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1.10: Dealing with Unfamiliar Vocabulary

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    What to do when you find unfamiliar words

    When you are reading, you will often find words you do not know. You may want to look all of those words up in a dictionary. However, that will slow down your reading a lot and it often does not even make it easier to understand the text or remember the words. Instead, underline the new words and keep reading if you can. You can check all of the underlined words at the end and decide if you want to look them up and study them.

    However, if you come across the same word several times, or if the word is keeping you from understanding the whole text, you can try a vocabulary strategy. We will look practice three vocabulary strategies:

    1. Using context clues
    2. Understanding words through their structure (roots, prefixes, suffixes)
    3. Using a dictionary and other reference tools

    Context clues

    Context clues are all of the words around a word that will help you to figure out the meaning of that word. Three types of context clues are:

    • Brief definition or restatement
    • Synonyms and antonyms
    • Examples

    Brief definition or restatement

    Sometimes a text directly states the definition or a restatement of the unknown word. The brief definition or restatement is signaled by a word or a punctuation mark. Consider the following example:

    • What does deportation mean?
      • Deportation, or the removal from a country, can occur when immigrants lack legal papers.
    • What does apprehension mean?
      • The majority of apprehensions or arrests of undocumented immigrants take place on the border.

    Synonyms and antonyms

    A synonym is a word with the same meaning. An antonym is a word with the opposite meaning (look for the word but).

    • What does reside mean?
      • While more immigrants reside in the United States with legal papers (73% of immigrants), about 10.5 million live in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants.
    • What does reform mean?
      • Most U.S. citizens see a need for immigration reform, but a small percentage of people want current immigration policies to remain the same.


    Sometimes you can guess the meaning of a word by looking at the examples that are given. What do these examples all show?

    • What does barrier mean?
      • Families who choose to travel to the United States face many barriers, including a difficult trip across the border, few resources, and the possibility of deportation,
    • What does activist mean?
      • DACA was made possible by activists such as Jose Antonio Vargas and organizations who advocated for social and political change.

    Understanding words through the word structure

    The English language contains an enormous and ever-growing number of words. Enhancing your vocabulary by learning new words can seem overwhelming, but if you know the common prefixes and suffixes of English, you will understand many more words.


    A prefix is a word part added to the beginning of a word to create a new meaning. Study the common prefixes in Table 1.9.1:

    Table 1.9.1 Common prefixes, their meaning, and an example word
    Prefix Meaning Example


    not, opposite of

    dis + satisfied = dissatisfied



    mis + spell = misspell



    un + acceptable = unacceptable



    re + election = reelection



    inter + related = interrelated



    pre + pay = prepay



    non + sense = nonsense



    super + script = superscript



    sub + merge = submerge


    against, opposing

    anti + bacterial = antibacterial


    A suffix is a word part added to the end of a word to create a new meaning. They also indicate the part of speech, for example, is the word a noun, adjective, verb, or adverb?

    Suffixes that create verbs

    Many suffixes used in academic English create verbs. See Table 1.9.2 for the most common verb suffixes. If you add a verb suffix to a noun or adjective, it becomes a verb. For example, if you add the suffix -en to the adjective short, you get the verb shorten, to become short.

    Table 1.9.2 Common suffixes that create verbs, with examples
    suffix meaning examples
    -en become shorten, awaken
    -ify make or become simplify, classify, justify
    -ise/ize become symbolize, visualize

    Suffixes that create nouns

    The following suffixes create nouns. See Table 1.9.3 for the most common noun suffixes. For instance, if you take the verb demonstrate and add the noun suffix -tion, you get the noun demonstration.

    Table 1.9.3 Common suffixes that create nouns, with examples
    suffix meaning examples
    -al action or process of denial, refusal
    -ant/ -ent performer of an action assistant, consultant
    -cy state or quality efficiency, fluency
    -ence/ -ance state or quality of preference, dependence
    -er person who does an action teacher, helper
    -ity quality of ability, similarity
    -ment condition punishment, development
    -ness state of being darkness, preparedness
    -ship position held citizenship, leadership
    -tion/ -sion condition or state of education, information

    Suffixes that create adjectives

    These suffixes create adjectives. See Table 1.9.4 for a list of the most common adjective suffixes. As an example, adding the adjective suffix -ful to the noun peace gives you an adjective, peaceful.

    Table 1.9.4 Common suffixes that create adjectives, with examples
    suffix meaning example
    -able capable of being fixable, avoidable
    -al having the character of national, professional
    -ent tending towards excellent, different
    -ful notable for beautiful, peaceful
    -ive having the nature of attractive, effective
    -less without careless, helpless
    -ous characterized by dangerous, famous

    Suffixes that create adverbs

    A few suffixes create adverbs. See Table 1.9.5 for the most common adverb suffixes. For instance, adding the adverb suffix -ly to the adjective happy gives you happily, an adverb. Or adding -ward to the noun west gives you the adverb westward, in the direction of the west.

    Table 1.9.5 Common suffixes that create adverbs, with examples
    suffix meaning examples
    ly/ -ily related to softly, carefully
    -ward/ -wards direction towards, afterwards, backwards
    -wise in relation to otherwise, likewise, clockwise,

    Let's try it

    Now let's use these tools to figure out the meaning of some vocabulary.

    Try This

    Read the following passage from The Conversation’s “ 4 Reasons Why Migrant Children Arriving Alone to the US Create a ‘Border Crisis’” by Ediberto Román.

    • Do any words have a brief definition or restatement, a synonym or antonym, or an example that shows the meaning?
    • Which prefixes and suffixes can you recognize? What do these prefixes and suffixes mean?

    "Undocumented immigrants – and particularly children – are not the constituents of any Washington politician. They have no voice within the U.S. democratic system. While journalists can and do report on immigration problems, and public interest law firms can and do represent these children in immigration proceedings, unaccompanied minors are simply not part of any politician’s voting bloc or reelection strategy."

    Using reference tools

    Referencing a dictionary or thesaurus can be helpful, too. For more on using a dictionary or thesaurus, visit the Language Toolkit for Chapter 6.


    If a vocabulary word seems critical to understanding a reading passage, and you cannot figure out the meaning from the context or the word structure, you may have to look it up in a dictionary.


    Another reference you can use is a thesaurus. It can help you find words with the same or similar meanings. However, the words cannot just replace each other. Be sure to look at the example sentences to see how the words are used.

    Work Cited

    Román, Ediberto. 4 Reasons Why Migrant Children Arriving Alone to the US Create a ‘Border Crisis’.” The Conversation, 31 March 2021.

    Licenses and Attribution

    CC Licensed Content: Original

    Authored by Marit ter Mate-Martinsen, Santa Barbara City College. License: CC BY NC.

    CC Licensed Content: Previously Published

    Prefix Chart is from Rebecca Weaver et al, Writing for Success: Prefixes. License: CC BY.

    Suffix charts are adapted from Yuba College Writing and Language Development Center's Suffixes for English Language Learners. License: CC BY NC.

    This page titled 1.10: Dealing with Unfamiliar Vocabulary is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gabriel Winer & Elizabeth Wadell (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .

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