Top Tips for IELTS

Dealing with unknown words in IELTS reading

This lesson looks at a key reading skill in IELTS – the ability to deal with unknown words. It’s a vital skill because you are almost certain to find unknown or unfamiliar vocabulary in any IELTS text. The skill is not necessarily to “know” the words, but to understand enough about them so that you can read and understand the whole text. Here I suggest several different ways you can do this.

unknown words in IELTS reading


Do you need to understand the word at all?

The first point to understand is that you do not need to understand every word in a reading passage in order to get the answer. Indeed, a major reading skill is the ability to read through words and understand what the general meaning of a sentence or paragraph is without knowing what every word means.

Key advice

Do not spend minutes reading and re-reading a sentence just because you don’t understand one word.

Each question is only worth 1 point. Make a guess and move on.

There are questions that are difficult for native speakers too. Don’t get stuck.


Does it start with a capital letter or is it in italics?

If the word starts with a capital letter, it is in all probability a proper name. In this case, you should waste no time in trying to understand what the word means. Likewise, if the word is in italics,it is also almost certainly a scientific/technical term that you do not need to understand.

The tulip was introduced to Europe in the mid-16th century from the Ottoman Empire, and became very popular in the United Provinces which are now the Netherlands. Tulip cultivation in the United Provinces is generally thought to have started in earnest around 1593 after the Flemish botanist Charles de l’Écluse had taken up a post at theUniversity of Leiden and established the hortus academicus.

This is a phrase that you should learn to ignore because it is in italics and is therefore a technical term.

Is the word explained in the text?

Sometimes, you will find that the meaning of an unfamiliar word is given to you in the text. In this case, what you need to do is keep on reading the sentence and not stop the moment you find an unfamiliar word. Typically, the way this words is that you have a phrase in commas immediately after the unfamiliar word:

This lobotomy, an extremely dangerous medical procedure, ultimately cost him his life.

Here you should understand that “lobotomy” is a medical procedure.

Can you deduce the meaning from other words?

This is an excellent skill to learn. What you do here is look at other words which relate to that word and work out what it must mean. These words may be either synonyms (words with a similar meaning) or opposites.

The fossils were originally dug up in Kazakhstan by a group of German archaeologists who were looking for evidence of prehistoric culture. Some time later the bone fragments  were taken to Belgium to be exhibited in a museum specialising in natural history.

Here you can work out the meaning of “fossils” by close synonym “bone fragments”. All you need to do is read the next sentence and think of meaning.

Can you guess the meaning from the general context?

This is a more advanced skill. This time you think about the general meaning of the sentence and make a guess at the probable meaning of that word. While you are only guessing, it is a skill that does improve with practice: the more you guess meanings, the more correct you are.

Skin cancer is a common disease. According to Cancer Research UK, around 100,000 cases of non-melanoma were diagnosed in the UK in 2008, and just under 12,000 cases of the more dangerous malignant melanoma were also registered of which 25% proved fatal.

Non-melanoma is a highly technical term. However, if you read the short paragraph above, it should be obvious that it must be some form of medical term and probably relates in some way to “skin cancer” . Likewise, you can guess that “malignant”is in some way related to “dangerous” and “proved fatal” gives you more evidence of its meaning.

Can you recognise a part of the word?

This is another advanced skill. What you do here is recognise parts of words and relate them to other words you do know. Again, this will mean you are “guessing” and sometimes you may make mistakes, but you should be correct more often than not.

The archaeologists unearthed the bones in Kazakhstan, while looking for evidence of prehistoric civilisations.

“Unearthed” may be a new word to you, but you can guess here that it has some connection with “earth” and from the context you should see that it means to take out of the ground.

Do you know what type of word it is?

This is the weakest skill in that it gives you the least amount of information about the word. However, it can sometimes help to know whether you are looking at a verb, noun, adverb or adjective.

In five years time the skills for conducting fundamental science in the UK will not be here, because everyone will be chasing money to work on the widget the EPSRC thinks will solve societal problems.

In this text, we have an unusual word “widget”. You can tell the word must be a noun as it follows “the” and this helps you understand that it must be a thing of some sort. In fact, all “widget” means is “thing”.

Practice suggestion – read extensively

Reading extensively means reading for quantity. In practice, this also means

  • reading without a dictionary
  • reading for general meaning
If you do this, you will find yourself reading through unfamiliar words and making intelligent guesses about what they might mean. If you are uncertain about this, I can confidently tell you well over 50% of the words you know you will have learned in this way – passively reading or listening.

Some helpful links

It makes sense to practise reading some semi-technical articles for the general reader as these are exactly the kind of texts you find in IELTS. Here are some suggestions for places to look:

Other lessons that may help you

One problem unknown words can cause is that they make you read too slowly. If you have that problem I suggest you check out this lesson

Time management in IELTS reading

One solution suggested in this lesson is that at some stage you make a guess and move on. This is a vital skill in IELTS reading that I talk more about here

How to guesses answers in IELTS reading

As I mention in this lesson it helps to read lots and also read in a focused way. In this lesson I show you different practice activities that can help you improve your reading skills and not get bothered by hard words:

15 ways to improve your reading skills



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11 Responses to Dealing with unknown words in IELTS reading

  1. alice January 31, 2013 at 4:18 am #

    Nice post about IELTS it is very helpful for students

  2. VINOD September 1, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    I am really feeling benefitted by going through the IELTS reading tips given on this website.

    Thank you very much for helping the novices. You must carry on such societal help deeds.

    Vinod Sharma

  3. Gary November 25, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    Thanks you for the information on IELTS. I will show it to our students at IELA – Liverpool

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  5. bikram February 27, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    hi Dominic,your ideas of presenting information is very clear and concise.Marvellous job.god bless

  6. Thanh June 16, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    Thank you

  7. devkota prajwol October 29, 2014 at 2:47 am #

    Those were much more helpful for skill development. I appreciate with you social terms helping us. Thank a lot sir

  8. Anonymous October 3, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

    Thnx so mch for the great work. Lots of blessings.

  9. WU BEIHU March 9, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    SIR, should the word “passively” be “massively” in the following para (penultimate para of this essay) “If you do this, you will find yourself reading through unfamiliar words and making intelligent guesses about what they might mean. If you are uncertain about this, I can confidently tell you well over 50% of the words you know you will have learned in this way – passively reading or listening.”

    • Dominic Cole October 21, 2016 at 7:04 am #

      Passively of course. Ty for the correction.


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