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Monday, February 6, 2012

Learning Vocabulary from Context


Do you know what "context" means? If not, look it up before you continue this lesson.


"The difference between reading and studying is a pencil." To get the most out of reading, you'll need to read with a pencil (or pen) in hand.

Try this: Get a newspaper; choose a short article; and follow these instructions:

Read the article all the way through, as quickly as you can, underlining any words that you don't understand.

Go back and re-examine the words that gave you trouble. One well-known method for understanding new words is to examine the context, that is, the situation in which the word is found.

There are four different ways to learn from context:
  • Examples: A list of things may give you the word's meaning
  • Synonyms: Another word with the same meaning is used
  • Elaboration: More information is given that makes the word's meaning clear
  • Explanations: The word is actually explained in the article


Look at this sentence: "We knew that he was barmy because he kept talking to himself and writing words in the air." "Barmy," you might guess, is another word for "crazy."

In this sentence, the person's behavior helps you understand the word. You are reading an "example" of the behavior of a barmy person.


Here's a headline from a newspaper article: "Fed slashes key rate to near zero"

You might not know what "slashes" means. But the first sentence of the article reads in part: "The U.S. Federal Reserve cut a key rate Tuesday…" So this synonym tells you that "slash" here means "cut."


Perhaps you're still confused about how "slash" or "cut" are used here. Read the full first sentence: "The U.S. Federal Reserve cut a key rate Tuesday to a range of between zero and 0.25 percent — a cut of at least 0.75 percentage points." Here more information has been given about the "cut." It has been elaborated on.


If you're still not sure, the rest of the article discusses the matter further, giving an explanation of the action and its cause. By the time you finish, you should have no doubt about the meaning of "slash."


You might not be able to get a word's meaning from context. In that case, use a dictionary. But you should use an English-English dictionary, not a bilingual one.

Why? First, because it will broaden your English ability, introducing even more words. Second, because it keeps your thoughts "in English," instead of switching back to your own language. And finally, because sometimes, bilingual dictionaries are just wrong.

Of course, to continue your learning, write new words in a notebook, and review them often. And don't forget to USE them!


Answer the questions about real sentences from a newspaper. Which of the four techniques is used?

1. What do "stem" and "slump" mean in this sentence?

"China will reduce a tax on home sales to stem a property market slump that may drive the world's fourth-biggest economy into the deepest slowdown since 1990."

2. What is the meaning of "delicacies" here?

"The delegation… brought several hundred kinds of Taiwan delicacies, ranging from fruit and snacks to liquor and tea."

3. What is the meaning of "spurring" in this sentence?

"This rate is the Fed's key tool for spurring or slowing the U.S. economy as it tries to balance the dual goals of economic growth and price stability."

4. What is the meaning of "dual" in the sentence above?


Continue this lesson by reading a newspaper, as described above!


1. Let's take "slump" first. Can you find a SYNONYM for "slump" in this sentence? I hope you noticed that "slowdown" means the same as "slump."

You should realize that a slump is a bad thing, something that the government would want to stop. So the ELABORATION of the reasons for reducing the taxes is your clue that "stem" as a verb means "stop."

2. This is a case where EXAMPLES are helpful: "from fruit and snacks to liquor and tea." These are very tasty foods, and that is the meaning of "delicacies."

3. Do you know what the opposite of a SYNONYM is? It's an "antonym." So here, if you don't know what "spurring" means, notice that it is the opposite of "slowing" and you'll get the meaning: "speeding up."

4. The ELABORATION helps you here; since two goals are given, "dual" must mean "two."

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."

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