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Inferring meaning of unfamiliar words

An important skill to improve vocabulary for reading and listening is inferring unknown vocabulary from context.
© Griffith University

An important skill to improve vocabulary for effective reading and listening is inferring unknown words from context and using word structure to decode unfamiliar vocabulary.

Context

Sometimes you can guess the meaning of new words or phrases based on the words around it (the context).

Follow these steps to help you guess the meaning of an unknown word:

Step 1 Identify the part of speech.
Step 2 Look at the words and sentences around the unknown word. Try and find its synonym or antonym in the text.
Step 3 Look at information given later in the sentence to give you a clue.
Step 4 Look to see if there is a smaller, more common word in the unknown word.
Step 5 Try a synonym in the sentence. Does it make sense?

For example, you can guess the meaning of, combatants in this reading passage by following the steps above.

In the 1940s a group of peasants in northwest China unearthed fragments of a clay soldier, the first evidence of what turned out to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in modern times. These terracotta ‘combatants’ were buried underground near the unexcavated tomb of a self-proclaimed Chinese Emperor who believed the warriors in this 10,000 strong army would protect him in the afterlife.
Step 1 combatants is a noun because it is plural and terracotta is an adjective
Step 2 soldier, warriors, army are all synonyms that help me understand the word
Step 3 10,000 strong army would protect him… tells me that the word is something to do with fighters and the military
Step 4 combatants has the common word ‘combat’ which I know means to fight
Step 5 These terracotta warriors/soldiers were buried underground… makes sense in the sentence when I replace combatants with a synonym

Discipline-specific and technical vocabulary

PTE focuses on reading and listening tasks across a wide range of topics and academic disciplines including: arts, science, humanities, business administration, medicine and more. You are not expected to have any prior knowledge of these academic disciplines, but the test assesses your ability to comprehend information provided in a given text.
This requires you to decode the complex technical terms you will meet in the test by inferring the meaning of unfamiliar words. A useful technique involves studying the word structure or morphology of words to identify word roots and understand word parts (suffixes and prefixes).

Roots

Many discipline-specific or technical terms have roots that come from Latin or Greek origins. Here are some common examples:
Science Mathematics
-proto (first) prototype -deca (ten) decade
-hydro (water) hydraulic -poly (many) polygon
-radi (ray) radiation -cent (hundred) centimeter
Medicine Social studies
-card (heart) cardiology -arche (ancient) archaeology
-derm (skin) dermatology -chron (time) chronological
-dent/dont (teeth) dental -pop (people) population
Here is a more extensive list of roots.

Prefixes

A root word has its own meaning and stands on its own. You can make new words from it by adding beginnings (prefixes). For example, ‘type’ is a root word that means a category of things. By adding the prefix ‘proto’ we have ‘prototype’ which modifies the meaning to the first or original category of a thing.

Suffixes

Word roots can also be combined with suffixes or endings. Suffixes also commonly come from Greek and Latin and can modify meaning or change a root word’s form. For example, the noun ‘type’ becomes the verb ‘typing’ when we add the -ing suffix. Many longer technical words are built using both a prefix and a suffix eg ‘prototyping’. Associating meaning and sounds to these clusters of letters will lead to more rapid and efficient word identification.
Let’s take a look at the same reading passage again and use word morphology to work out the meaning of unknown words.
In the 1940s a group of peasants in northwest China unearthed fragments of a clay soldier, the first evidence of what turned out to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in modern times. These terracotta combatants were buried underground near the unexcavated tomb of a self-proclaimed Chinese Emperor who believed the warriors in this 10,000 strong army would protect him in the afterlife.
  • archaeological: the root ‘arche’ means ancient and the suffix ‘ical’ is used to form adjectives from nouns with the meaning ‘of or pertaining to’.
  • unexcavated: the word ‘excavate’ means to remove earth to find remains and the prefix ‘un’ means ‘not’ so ‘not excavated’.

Your task

Inferring the meaning of unknown words using context clues and word morphology is important for the Reading: Multiple Choice, Single Answer item in the PTE test.

For this item type you need to read a passage and answer the multiple-choice questions. There are several possible response options, but only one is correct.

Read the text and if you don’t know the meaning of a word try and guess from the context or the morphology of the word.

Try and eliminate any response options which you are sure are incorrect. Then select one of the remaining response options. Do not try to simply match words or phrases with those in the text. Sometimes incorrect options contain the same words as the reading passage.

Read the text you have studied in this step again and answer the multiple-choice question by selecting the correct response Reading: Multiple Choice, Single Answer.

For more information about how to approach this test item, see the video tutorial in the SEE ALSO section below.

References

Nordquist, Richard. (2020). Boost Your English Vocabulary with These 50 Greek and Latin Root Words. Retrieved from here.

Pearson. (2009). Official Guide to Pearson Test of English Academic (with CD-ROM) (1st ed.). Pearson Education ESL.

© Griffith University
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