Vocabulary 'guesswork' should be integrated as often as possible into text-based activities, such as reading or listening for comprehension, and will be most effective after a global or gist understanding of the text has been established.
Recommended steps for guessing from context are these:
· Decide the part of speech of the unknown word - whether, for example, it is a noun, verb, adjective, etc. Its position in the sentence may be a guide, as might its ending (e.g. an -ed or -ing ending might indicate it is a verb).
· Look for further clues in the word's immediate collocates — if it is a noun, does it have an article (which might suggest whether it is countable or not)? If it is a verb, does it have an object?
· Look at the wider context, including the surrounding clauses and sentences - especially if there are 'signposting' words, such as but, and, however, so, that might give a clue as to how the new word is connected to its context. For example: We got home, tired but elated: the presence of but suggests that elated is not similar in meaning to tired. Compare: We got home, tired and downhearted.
· Look at the form of the word for any clues as to meaning. For example: downhearted is made up of down + heart + a participle affix (-ed). Make a guess as to the meaning of the word, on the basis of the above strategies.
· Read on and see if the guess is confirmed; if not - and if the word seems critical to the understanding of the text - go back and repeat the above steps. If the word does not seem critical, carry on reading. Maybe the meaning will become clearer later on.
· When all else fails, consult a dictionary.
Key skills involved in effective dictionary use are the following:
· Recognising features of dictionary layout, such as use of alphabetical order, headwords, grammar and pronunciation information, definitions, etc.
· Understanding the way dictionary entries are coded - particularly the use of abbreviations such as adj (adjective), sth (something), ScotE (Scottish English), etc.
· Discriminating between the different meanings of a word, especially a word with many polysemes (see page 8) such as course or fair, or words that are homonyms such as bill, bat and shed or homographs such as windy, live and lead (see page 8).
· Cross-checking (when using a bilingual dictionary) that the translation equivalent that is offered is the best choice for the meaning that is required. For example, a French learner wishing to express embrasser (as inje t'embrasse) in English may find several different equivalents in their dictionary: 1 embrace. 2 hug. 3 kiss. 4 include. Only by checking 'backwards' (e.g. by looking up the entry for kiss) will they discover that some of the English words may have a more restricted meaning and may not be appropriate for their purpose.
· Using synonyms, antonyms and other information to narrow the choice of best word for the meaning intended. For example, a learner wanting to convey the meaning carefree but knowing only careless could use this as the starting point in a dictionary search. Similarly, the learner who wants to correct the sentence 'They told everyone their engaged' will find both the noun engagement and the correct verb announced under the entries alongside engaged in any good learners' dictionary. Or a learner wondering if steed substitutes for horse will find that it has poetic connotations and is generally only used in a literary context.
· Inferring the spelling of an unfamiliar word from only having heard it, in order to check its meaning in the dictionary.