5 ways to deal with unknown vocabulary


A wide range of active vocabulary is absolutely essential to get a good result in the PTE test, as it will help in all sections of the test.

However, one issue that is often overlooked is the need for passive vocabulary skills for the reading and listening. Often the answers are ‘hidden’ by using parallel expressions, synonyms and indirect constructions. That’s why it is essential to have not only a good vocabulary but a clear plan how to improve.

When you meet new vocabulary, don’t panic! Avoid jumping straight to your dictionary – here are five pointers that can help you.

1 Context. Read the passage below. What do you think the word in italics means?

In every country you visit, you will find a sport that captures the passions of the nation. New Zealand has its rugby supporters, England has its legions of football fans, the Japanese have taken baseball to their hearts and Scotland still proudly supports its curling heroes.

Click here to see the explanation
You know the subject of the paragraph is national sports. You can also see the pattern of country or nationality followed by sport. Therefore, it is logical that curling is a sport.

2 Contrast. Read the passage below. What do you think the word in italics means?

It should come as no surprise that younger people spend much of their leisure time on their feet, engaged in energetic activities, whereas older people opt for more sedentary pursuits like going to the theatre or watching television.

Click here to see the explanation
The first clause talks about young people, energetic activities and being ‘on their feet’. The word ‘whereas’ tells you that the second clause is a contrast, so sedentary must have the opposite meaning – not active or energetic, not ‘on their feet’.

3 Explanation. Read the passage below. What do you think the word in italics means?

There are many examples of the cooperation between people and dogs. Guide dogs, for example, give essential assistance to the blind, while beagles, small dogs with short legs, are often used by hunters.

Click here to see the explanation
It is always a good idea to look closely at the sentence before and after vocabulary that is unfamiliar, as you often find that the word has been explained. From the passage, you know that beagles are ‘small dogs with short legs’.

4 Word groups. Read the passage below. What do you think the word in italics means?

In my opinion, boxing is an abhorrent sport. Modern society should be opposed to such violent contact sports.

Click here to see the explanation
Look at the grammar. There is a subject (boxing), followed by the verb ‘to be’ (is), and the sentence ends with a noun (sport). So abhorrent must be an adjective of opinion and it follows from the second sentence that it has a negative meaning.

5 Logic. Read the passage below. What do you think the word in italics means?


Although technology has made mountain climbing both safer and easier, it is not a sport without risks. Bad weather can come quickly and last for long periods and the effects of severely cold weather can lead to hypothermia and, if untreated, death.

Click here to see the explanation
Think about it! Use your own knowledge and experience to work it out – what happens to people stuck in cold weather for long periods?

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