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Guessing meaning from context

Confronted with texts, language learners may be stuck by shortage of vocabulary inventory and thus be unable to understand what texts are about. The first thing that a learner does to understand a difficult word is to look it up using the nearest dictionary. There are however techniques learners may use to get the meaning of such vocabulary items. One of these techniques is guessing meaning from context.

No matter what level our students are in, they will often come across difficult words in texts they are exposed to. Inferring and guessing meanings of unfamiliar words is a strategy which is worth developing.

Guessing meaning from context

Guessing from context refers to the ability to infer the meaning of an expression using contextual clues. These clues may be purely linguistic or situational:

  • Linguistic context: the linguistic environment in which a word is used within a text
  • Situational context: extra linguistic elements that contribute to the construction of meaning this may involve background knowledge of the subject.

What this amounts to is that learners should be able to infer the meaning of an unknown word using:

  1. the meaning of vocabulary items that surrounds it;
  2. the way the word is formed;
  3. background knowledge of the subject and the situation.

Techniques for guessing

Texts are often full of redundancy and consequently students can use the relation between different items within a text to get the meaning. Our prior knowledge of the world may also contribute to understand what an expression means.

  • Synonyms and definitions:
    • Kingfishers are a group of small to medium-sized brightly colored birds
    • When he made insolent remarks towards his teacher they sent him to the principal for being disrespectful
  • Antonym and contrast
    • He loved her so much for being so kind to him. By contrast, he abhorred her mother
  • Cause and effect
    • He was disrespectful towards other members. That’s why he was sent off and penalized.
  • Parts of speech
    • Whether the word is a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, functioning as a subject, a predicate or a complement.
  • Examples
    • Trojan is an example of a computer virus
  • Word forms (the morphological properties of the word)
    • Getting information from affixes (prefixes and suffixes) to understand a word. Examples: dis- (meaning not), –less (meaning without)…
  • General knowledge
    • The French constitution establishes laïcité as a system of government where there is a strict separation of church and state.

These techniques help students get the meaning of words or at least narrow the possibilities. If need be using the dictionary should be the last resort to fine tune  the understanding of a vocabulary item

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3 Responses

  1. Shahid Hussain says:

    Dear SSir / Madam,
    Your tips are very helpful for the learners to infer the meanings words by guessing. We highly appreciate your endeavors. Thank you.
    Best regards,
    Shahid Hussain TGT
    Boys Higher Secondary School Askurdas Nager Gilgit Pakistan

  2. armando tandique says:

    Thanks Dear
    Your handout is quite helpful to guess a unknown words

  3. Asma AbdElslam says:

    it’s quite benefit and helpful.
    best regards
    Asma AbdElslam.Bisha University

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