Guessing WrodsGuessing Meaning from Context

Often, especially when reading, the English language learner will be confronted with a new vocabulary word that may interfere with the comprehension of the passage that is being read. If the language learner is engaged in a conversation and the other speaker uses a new word, it is relatively easy to ask the speaker to define the word or use another word that the language learner knows. When reading however, the language learner may feel that a trip to the dictionary is needed to grasp the meaning of the passage in question. An important point for the reader to keep in mind is that the word itself may only be one word of many in a passage. The reader may want to ask the question, "Is this an important word?" In a relatively short passage consisting of approximately 1,000 words, a single word only represents 0.1 of 1%. The contribution of a single word may be a relatively unimportant.

If the word is significant to the passage's meaning, then the following steps (Clarke & Nation, 1980) could be taken. By taking these steps, the learner will be engaged in his or her own search for meaning. This strategy might ultimately be more rewarding and enduring than an initial trip to the dictionary and it will not have disrupted the act of reading. A transition will have begun from being taught to independent learning. This is also an efficient skill for learning low-frequency vocabulary from authentic texts.

The first step is to identify the part of speech of the new word. By examining the context of the phrase or clause within which the word is placed, clues to its identity can be found. Determiners, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions can all be used to establish the word's linguistic role. The word itself, as well as its surroundings, can give a broad impression of the word's place and how it relates to the sense of the passage. In what ways is it modified and by what?

The next step is to examine the role of the phrase, clause or sentence within which the new word rests. How does it relate to the paragraph or passage as a whole? What kinds of conjunctions or adverbials are used? But, and, however, although, etc. are all clues that can help to point in the direction of the word's meaning. Other signals such as rhetorical relationships (contrast, time or cause and effect), punctuation and references (this, that, those, etc.) may be found and put to use in the search for meaning.

One of the last approaches that the language learner can take is to see if the new word can be broken down into constituent parts that already hold meaning. The word, befouled for example, can be dissected and a general sense of becoming dirty will emerge. Prefixes, roots and suffixes all contribute to each word's meaning. Clarke and Nation feel that this technique should be reserved for last since the context in which the word resides actually holds more clues to its meaning than the word's components.

Finally, the learner can substitute a "guessed" word for the new word and see if the passage is in any way altered. If not, then the substitution can serve as an acceptable paraphrase and the reader can move on. Can the substitution be used for the same word in the future? Even with a slight modification? If so the meaning of the word will expand to relate not only to the word itself but to the various contexts within which it may be found. In this way the learner takes charge of the learning process. It becomes personal in effect, and a relationship between the reader and the language can begin to develop.

In the end of course, there is always the dictionary, which can now be used to verify a guessed meaning rather than furnish a definition.

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Last Updated: January 3, 2019