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Academic reading: Unfamiliar words

How do you deal with unfamiliar words?

When English is not your native language, you will notice some unfamiliar words in the texts you read. The theories about reading say that you need to understand 95 percent of all words in order to understand the text. Many studies have shown that dictionary use when reading a text in your second language improves reading comprehension. However, looking up too many words will lead to short-term retention.

Before you start looking up words, it’s good to think about which words are important enough to know the meaning of. It is therefore important to know which words you can best lookup and which words you do not necessarily have to look up to understand your text.

Places in the text where you will find important words:

  • Words in headlines
  • Words in the first sentence of the text
  • Words you see more often in the text
In this paragraph, you will find more information about how to deal with unfamiliar words (by inferring words and using a dictionary) in texts.

Inferring words from context

A key strategy of inferring the meaning of words is to break the words into smaller parts. You look at which part of the word you possibly recognize and based on that information you make inferences. If you become familiar with word parts, it will get easier to understand the meaning of words, your vocabulary will expand, and it will take you less time to infer the meaning of words the more you use this strategy. Have a look at the examples below.

Using a dictionary

If you've tried to figure out the meaning of words from the previous step, but haven't succeeded, you can use a dictionary. Looking up words can help you to understand the text better, but looking up too many words will lead to shallow processing. Looking up many words, will not automatically lead to increased comprehension. And equally important: looking up many words will take more time.

Looking up words in an online dictionary will obviously save time, but you will run the risk of looking up too many words when you have access to an online dictionary than to a paper dictionary. And as you have read before, looking up too many words does not lead to better processing of the text. So make sure you are critical of what words you are going to look up.

Tip: If you look up a word in a paper dictionary, add a dot or other symbol in pencil before this word. In this way, you will notice when you look up the same word a second time. This could be a clue for you to record this word in a vocabulary notebook or other system you have for learning new English words.