How to guess meaning in IELTS Reading

IELTS Reading can be difficult for candidates who are struggling with unfamiliar vocabulary in the text. There are several techniques to overcome this problem. Try out the tasks below and see how you do.

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I do not take credit for the following exercise. This is from: Kenji Kitao. 1994. Developing Reading Strategies. Eichosha. pp. 93-97

Exercises for guessing meaning from context

I. A writer might give the meaning of a difficult word in the passage itself. The explanation might follow a comma or a dash after the difficult word. This is especially used for place names, technical terms, and other words that even native English speakers might not be familiar with. For example, in the sentence “New and knew are homophones—words that sound the same but have a different spelling,” “words that sound the same but have a different spelling” is the meaning of homophones. In the following sentences, find the words that mean the same as the underlined word.

  1. We visited Narvik, a town in the northern part of Norway.
  2. When she fell, she broke her ulna, a bone in her arm.
  3. When I was in Germany, I enjoyed Schweinebrauten, which is a type of roast pork.

II. Another way you can guess the meaning of a word is through the relationships of the words around it. For example, in the sentence, “After the heavy rain, the ground was saturated with water,” you should be able to guess that the word saturated means “completely wet,” because that’s what happens to the ground after a heavy rain.

  1. The company lures workers with high salaries and good working conditions.

A. organizes  B. fires  C. attracts  D. angers

  1. In the United States, the transition from one President to the next one is generally smooth.

A. payment  B. understanding  C. search  D. change

  1. The swimmer dived into the pool at one end and swam under water to the other end, where she emerged from the water.

A. came out  B. dried off  C. sank to the bottom  D. injured herself


III. The writer may refer to the same thing using a different word in another part of the sentence, or in a later sentence. In that case, if you know the meaning of the second word, that will help you understand the meaning of the word that you don’t know. “That vase looks very fragile. With young children in the house, I have to be careful with breakable things.” In these two sentences, breakable and fragile seem to mean something similar. Therefore, you can guess that something that is fragile must break easily.

  1. Gary is being paid more than $400,000 per annum. This yearly salary allows him to live very well.

A. in cash  B. for his services  C. during the summer  D. each year

  1. The company president’s veracity has been questioned, but we do not doubt his truthfulness.

A. honesty  B. ability  C. luck  D. finances

  1. Ms. Aaron showed a lot of strength after her daughter died. Everyone admired her fortitude.

A. sadness  B. courage  C. niceness  D. appearance


IV. A writer might also contrast the word that you do not know with a word or idea that you already know. In that case, since you can see the opposite of what the word means, you can guess what the word means. “That statue is in a precarious position. Please move it somewhere that it won’t fall.” Here, precarious is contrasted with “somewhere that it won’t fall.” Therefore, a precarious position is a position in which something is in danger of falling.

  1. Most Americans are monolingual, but I don’t think that’s good. Everyone should learn a second language.

A. speaking one language  B. very quiet  C. happy  D. traveling overseas

  1. At first, our problems seemed insurmountable. However, now I think we’ll be able to find solutions.

A. not able to be explained
B. not able to be solved
C. not able to be understood
D. not able to be discussed

  1. Though the artist has died, her art will be immortal.

A. forgotten  B. beautiful  C. eternal  D. damaged

  1. The writing style I used in my report was too colloquial, so my boss asked me to write it in a more formal manner.

A. casual  B. repeating too much  C. unusual  D. simple


V. Your knowledge of cause and effect is useful in helping you understand words that you do not know. “Your statement of purpose is ambiguous, so we don’t understand what you intend to do.” If the result is that the reader does not understand, the cause may be that the statement was unclear, so ambiguous means “unclear.”

  1. The journey across the mountains was perilous, and several people were killed.

A. long  B. unnecessary  C. beautiful  D. dangerous

  1. Dean forgot to turn off the water in the bathtub, and the bathroom was inundated with water.

A. flooded  B. baked  C. melted  D. boiled

  1. The insects are so microscopic that you can hardly see them.

A. ugly  B. dangerous  C. small  D. quiet

VI. A writer might give an illustration related to the word that might help you understand the word. For example, in the sentence, “Harry is so parsimonious that he won’t spend an extra penny if he doesn’t have to,” not spending an extra penny is an illustration of being parsimonious. You can see that parsimonious means “too careful with money.”

  1. After his long illness, Dave was so frail that he could hardly get out of bed.

A. fearful  B. weak  C. unhappy  D. thankful

  1. Glen belongs to a pacifist religious group, and he is not allowed to join the army.

A. with many members  B. with strict rules  C. opposed to war  D. well known

  1. Please replenish the supply of stationery. I want you to buy letter paper and large envelopes.

A. replace  B. use up C. write on  D. send

  1. I really enjoy the solitude of the mountains—being alone with nature.

A. closeness  B. height  C. beauty  D. privacy


VII. In some cases, the writer will mention the purpose or use of an object , and this tells you what the object is. For example, in the sentence “I used a cherry pitter to remove the seeds from the cherries,” the writer tells you that a cherry pitter is something used to remove seeds from cherries. In the following sentences, find the words that tell what the underlined object does.

  1. The pilot used the altimeter to see how high the plane was.
  2. With a whisk, I stirred the eggs.
  3. Use a spatula to turn over the pancakes.


Feel free to share and compare your answers with other IELTS students in the Reply box below.

Until next time!

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