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  Weekly Feature (December 24, 2006)

Understanding English Words



Many of the second language learners at our Learning Centre resort quickly to a translator, or to a two language dictionary, when encountering a new English word while reading.  This is particularly common in our English language skills classes which include reading, literature, grammar, and writing.  To better learn a new language, however, requires that one uses a translator or a two language dictionary only as a last resort.

While reading, all of us do, at some point, come across an unfamiliar English word.  The ideal objective is, of course, not only to learn the literal meaning of this new word, but also to use the occasion to enrich our English vocabulary and enhance our language skills.  To help you achieve this overall goal, follow the following algorithm composed of four sequential steps when meeting either a new word, or a word you’re not certain about.  You may not need to complete all four steps.  Exit the algorithm once you’re satisfied with your understanding of the word.

Step 1:

Do not stop your reading to look up the word just yet. Reread the current sentence, or the previous sentence (s), or read a little further and you may find some words in the context to help you understand the word you do not know. You are trying to guess the word’s meaning through context clues that may be other individual words, or groups of words, that surround the unknown word.

Step 2:

If the word’s meaning is still unclear, then examine the word closely.  Begin by simply asking yourself if the word looks, or perhaps sounds, like another word that you know and which may help to figure out the meaning.  If not, then proceed to focus on the structure of the new word.  Look for parts of the word that you may recognize – prefix, root, suffix – parts that you may be familiar with to help you understand and unlock the meaning of the word.

Step 3:

With the word’s meaning yet unresolved, now consult an English-English dictionary.  Don’t feel that you need to rush through this third step, just because it may be time consuming.  A great deal is gained in language skills when using an English-English dictionary.  A typical English-English dictionary provides important attributes about the word being searched.  Such attributes include the word’s definition, the phonetic transcription to guide in pronouncing the word, the parts of speech in which the word can be used, and examples of phrases and sentences with the word.  Therefore, when looking up a word in an English-English dictionary, the reader is exposed not only to the word’s definition, but also to other English words, grammar, sentences, and spelling. 

Step 4:

Just in case you are still not sure about the word’s meaning, or should you simply want a confirmation of your understanding, then you may now use a translator or a two language dictionary.

So, the next time you encounter an unfamiliar English word while reading, remember that it is more than just an occasion to add only one word to your English vocabulary.  Rather, it is an opportunity to enrich your English by enhancing your language skills, by making you a better language learner, and by fostering your language independence.  Instead of starting with your translator or a two language dictionary, follow the above four-step strategy to decipher English words.  In the meantime, keep reading a variety of English materials to expose yourself to many new words.



For reference and further detail, check these sites:

Throw Away that Translator

Considerations of Choosing an English-English Dictionary

How to Buy a Good English Dictionary

Guessing Word Meaning By Using Context Clues

Tips for Improving Vocabulary


Try your vocabulary and reading related skills with these quizzes:

1. From the Pearson Adult Learning Centre:

      a. Reading Comprehension Quiz (not timed)

      b. Reading Comprehension Quiz (timed)

      c. Reading Comprehension Quiz (timed) 


2. English Works

    (Choose any of the “Reading and Questions” or “Vocabulary”)



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