Working out unfamiliar vocabulary in the IELTS Reading Test part 2.

reader-310398_150In my post Working out unfamiliar vocabulary in the IELTS Reading Test part 1, one of the strategies I suggested was to break the word down into syllables; in other words use your knowledge of word formation to help with your understanding of the unfamiliar word.

Many English words use prefixes; added to the beginning of the word, and suffixes; added to the end of the word, to make new words.  Let’s deal with them separately:



One of the most useful parts of a word to look at when dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary is the prefix.  Prefixes are ‘pieces’ added at the start of a word which change the meaning of the word.  The actual word prefix is a good example in fact; contains the prefix pre-.  Here, pre- tells us that an extra ‘piece’ is fixed to the front of the word.

The following table gives examples of some common prefixes in English, together with their meaning and examples.

Prefix Meaning Example(s)
*dis- not dishonest
*un- not unhappy, undo,
*in- not insane
*il- not illegal
*ir- not irrelevant
*im- not impossible
*non- not nonsense
In/im- old Latin definition ‘into’

put into a certain condition or state (makes verbs from nouns)

Inflame, impoverish
extra- outside, beyond extraordinary, extrasensory
multi- many multicultural
re- again retell
post- after postgraduate
mis- wrongly misunderstand
pro- for, on the side of pro-American
under- below, not enough underestimate
sub- below, beneath substandard
semi half semicircle
  • * Often the opposite of a word can be formed by adding the correct prefix;

dishonest, unhappy, undo, insane, illegal, irrelevant, impossible, nonsense.

  • When you guess the meaning of a word, please remember to check that it makes sense in what you are reading.  I have seen students assume that if a word begins with ‘un’ or ‘post’, then un and post are prefixes.  This is NOT always the case; think of simple words such as unit or postcode.



Suffixes are another useful part of a word to look at when dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary.  Suffixes are ‘bits’ added at the end of a word; unlike prefixes, they don’t change the meaning of the word.  They usually change a word from one part of speech to another.  One of the examples that students are usually most familiar with is the addition of the suffix ‘ly’ to turn an adjective into an adverb, e.g. quick, quickly.


In the following table are some common suffixes.  In the first column, I have indicated the part of speech to which they change words.


Part of Speech the suffix changes the word to. Suffix Example
Nouns -ance acceptance
-ence reference
-or assessor
-ist pianist
-ness happiness
Verbs -ise realise
-ate originate
-fy terrify
-en sweeten
-ify purify
Adjectives -able washable
-ible terrible
-less senseless
-ic romantic
-ical musical
-ish childish
ive creative
Adverbs -ly quickly

Using your knowledge of typical suffixes, you can work out what part of speech the word is and this may help you in working out the meaning.

In my post What’s the best way to do a practice IELTS Reading Tests?, I suggest looking up different word forms of new vocabulary.  This is a good habit to get into to consolidate your knowledge of word formation.

Let me give you a few examples of how to do this.

Noun Verb Adjective
creation create creative
acceptance accept accepting
economist economise economical

So, from now on when recording new vocabulary, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the word have a prefix?
  • If so, what does this prefix generally mean?
  • Does the word have a suffix?
  • If so, what part of speech does this suffix usually create?

Asking yourself these questions when practising for your IELTS test and you’ll be well-prepared to deal with new vocabulary on ‘the big day’.

Here’s to the best IELTS score possible!

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