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Dealing with unknown vocabulary while reading




Many learner struggle with strange or unfamiliar words when they are reading. Sometimes, this is just an annoyance, but at other times it can be a significant challenge and can prevent people from understanding the text. In this post, I'm going to discuss tips and strategies for dealing with unfamiliar words in general, in exam reading and in reading for pleasure.


Why is unknown vocabulary a problem?

If there is too much unfamiliar vocabulary, you may struggle to understand the complete text and may not be able to comprehend what the writer is expressing. You may feel frustrated by your inability to understand the text and if the vocabulary is too hard for you, you may even lose motivation to continue reading. If you are reading things that are too difficult, this can trigger feelings of inadequacy and doubt in your abilities. For this reason, it is important that you read within your current level and not try things that will be too difficult.


How to tell if a reading text is at an appropriate level for you For extensive reading, the rule of thumb is that you should have one new word every 50 words. This works out at about one new word per paragraph. Much more than this, and you may find it hard to understand the meaning of the text.


Why learning word families helps with unknown vocabulary I am often surprised when even C-level learners fail to notice that an apparently new word is in fact one that they already know, it's just in a different form. Recently, I had a student who didn't know that to solve was the verb form for a solution. Having a good understanding of word families can help when faced with a strange word. When you are learning vocabulary, then, it can help to learn a complete word family. Taking the example above, you might learn:


  • to solve

  • a solution

  • solvable

  • unsolvable

To learn this family means understanding the way that prefixes and suffixes work and being able to recognise noun and adjective suffixes as well as different prefixes. I believe that if more learners had a good understanding of this, many of the words that seemnew and unfamiliar would, in fact, make sense!


Unknown vocabulary in exam reading It is almost inevitable that you will come across new words in an exam such as IELTS or a Cambridge exam. In the exam, you won't have access to a dictionary so you need to be able to handle the stress of not knowing the word. The first thing to bear in mind is that full understanding of every word is often not necessary to answer the questions and that worrying about the meaning of a specific word wastes time. Very often, if you understand the main idea, this will be enough. However, many of the questions in IELTS and the Cambridge exams are based on synonyms and paraphrases which means that a huge part of your exam preparation must be extensive and comprehensive vocabulary learning as you need to spot synonyms to find the correct answer.


The most important thing is not to panic when faced with a word that you don't know. It's often possible to guess the meaning of an unknown word from the context of the sentence: What does this word mean? tauk

Don't know? Try it now: She lifted the tauk. We now know that 'a tauk' is something that is small and light enough for a person to lift it. What about with more information: She lifted the tauk and took a long drink of water. We could now guess that 'a tauk' is some kind of vessel like a cup or bottle. By the way, 'tauk' is not a real word so don't try and find it in the dictionary! I've just used this as an example of how you can find clues in the text that will help you guess at the meaning. Of course, doing this under time pressure is not easy. In exams, the most important thing is to keep calm, be logical and move on to the next question so that you are not wasting time.


Unknown vocabulary in relaxed reading (blogs, books and articles)

Here, you have more flexibility but I would never recommend that you read and look up all new words while you are reading as this slows your reading down. Remember too that some new words are not that important and you never need to understand 100% of the text.


When reading for pleasure, I suggest that you read for the overall meaning once without worrying about new words. Once you have done this, go back through the text and, rather than trying to understand every new word, see if you can find words that repeat as these are more likely to be important. Look up the meaning of these words, then re-read the text. Does it make more sense? If there are still passages that are difficult, by all means look up the meaning of the words in the hard parts, but never allow a search for vocabulary to get in the way of your actual reading. This is why it is so important to read within your current language level and to combine reading practice with vocabulary building exercises, such as using flashcards, on a regular basis.


You will always come across new words in English - I still find new words on a regular basis! Trying to eliminate this is impossible so you need to find a way to be at peace with the ambiguity of new language rather than reaching for Google translate all the time! This is the worst possible strategy you could employ - never read with a translation dictionary open as it prevents you from thinking and analysing the new language and takes away a great deal of the cognitive effort you need to be making.

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