How to: Improve your reading skills – dealing with unknown vocabulary



Reading authentic English texts (where none of the language has been simplified) can be difficult, especially when there are a lot of unknown words or phrases. Do you stop to check every new word in a dictionary or continue without really understanding the sentence? Building a good vocabulary range is important, but so is the ability to deal with unknown vocabulary as you read. Here are some tips to help you:

Know your ‘parts of speech’:

When teachers talk about ‘parts of speech’ they are referring to VERBS, NOUNS, ADJECTIVES, PREPOSITIONS, ADVERBS etc. that are used to create sentences in spoken and written language. Sometimes the same word can be a different part of speech depending on its use and position in the sentence. For example: the word play can be a verbI play tennis/guitar, or a noun – We saw a play at the theatre. Even if you don’t know the meaning of a word you can often guess the ‘part of speech’ from other clues in the sentence by looking at the words before and after the unknown word. Here’s an example of a “word” in a sentence. What part of speech do you think it is? ‘I’d like to buy a dinglebrot please.’ (The ‘a’ before the word indicates it will be a noun. Also, we usually buy ‘a thing’, also indicating a noun here).

Look for more ‘clues’ to the meaning of the unknown word:

Of course, we need more ‘context’ if we are going to guess what a dinglebrot could be – or any other unknown word. We can usually find clues from information and other known words in the rest of text.

  • The situation (where and when something is happening).
  • The topic of the text in general : there will be other known words related to the topic, and probably synonyms for the unknown words.

These clues can help you ‘work out’ an approximate meaning of the unknown word. More importantly, don’t ‘get stuck’ on the word, just keep reading!

Related resources

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Grammar Check-up! The Simple Present tense – check out your knowledge and understanding.

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