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English: skills for learning
English: skills for learning

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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.

An advert that shows two hands loading a gun with cigarettes.
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

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Read the scenario below. What strategies could you use to help the student? Make some notes in the box below before looking at the answer.


A fellow student is struggling to fully understand the following extract because it contains some words that are new to him. How might you help him use both his general knowledge about language and the context to understand the meaning of the words in bold?


When people suffer from under-nutrition, they are often deficient in vitamins and minerals needed by the body. For example, they may not have enough Vitamin A. They will become lethargic, less active and be unable to concentrate. If the situation continues, they may develop life-threatening diseases. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2012) reports that 100 million children under the age of five are underweight and 35% of all deaths of children under five are caused by malnutrition. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, arthritis, high blood pressure and some types of cancer.

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To understand this word you could use two strategies: context and knowledge of other languages. The word deficient becomes clear if you read the text around it. In other words, read the context in which deficient is used – in this case the example that follows. An example of a person who is deficient in vitamins is a person who doesn’t have Vitamin A. So deficient means ‘doesn’t have’ or ‘lacks’.

You could also draw on any knowledge you have of other languages. Deficient has very similar French, Spanish or Italian equivalents, so speaking these languages may help.


Lethargic is included in a list of other words so context again would be a useful strategy. Even if you don’t understand its meaning, from the context you will probably understand that lethargic describes one of the effects of malnutrition. This may be sufficient unless you want to read the text in more depth.


Two strategies could be used to understand this word: context and separating the word into its two parts. The sentence that follows the one in which life-threatening is used provides more information as it explains that these children die. This means that life-threatening diseases are diseases that can cause loss of life.

You may also consider using your knowledge of other English words. Life-threatening is two words that can be understood separately – life and threatening.


The strategy here is to recognise that underweight is made up of two words: under and weight. If you understand them separately, you may be able to understand that this word means less than the normal weight. Words such as under, over, mid- (as in midday), sub- (as in submarine) and un- (as in unfriendly) are called affixes and are often added to other words to change their meaning.


Again, context would be a useful strategy. From the context in which this word is used, it is possible to understand that this is a disease as it is part of a list of diseases from which obese people may suffer. Depending on the purpose for reading this text, you may decide that it is not essential to understand the word in order to gain a full understanding of this text.

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.