The IELTS reading exam often proves challenging for students because it can include some difficult vocabulary. In general, you won’t need to understand extremely complex, uncommon words. The examiners would never expect you to know technical vocabulary for a particular specialist area. You wouldn’t, for example, be expected to know the meaning of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis. However, you will almost certainly come across a word you don’t know, and its meaning might be important. So how can you find out the meaning of a word when you can’t look it up in a dictionary?

Figuring Out the Meaning of Words

Even native speakers regularly come across words that they don’t know the meaning of. I’m a writer, an editor, and a teacher… but every time I read a book, I’ll find some words I don’t know! And that’s ok because I can usually figure out the meaning of a word in one of two ways: inferring meaning from context, or dividing the word into its component parts.

Let’s take a look at an example:

For technophiles, having the latest gadgets is essential.

Looking at this sentence, can you tell the meaning of “technophile”?

Let’s think about it in those two ways:

Meaning from Context

Many words can be understood from the words around them. First off, you would assess what part of speech this word is, and then look at other words to find out a relationship between them. In the above sentence, you can see the word “gadget” and that they are “essential” to “technophiles”. This tells us that a technophile is a person who needs gadgets. You can then better understand what a technophile is, even if you don’t have a 100% perfect grasp of it.

Meaning from Component Parts

We can also figure out the meaning of a word from its parts. This isn’t always true, and is sometimes too difficult to realistically employ. (For example, much of the time it involves knowing the Latin root of a word!) However, we can quite often figure out at least part of a word’s meaning from how it is constructed.

In this case, our word is made up of two parts:


You can then think of words with similar component parts. “Techno” is shared with technology, technological, technical, etc. and “-phile” denotes attraction or love for something.

We can then figure out that a technophile is someone who loves technology.

Breaking English Words into Parts

If you want to deal with unknown words in IELTS, you really should get used to recognizing common parts of a word. The easiest ones are prefixes and suffixes. That means the beginnings and endings of words:

Anti-against-ismBelief or doctrine
Inter-between-esqueTo be like something
Super-Above-hoodCondition or state
Un-Not-oidSimilar to but not the same


The suffixes –graphy and –ology are very common and refer to fields of science or areas of study. Look at these lists of words:

  • Autobiography
  • Cartography
  • Geography
  • Oceanography
  • Photography
  • Topography
  • Videography

They all end in “-graphy”. But there’s another way, “-ology”:

  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Geology
  • Musicology
  • Mythology
  • Paleontology

Sometimes words end in “-metry” or “-ics”. These are also fields of study:

  • geometry
  • optometry
  • acoustics
  • ballistics
  • economics
  • genetics
  • mathematics
  • physics
  • statistics

We also have special endings for the people who engage in these areas of study:

  • Cartographer
  • Biologist
  • Geneticist
  • Botanist
  • Physicist
  • Paleontologist
  • Ecologist
  • Astronomer
  • Geologist

You don’t have to know all these words, but being able to look at them and get an inclination as to their meaning is essential. I bet you could guess the meaning of “oceanography” and “musicology,” right?

What about this one – bibliophile? Can you guess what that means. Here’s a clue: “Bibliophiles spend much of their time in the public library.” If you know the answer, leave a comment below. 😉

2018 UPDATE!!! I just made a video about this subject, using totally different example words. This video is all about how to work out difficult vocabulary during the IELTS reading exam. Check it out: 

How to Practice Figuring Out Words

If you want to build your IELTS vocabulary, you need to see words in context. When you are reading (and you really ought to read at least a few pages of material every day in English), you should try to guess the meaning of any word you don’t know. If you have to look it up in the dictionary first, see if you guessed its meaning from context or from its parts. Trust me, this will help you a great deal!