English: skills for learning
English: skills for learning

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English: skills for learning

3.5 Making sense of texts containing difficult words

An academic text may contain many words you don’t know, but it may still be possible to understand its content by following a range of strategies. You may already be familiar with these strategies as it is quite common, when coming across new words in everyday life, to try to work out their meaning from the context in which they are used. This context may include, for example, the pictures and other words that surround the text.

The advert shown in Figure 5, for example, contains terms I don’t fully understand, such as emphysema, but the other words in the list, the picture and my general knowledge about smoking help me understand that it must be a deadly disease. This contributes to my overall understanding of the message conveyed by the advert.

Described image
Figure 5 Anti-smoking advert

Rather than looking up every word in the dictionary, experienced readers make sense of new words by drawing on the following strategies:

  • their background knowledge about the topic
  • the context in which a word is used: the words, sentences and examples that follow it
  • their understanding about the way in which words are constructed in English
  • their knowledge of other languages. Many academic words will be familiar if you have some knowledge of French or another language derived from Latin.

You will practise these strategies in the following activity.

Activity 11

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The ability to use these strategies comes with practice. You may want to read regularly and use a paper or an online dictionary to look up only essential and key terms. If English is not your first language, it is also useful to read online news and good quality English language newspapers regularly. For example, you could try reading the news from one of the following websites:

In this section you have looked at an active reading method consisting of five steps. If your purpose for reading is to identify useful information that can be used in an essay or revised before an exam, you will also need to make notes. Note-making techniques are explained in the next section.


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