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Handling Unknown Words in Exams

No matter how much effort you put into learning vocabulary, reading comprehension questions in exams will always contain some unfamiliar words. This is normal – exams are designed to test how far you can go. Even so, how should you deal with these unknown words when they arise?

First of all, don’t panic. Even if you don’t know the meaning of the word, you might be able to guess by looking at the context. For example, you could be asked to give the meaning of the word ‘abysmal’ in the following sentence: ‘The dishes were filthy and the service was abysmal.’ You may not have come across the word ‘abysmal’ before, but since you know that the dishes were ‘filthy’, and the sentence contains the word ‘and’, you can guess that it’s also something negative. Your answer should be a word that can describe bad restaurant service, such as ‘terrible’ or ‘awful’.

You can also use grammar clues to guess the meaning of an unknown word. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the different parts of speech, and the prefixes and suffixes that usually go with them. For example, nouns often have the suffixes -ion, -ness or -ment, while verbs may end in -ed or -ing. It’s also useful to know what different prefixes mean: for instance, semi- means ‘half’, while re- means ‘again’. Once you are aware of these patterns, you can break down long, intimidating words into their component parts.

If you can’t figure out the word’s meaning using context or grammar clues, you can simply take an educated guess. Sometimes, you have a ‘gut feeling’ about what a word means, and these can be surprisingly accurate, especially if you’re a big reader. And if you really have no idea, it’s always better to write something than to leave a question blank.

Above all, make sure to keep reading in your free time. This is the best way not only to expand your vocabulary, but also to practise decoding unfamiliar terms and getting comfortable with understanding words from context.

Keep all this in mind and your exam performance will improve in no time!