Dealing with unknown vocabulary in IELTS

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Dealing with unknown vocabulary in IELTS

Dealing with unknown vocabulary in IELTSA wide range of active vocabulary is absolutely essential to get a good result – you need to be informal and relaxed in Part One of the speaking test and in some General Training Task I writing questions, moving through semi formal and then to very formal for Task II writing.

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?


Now use the skills presented on this page. Read the sentences below – what do you think the words in italics mean?

A English football supporters are often accused of being hooligans, although the majority are actually well-behaved fans who have no intention of causing trouble.

B Although it can be a little expensive, thermal clothing is essential when skiing.

C Pilates, a form of exercise, is becoming increasingly popular.

D Children from impoverished families rarely have overseas holidays or modern toys.

E When climbing Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary experienced some of the world’s harshest natural dangers, such as freezing weather, sudden snowstorms, and even avalanches.

Click here to see the answers

A: Hooligans – not well behaved fans / do intend to cause trouble

B: Thermal – warm clothing

C: Pilates – a form of exercise

D: Impoverished – lack of money, poor (something that prevents overseas holidays or modern toys)

E: Avalanches – snow and ice sliding down a mountain

No matter what skills you apply, you may find a word or words that you still do not understand. If this happens, do not panic. Take a guess and move on. Do not spend too much time trying to work it out. It has been scientifically proven that the human brain is unable to process more than 20 new words at a time before it starts to forget some. The best thing to do is to write 10 new words with a definition and an example sentence in a pocket-sized notebook and have it with you at all times. Waiting for the bus, sitting in a café or just relaxing at home – these are all good opportunities to quickly take out the notebook and revise. When you are sure you are familiar with these words, write down 10 more and start again. Once a week, review all the vocabulary you have written in your notebook.


Ready to practice your skills? Try this exercise (with complete reading text) to see if you can work with unknown vocabulary.

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