Learn how to use authentic texts to teach inferring meaning of unknown vocabulary from context. There is also a sample worksheet and teacher’s notes with tips for you to download.

Teaching vocabulary

Learning vocabulary is fundamental for second language acquisition. We often give students lists of lexical sets (words that cover the same topic, e.g., fruit, furniture, or sports) to learn. But learning vocabulary is the most effective when the new words are presented in a meaningful context. Especially higher level students need to see the new words and phrases in meaningful settings, because a lot of advanced vocabulary can have multiple meanings and uses. Unfortunately, many learners enter a mental block when they encounter an unknown word in a text. This is why we need to teach students how to infer the meaning of new lexis from context.


How to choose a suitable source

To infer the meaning of unknown vocabulary, students need to explore their previous knowledge of the topic, known vocabulary, and grammatical knowledge to construct the meaning of new unknown words and gaps in the meaning of the text. To use an authentic text to help students develop their inference skills, you need to select an appropriate text that will allow students to do this. Consider the following questions:

  • Will students generally be familiar with the topic in the text? (e.g., choose a text that is not about a topic that is completely foreign or too specialised)
  • Does the text contain enough familiar vocabulary and synonyms to help students infer the meaning of new words? (e.g. even though the text contains many unknown words, it contains enough familiar words to help students bridge the gap in their understanding)
  • Which aspects of their own previous linguistic or general knowledge can students use to infer meaning? (e.g., can they identify its part of speech; can they use their knowledge of the topic to guess its meaning; can they recognise a part of the word or does it look similar to another known word; is there a similar word in their first language?)
  • What textual and contextual clues can help students to infer meaning? (e.g., is it used with another word to form a phrase; can they identify synonyms or antonyms in the text; can the rest of the known meaning of the sentence, paragraph, or text be used as clues?)


How to structure your lesson

Teaching inferring meaning of unknown vocabulary from context can be introduced with any teaching approach, such as Task-Based learning or Presentation–Practice–Production. When introducing a text for the purpose of inferring meaning of unknown vocabulary, start with engaging students with both the topic of the text and its character. This will activate students’ schemata.

 Follow these steps for using authentic news articles for teaching inferring meaning of unknown vocabulary:


Activate students’ schemata when using authentic materials

When using an authentic text, it is important to keep in mind where students might encounter it. Nowadays students are likely to see news articles on the internet or in their social media feed. Activate their knowledge about the topic of an article by having them read the title and subtitle and eliciting what they may know about it before reading. You can ask students what they think about the topic in general, or create a few quick discussion questions as a lead-in. For inferring meaning of unknown vocabulary it is also useful to have a brainstorming activity where students come up with as many words, phrases, and ideas connected to the text topic as they can. You can try using a mind map for that too.


Get students engaged with the text

For better engagement with authentic materials, let students express their real opinions about the text. Ask if they find it interesting. This will inform your choices in the future and allow you to pick content that all your students can enjoy. Evoking an emotional response will also get students more invested in the topic and further activate their schemata.


Practice inferring meaning of unknown vocabulary

Students practice inferring meaning of unknown vocabulary by carefully reading each section and then choosing the words that they don’t know. Remind students that it is important to read and to try and process meaning in a text even if there are several unknown words in a sentence or paragraph. Students should try to construct meaning using their previous knowledge of the topic, their grammatical knowledge, and textual and contextual clues, as well as their first language.

Ask students to read the sections with unknown words again and work in pairs to try to guess the meaning. Tell them to decide first if the words are on their own or form part of a phrase, then establish what part of speech they are, and what kind of thing they could be. Encourage them to look at other clues. Does the word have an –ed or an –ing ending? Is it spelled with a capital letter? What could that mean? If your students struggle, prepare a checklist with questions for them, for example:

  • Is this word alone or does it form a part of a phrase?
  • Does it have suffixes that could help you identify the part of speech such as –ly, -ing or –ed?
  • What place in the sentence does it take? Is it a subject, verb or an object?
  • What other word in the sentence does it describe or link to?
  • Could you replace it with another word that you know?

Then, have students look for definitions of the word in online dictionaries. Remind them that they need to select the meaning that fits their context as dictionaries always list all the various uses of each word.

If you have time to prepare before the class, you can try to anticipate the word your students will find difficult and prepare definitions for them to match.


Follow up

Students find unknown words in another article and infer their meaning using the strategies that they have learned. They then experiment with at least two different ways to record the new vocabulary. You can provide suggestions if necessary (e.g., drawing a diagram to show word families, recording collocations, writing sample sentences, translating, writing what the word sounds like, writing notes to explain it in your own words, etc.)