Working out unfamiliar vocabulary in the IELTS Reading Test part 1.

reader-310398_150One question I hear regularly from students is ‘What do I do if there are words I don’t understand in the IELTS Reading Test?’

Well, let me tell you first of all that there will ALWAYS be words you don’t understand.  I’m sure that even in your own language, you come across words you don’t understand when you’re reading but you still manage to understand .

In this post I’d like to discuss what to do when you come across unfamiliar words when reading a passage in the IELTS test.

Sometimes you might not need to understand the exact meaning of an unknown word, unless there is a question directly related to it.

Sometimes you do need to know the meaning.  OK, first of all, don’t panic!  I’m going to teach you some strategies to work out the meaning of unknown words.



You can often work out the meaning of a word by checking the context it’s written in.  The context is the words and phrases surrounding the word and it often contains clues about the meaning of the piece of unfamiliar vocabulary.  The words and phrases just before and just after the word are particularly useful.


Sometimes writers give a definition of a word, they explain it or they give an example.  There are certain words that express meaning:

  • is
  • means
  • refers to
  • that is
  • consists of

e.g.  A philanthropist is a person who loves his fellow human beings.

In this example, the word ‘is’ shows us that a definition is about to come.

Word Class and Punctuation

Look at the unknown word in the sentence and decide  if it is a noun, an adjective, a verb or an adverb.  Punctuation can also sometimes be a clue; you should look for colons or question marks in particular.

Connective Words

Connective words e.g. however give clues about the meaning of the unknown word.  They usually help to identify the general direction of the argument.  If you understand the general direction of the argument, this will help with the understanding of the unknown word.

For example, if you see the words ‘in addition’, then you know that the writer is giving more evidence to the previous argument.

Break the word down.

If you break the word down into syllables; looking at he root of the word, prefixes and suffixes, this may help you with understanding.  My post Working out unfamiliar vocabulary in the IELTS Reading Test part 2 discusses this point further.


The tips here obviously require some practice so don’t just leave it till the day of the IELTS test.  Do practice reading tests at home without a dictionary and try to work out the meaning of any unknown words.  I’m sure you don’t use a dictionary for every word you don’t know in your own language, so transfer these skills to English.

Also, do plenty of exercises to improve your reading skills.  Over the years, I have taught from many different IELTS books and one of the best I have found for self study is 202 Useful Exercises for IELTS ~ Academic & General Training Module.

Here’s to the best IELTS score possible!

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