few sentences to help guess the new vocabulary. This can be done through the readings’ explanation and/or examples. Look for more details and example transitions like for example, take for example, for instance, like, and such as.

Practice: Guess the meaning of the word in bold.

  1. The public has a right to know this news. It must be disseminated to the masses.
  2. Having a president that lacked this much political experience is unprecedented. It just hasn’t ever happened before.
  3. The restaurant seemed to serve great food, but the aesthetics were all wrong. To give an example, the restaurant was filled with old American art from the late 1800s, with ragged chairs you could tell had been painted many times and were worn from age. But the menu offered a new modern taste with fusion food from around the world. It didn’t match.
  4. Nancy is a connoisseur of Coca-Cola products and culture. She owns over 34,000 Coca-Cola items and is also a professor of American Studies at the University of Florida, where she teaches a minicourse about the impact of Coca-Cola on American pop culture.
  5. Have you been inundated with emails? You check your inbox, and you see you have 1,265 unread messages. What do you do?

Sometimes you can use your personal knowledge or experience of a topic to guess new vocabulary.

This strategy is the most difficult to practice because each student has their own experiences as well as previous education. Naturally, you can use what you already know about a topic or situation from your first language to guess new words in English. If you can connect your previous knowledge and experience to new words, it can help you remember it better in the future.

Practice: Guess the meaning of the word in bold.

  1. She was married to the lame Hephæstus, but had a fling with Ares and gave him two sons named Phobos and Deimos.
  2. Persephone was gathering flowers in a field when old Pluto (Hades) pounced upon her and carried her off into his underground world to be his bride.
  3. He broke a twig off the tree and started writing in the dirt with it.
  4. Trump’s almost daily 140-character diatribes on Twitter may eventually get him into trouble and lose him his current presidency.
  5. It’s strange to think of oxygen as corrosive. Oxygen is what living beings breathe– how could it be damaging? But think of the chemical reaction between oxygen and iron. Oxygen causes iron to rust and disintegrate.

CEFR Level: CEF Level B2


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It’s All Greek to Me! Copyright © 2018 by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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