As you can tell, in terms of Academic Reading the more vocabulary you know the better, that’s obvious, and this knowledge will make you feel confident which is always a good thing, but what do you do if you don’t know a word?
We need to be realistic as you can’t possibly know all the words; there will always be words that you don’t know especially in Academic Reading. Even native speakers of English might not know all the words in an Academic Reading text. Therefore, the secret is not to get stuck so much with words you don’t know: be calm even if this word is shown in the questions, too.
Here are some tips that will help you deal with this problem as effectively as possible:
• 1st tip: Context!
I’ m sure you already know this, but I might as well repeat it because it is very important. So, let’s just say you don’t know a word: first of all, don’t panic and try to understand its meaning by the other words that surround it. By the context, as we say. Let’s use the following extract as an example:
«“As far as global warming and the greenhouse effect are concerned—there is no room for compromise” Dr. Jones stated when he was asked about the environmental deterioration and its consequences to people».
Suppose that you don’t know what the word “deterioration” means and you need it in order to answer a relevant task question based on the issues this paragraph states. Phrases like “there’s no room for compromise” indicate that deterioration cannot mean something good: certainly we are not talking about positive consequences here. Since there are going to be consequences from global warming and the greenhouse effect and “there is no room for compromise” whatsoever, then “deterioration” probably means something that gradually declines in quality or becomes worse in general.
Now, let’s suppose that you know what the word “deterioration” means, but you don’t know the word “compromise”. Again, when you see phrases like “there’s no room for something” and then the word “deterioration,” then probably we could easily assume that “there’s no room for any more excuses”? Or at least, something like that.
“Compromise” of course doesn’t mean “excuse” here, but I just want to show you that you don’t have to know the exact meaning of a word in order to understand what a paragraph says as a whole and be able to answer the questions.
• 2nd tip: Syntax!
Syntax can also help you define the meaning of a word. For example, let’s see another extract:
“If governments internationally insist on avoiding the discussion over environmental matters, I don’t think that ecologists and environmental activists all over the world will ever tolerate or condone that”.
Here, even if we don’t know what “tolerate” or “condone” mean, the syntax “I don’t think…”, “will ever”, “or”, guides us to make the assumption that ecologists will never accept the avoidance of environmental matters. We don’t know what “tolerate” or “condone” mean, but the syntax itself guided us in order to understand the meaning.
• 3rd tip: Positive or Negative?
When my students ask me for unknown words while they practice on reading texts, I really don’t like answering these questions. In this way, they are never going to learn new vocabulary for one, and after all, I am not going to be there on the day of the exam. What’s more, they are not allowed to have a dictionary with them.
So, when they ask me “What does that word mean?” I like to answer with this little game of mine that I find really effective. I answer something like that: “Well, I don’t know. Do you think it is a word with a positive or a negative meaning?” Before you say “How am I supposed to know? I don’t know the word”, I assure you that there are ways you can tell if a word has a positive or a negative meaning without knowing the word per se. Sometimes, all you need to know in order to answer the questions is the positive or the negative meaning of a word.
As it was shown in previous examples, the context and the syntax give you hints for that: Due to context, we came to the conclusion that “deterioration” has a negative meaning. Another way that can help us very much is to pay close attention to the prefixes of the words. For example, certain prefixes such as the following, add negativity to the words:
Remember that there will always be words that you don’t know, but if you use these three tips, you should be able to figure out the meaning of most words if not all. In case you are more of an audiovisual person and you want to watch the video of “What if you don’t know a word?” here you go: