Understanding Vocabulary Words in Context

You Don't Have to Memorize Terms to Understand Their Meaning

Woman reading a book in a hammock

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Reading comprehension is one of the most difficult skills to master yet also one of the most prominent. In fact, most standardized tests feature reading comprehension-based questions. Reading comprehension involves skills like finding the main idea, making inferences, determining the author's purpose, and understanding familiar and unfamiliar vocabulary words.

Context Clues

The good news is that one of the most important reading comprehension skills, understanding vocabulary, can be easily mastered using a tool always available to you: context. You can understand any new vocabulary term using only the context around it. By looking at the elements of a passage, an unknown vocabulary word reveals its meaning. For this reason, you'll never have to memorize every word—you only have to remember how to use context clues.

Take the word "acerbity", for example. You might not understand this word on its own without a definition, but in a sentence, you have all the information you need: “The acerbity of the lemon caused the little girl to spit out the bite she had just taken.” The girl's reaction to the lemon, spitting it out, tells you that the taste was unpleasant. Knowing that lemons are sour/bitter, you can ascertain that it was the lemon's extreme sour/bitterness or acerbity that caused the little girl to spit it out.

Sample Standardized Test Question

As mentioned, reading comprehension questions can be found on almost any standardized test, so make sure you're prepared to ace them. Pay attention to tense and tone as well. A vocabulary-related question on a test often looks something like this:

Read the passage and answer the question that follows.

After the first day on the job, the bank’s new manager realized he would be busier than he had been led to believe. Not only was he assisting the bank tellers with their work, but his new boss had decided to inundate him with other tasks like creating security systems, managing the bank’s deposits and refunds, securing loans, and maintaining daily operations. The new manager was exhausted as he locked the bank up for the night.

The best definition for the word “inundate" is:

  1. overload
  2. provide
  3. assault
  4. underwhelm

Hint: Figure out if your choice is correct is by swapping each answer with the word "inundated" in the passage. Which word fits the intended meaning best? If you said "overload", you'd be correct. The new manager was given more tasks than he could handle—he was overloaded/inundated with tasks.

Understanding Vocabulary Words

You'll rarely be asked to define new words by themselves without any additional information, which means you'll be given plenty of opportunities to practice using context clues. The following exercise is designed to help you sharpen the skill of understanding unfamiliar words in context.

Exercise

Try to determine the meanings of the italicized vocabulary words using context clues in the sentences. There is more than one correct answer for each, so write as many synonyms/definitions as you can think of.

  1. Pablo always showed animosity toward his teachers by throwing spitballs and mouthing off, but his sister Mary was kind and sweet.
  2. The little girl was showing signs of ocular problems—she squinted to read the blackboard and complained of headaches after working on the computer for too long.
  3. The crowd rewarded the singer with plaudits, clapping and cheering through a standing ovation.
  4. Elena’s repudiation of Jerry’s bad table manners was obvious to everyone at dinner as she dropped her napkin and left the table.
  5. From the far past to the present day, the moon has been thought to cause lunacy. Some studies have shown that this momentary insanity does have some association with lunar phases.
  6. The old man’s hair was sparse rather than thick and full like it was when he was young.
  7. Janie was as devout as the Pope himself when it came to praying.
  8. My sister Kimmy shows a great abhorrence for crowds, whereas my little brother Michael loves to be the center of attention.
  9. The teacher admonished her student for misbehaving during the lesson.
  10. The sorcerer’s minions were willing to complete any task they were given as long as evil was not conjured upon them.
  11. 97 pairs is a superfluous number of shoes.
  12. The spy was hung at the gallows of his homeland for his perfidious deeds.
  13. “Busy as a bee” and “quiet as a mouse” are hackneyed phrases—they’re used all the time.
  14. Amelia was as pretentious as a princess when she arrived at the party. She tossed her coat to the hostess and grabbed a drink out of a nearby guest’s hand.
  15. We always listen to my great-aunt because she is venerable, but we ignore my niece’s advice because she’s only six.

Answers

  1. hatred; extreme dislike
  2. related to the eye
  3. extreme praise
  4. denial; refutation; rejection
  5. insanity; madness; psychosis
  6. thin; spare; light; meager
  7. pious; religious; sincere
  8. hatred; loathing; disgust
  9. reprimanded; cautioned; reproved
  10. crony; underling; follower
  11. excessive; extra; surplus; redundant
  12. disloyal; treacherous; deceitful
  13. trite; clichéd; worn out
  14. showy; pompous; entitled
  15. respected; esteemed; revered