IELTS Reading Test: Techniques for Inferring Meaning from Context 

 May 13, 2024

By  Jonathan

The IELTS Reading test inevitably includes vocabulary that may be unfamiliar to you. Dedicating yourself to mastering the techniques of inferring meaning from context is essential. This saves time, helps you maintain focus, and improves your overall comprehension of the passages in the reading section.

What Does “Inferring Meaning” Mean?

  • It’s About Clues: Using the surrounding words, sentence structure, and overall text topic to arrive at a likely definition of an unknown word.
  • Not Always a Perfect Definition: You’ll get the general idea, but for precise meanings (especially of technical terms) you may still need to guess intelligently.
  • A Skill to be Developed: The more you practice, the faster and more accurate you’ll become at using context clues effectively.

Types of Context Clues

The following hints may appear around an unfamiliar word to help you decipher its meaning:

  1. Direct Definitions or Examples:
    • “The region’s arid climate, characterized by minimal rainfall and extreme temperatures, creates challenges for agriculture.”
    • “The company implemented several altruistic initiatives, such as donations to local charities and employee volunteer programs.”
  2. Synonyms or Restatements:
    • “The controversial policy sparked vehement protests, with many citizens expressing their strong disapproval.”
  3. Antonyms or Contrasts:
    • “While the previous economic model was insular, focused solely on the domestic market, the new approach promotes international trade.”
  4. General Sense or Tone:
    • “The innovative device was widely praised for its ingenuity, with experts predicting it would revolutionize the industry.” (Here, even if you don’t know “ingenuity,” the positive surrounding words hint at its meaning.)

Techniques for Unlocking Meaning

  • Don’t Panic, Read On! Often the sentence following the unknown word provides the clues you need.
  • Part of Speech Matters: Is it likely a noun, verb, adjective? This helps you think of what kind of word would fit grammatically.
  • Break It Down: Does the word have a familiar prefix, root, or suffix? These often provide clues (“anti-” suggests opposition, “bio-” relates to life, etc.)
  • Plug and Play: If it’s a multiple-choice question, test out each answer option within the sentence. Which makes the most logical sense?
  • Focus on the Overall Message: What’s the author’s point in the paragraph? Does this help determine if the word likely has a positive, negative, or neutral connotation?

Practice Makes Perfect

  • Varied Reading: Articles on unfamiliar topics naturally build this skill, as you’re exposed to new vocabulary in context.
  • Guess and Check: Intentionally try to infer word meanings, then look them up to see how accurate you were. This tunes your ‘context clue radar’.
  • IELTS Practice Questions: Analyze how question phrasing and answer choices can aid in understanding a word even if you don’t know its exact definition.

Why This Matters for the IELTS

  • Speed and Efficiency: Trying to look up every unknown word disrupts your flow. Context clues keep you progressing.
  • Guessing Strategically: Often, especially with ‘True/False/Not Given,’ an answer hinges on a single word’s meaning. Context helps you make educated guesses.
  • Confidence Builder: Not getting stuck on vocabulary maintains your focus on the overall ideas of the passages, reducing test anxiety.

Beyond the Test

Inferring meaning from context is a lifelong skill valuable in:

  • Academic Studies: Complex textbooks in any subject will inevitably contain some unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Understanding Nuances: Even with familiar words, context helps you grasp the author’s specific intent, improving your comprehension.
  • Conversations: Whether non-native speakers or simply someone using a word in a new way, context aids understanding.

Important Reminders

  • Context is Not Perfect: Especially for technical terms, it may give the general idea, but not a precise enough definition for answering certain questions.
  • Balance is Key: Use context clues, but if truly stuck and time allows, a quick dictionary check can clear up ambiguity.
  • It’s a Transferable Skill: Dedicating yourself to understanding vocabulary through context during your IELTS prep strengthens your overall English comprehension and communication abilities.

Jonathan has been teaching students to prepare for the IELTS and PTE Exams for more than 10+ years. He's taught English to students in various countries in the world including Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and Colombia.