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Explore the slideshow below to learn how to identify the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases using context clues given by the author.  You will also learn how to use synonyms and antonyms as well as common prefixes and suffixes to aid in determining the meaning of vocabulary. Finally, you will learn how to demonstrate your understanding of newly acquired vocabulary.

Bolded terms can be found in the glossary.

Speaker plays audio

Understanding Vocabulary in a Text

student reading from a laptop computer

The following steps and strategies will help you to uncover the meaning of unknown words and phrases.

two people reading from a computer, as one person points to the screen

Begin by reading the text and thinking about the overall meaning. Ask yourself:

  • What does the author want me to understand?
  • What is the central idea?
  • What is the topic and main point(s) that the author is explaining?
person using a highlighter marker to highlight words in a book

Identify the words within the text that are unfamiliar to you.

  • Decide if the meaning of the unfamiliar word is important to your overall understanding of the text.
student reading from a book in a library

Once you have identified the unfamiliar words whose meaning would help you understand the text better, begin studying each unfamiliar word to look for clues. Good readers use the strategies on the following slides to help them uncover the meaning of challenging vocabulary.

student reading from a book and writing information

First put the sentence(s) containing the unfamiliar word into your own words. This step will help you understand the content surrounding the unfamiliar word.

student reading from a book in a classroom

Look for context clues that surround the unfamiliar word. These are words that come before or after the challenging word and help you make meaning of the unknown word.

student reading and writing at a desk

Examine the text for synonyms or antonyms for the unknown words. These words can also help you understand unfamiliar vocabulary.

student reading and thinking about the text

Finally, analyze any prefixes or suffixes that are part of the unknown word and think about their meaning. If you are unfamiliar with the prefix or suffix, think about other words with that prefix/ suffix and what those words mean.

two students in a classroom reading and writing

Once you think you have figured out the meaning of the unfamiliar word, place that meaning back into the sentence to check that you are correct. The word with your assigned meaning should make sense once replaced in the sentence and within the context of the text.

Now confirm the meaning of the unfamiliar word by using a dictionary or thesaurus.

tthree students discussing a text

Begin using the new word(s) in your speaking and writing. As you practice using unfamiliar words, they will become familiar to you and will be incorporated into your working vocabulary.