IELTS Reading: how to deal with unknown and difficult vocabulary/words, with best tips and techniques

IELTS Reading: how to deal with unknown and difficult vocabulary/words, with best tips and techniques

This IELTS Reading post focuses on problems which candidates face while dealing with unknown and difficult words in IELTS Reading exam and how to overcome these problems. As IELTS Reading is the toughest for many candidates, the ultimate purpose of this post is to make them confident and brave in building up vocabulary so that they find IELTS Reading exam less problematic. Hopefully, candidates will try to use these best tips and techniques and get more advanced in IELTS Reading.

IELTS Reading: how to deal with unknown and difficult vocabulary/words, with best tips and techniques

It is very common that the IELTS exam will cover vocabulary that you are not familiar with and this may create panic. But panicking is never a solution here. What we need to understand here is that the IELTS Reading exam may contain lots of unknown words and many of the known words may be difficult. We also need to remember here that many of these words will be of no use to us in finding the questions. Our main goal in this exam is to find out the answers in IELTS Reading exam, not to think too much about the issue of unknown and difficult vocabulary.

Problems created by unknown and difficult vocabulary:

  1. Candidates cannot get the exact meanings of the unknown and difficult words.
  2. This creates immense pressure on them and they start to panic in the exam.
  3. They fail to cope up with the limited time of 60 minutes in the IELTS Reading exam.
  4. They miss the meanings of some easy and known words eventually.
  5. They try to guess meanings of some words which may not be correct.
  6. They also try to guess the spelling of those words according to their pronunciation, which might not be correct in many cases.
  7. They fail to answer all the questions due to the issues of not understanding the words and the short time.
  8. The result or score they achieve in the exam remains very poor.

What do candidates need to realize?

  1. You may not know the words, but it might be a very familiar one and it sounds easy to you because you remember using them before.
  2. You may not know the words, but you can surely work out the meanings from the context where they have been used.
  3. You may not know the words and you cannot work out the meanings from the context, but it does not affect your overall understanding of the text.
  4. You may not know the words; you cannot work out the meanings from the context and as a result, you do not understand the text well, but you could surely avoid the words which might help you understand the meanings better.

How to deal with unknown and difficult words easily: the golden rules

There are few tips and techniques for you below which you can surely try to use in order to solve this problem. For this, you need to practice them well and be patient. Do not think that you will have a rapid progress. But if you work hard and with meticulousness, you are sure to learn these techniques.

  1. Break it down:

When dealing with words you are unfamiliar with, you can often work out their meanings from the context in which they appear and by breaking them up into component parts. Here is an example:

Hydrophobia is spreading rapidly in some countries because of the increasing population of dogs.

Suppose, you do not know the word ‘hydrophobia’. Now, what should you do?

Try to think about the context of the word in the text. Surely it means some kind of disease because there is a word ‘spreading’. The context also gives you another clue – ‘increasing population of dogs’. So, the word is somehow related to dogs and it is a disease which is spreading rapidly.

Now, try to break down the word. You will find two individual word-parts, ‘hydro’ and ‘phobia’.

Do they ring any bell? Do you remember the word ‘hydroelectricity’ or ‘hydrogen’?

The word ‘hydro’ means ‘related to water’.

What about ‘phobia’? There are some common words like ‘computerphobia’, ‘claustrobphobia’, ‘technophobia’, etc.

The word ‘phobia’ means ‘fear’.

So, the word ‘hydrophobia’ means ‘fear of water’. In medical terms it is known as ‘rabies’, a fatal viral disease caused by the bite of dogs, cats, raccoons etc.

Thus, you can try to guess some words from your known vocabulary sources.

  1. Know the parts of speech and use in the context:

In many cases learning the parts of speech and having a good idea about the functions of the parts of speech and learning the use of them in the context can come handy.

Generally, you need to learn about four kinds of parts of speech and their usage. They are:

Noun: name of something or someone

Adjective: the characteristics, qualities, quantities, conditions, situations, features of nouns and pronouns

Verb: the action done by nouns and pronouns

Adverb: how the action is done

If an IELTS candidate can easily identify these parts of speech, it becomes easier to guess the meaning as well even though he/she does not know the meaning.

Let’s take a look at an example text and some questions here:

Bats have a problem: how to find their way around in the dark. They hunt at night, and cannot use light to help them find prey and avoid obstacles. You might say that this is a problem of their own making, one that they could avoid simply by changing their habits and hunting by day. (extracted from Cambridge IELTS Series 7 Test 1)

What is bats’ limitation that works against their hunting and avoiding obstacles? (Use no more than 3 words)

Here, the word ‘limitation’ can be difficult for many. Can you see a small word inside this word? ‘limit’!

Limit means a certain boundary which cannot be crossed. So, ‘limitation’ is a noun which means the situation of not being to something. So, to find the answer, you need to focus on any information which indicates that the bats are not able to do.

You can see in the first line of the text — “They hunt at night, and cannot use light”.

So, you can write the answer as “cannot use light”.

Thus, you can find the answers using your knowledge of parts of speech.

  1. Learn synonyms and antonyms:

There is no better alternative than learning as many synonyms and antonyms as you can. You need to remember that the words used in questions in IELTS Reading are sure to differ with the words in the passages, and this puts a big challenge in finding the exact answer.

Look at this following example:

Several species of wildlife in the British countryside are declining. (Question type: True/False/Not given, extracted from Cambridge IELTS Series 7, Test 2, Reading passage 2, question no. 18)

In this question, the keyword is ‘declining’ which means decreasing, reducing, diminishing, or shrinking etc.

So, to decide whether the statement is True, False or Not given, you have to find information on the decrease of wildlife such as animals, birds or insects in the British countryside. The answer, if you take a look at the book, is TRUE because, in paragraph 2 of Reading Passage 2, there is information about the reduction of wild birds in the British countryside. If the information was about the increase of wildlife, the answer would be FALSE. It is because increase is an antonym for declining.

  1. Practise topic-based vocabulary from authentic IELTS books:

If you want to develop your vocabulary with a view to achieving a good score in IELTS Reading, one of the best options is to study topic-based vocabulary from authentic IELTS books. You can follow all the books from Cambridge IELTS series, Macmillan IELTS series, Collins IELTS series, and so on. If you study from these sources, you will have the chance to get more accustomed to IELTS topics and vocabularies. Here, you will surely find some important tips and techniques which you can use to deal with unknown and difficult words.

  1. Watch movies or videos with English subtitles:

This is a really fast way to improve confidence in unknown and difficult words. Many of my students got used to with unknown words and guessed the meanings correctly just by watching movies and videos with subtitles. They reported that this technique helped them to guess meanings of many unknown words and later on they found out that mostly their guesses were right.

Hopefully, you can deal with unknown and difficult words in IELTS Reading exam by following these golden tips and techniques.

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11 months ago

Hello sir . Recently I give my IELTS result and got only 5.5 band. How can I improve my speaking without anyone help. Is it possible to improve speaking at home. And how?

29 days ago

Nice tips.
Well done admin


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This Academic IELTS Reading post focuses on solutions to IELTS Cambridge 15 Reading Test 2 Reading Passage 2 entitled ‘Should we try to bring extinct species back to life?’. This is a targeted post for IELTS candidates who have big problems finding out and understanding Reading Answers in the AC module. This post can guide you […]

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