How to Deal with Unknown Words on IELTS

If you are going to take an IELTS test, you will probably come across some unknown words during the test, especially in listening and reading section. Actually, you do not need to understand every single word because some words are not important for answering the questions. If the word is unnecessary information, just skip it and keep reading or listening. If you have to understand the word to answer the questions, here are some tips for you about guessing the meaning of unknown words on IELTS!

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Using Context

The most common way to guess the meaning of a word is to use the context. That is to say, you can use the other words in the same sentence or other sentences in the same paragraph to guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

In the IELTS, the unknown words are usually academic terms. In most cases, you can find the explanation of the terms in the text. Let’s look at the following examples from the IELTS practice tests.

Example text 1: Discovered in the early 1800s and named ‘nicotianine,’ the oily essence now called nicotine is the main active ingredient of tobacco.

To many students, nicotianine is a word that they don’t know. However, it is easy to get the meaning of this word from “the main active ingredient of tobacco” in this sentence.


Example text 2: When it comes to humans, chronobiologists are interested in what is known as the circadian rhythm. This is the complete cycle our bodies are naturally geared to undergo within the passage of a twenty-four hour day. Aside from sleeping at night and waking during the day, each cycle involves many other factors, such as changes in blood pressure and body temperature.

You can guess the meaning of circadian rhythm according to the second sentence in this paragraph. If it is hard for you to understand the second sentence,sleeping at night and waking during the day” in the next sentence also tells you about what circadian rhythm is: a daily activity cycle of living things.

Using Prior Knowledge

Sometimes, you can guess the meaning of a word based on your life experience and knowledge. Here is an example.

Example text 1: The development of wind power at this time suffered not only from badly-designed equipment, but also from poor long-term planning, economic projections that were too optimistic, and the difficulty of finding suitable locations for the wind turbines.

Some students don’t know what wind turbine is in this text. From common knowledge, we know that wind power is generated from a huge machine which needs a suitable physical location. Therefore, the wind turbine is probably the name of that machine.

Using Word Root, Prefix or Suffix

This is another useful way to guess word meaning. Here is an example.

Example text: Paper is also biodegradable, so it does not pose as much threat to the environment when it is discarded.

Suppose the word you want to guess is biodegradable. We can break down this word into bio-de-grad-able. The prefix Bio relates to life and nature. Grad comes from the word grade and degrade means to break down something complex into simple pieces. The suffix able indicates that the word is an adjective. Therefore, a good guess for this word would be capable of being naturally broken down into small parts.



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  • Kuangyan

    Kuangyan creates IELTS blogs at Magoosh. She is passionate about language education and has a MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from New York University. Kuangyan has experience of teaching English both in China and in US. In her free time, she drinks mocha, does yoga, takes photos and travels to different places to explore the exciting world.

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