English for Academic Purposes
Prof. Bauer-Ramazani


Academic Skills
Vocabulary Strategies
for Reading


Native speakers read quickly and do not use a dictionary.  You do the same in your own native language because the context provides enough clues for you, even to the meaning of new terms.  It is the same in English. 


The following are strategies I have collected from research and my own observations on how I learn new vocabulary best (as a non-native speaker of English).


General suggestion: No dictionary!
The dictionary should be your last resort to find the meaning of new words.
  It takes much too long and slows your reading down a lot.  In addition, bilingual dictionaries will change your thought patterns from English back to your native language.  This is not a good strategy and interferes with learning English. 


Strategy #1: Decide!
First, you need to decide if the word is essential to the meaning or not.
 Remember that words in definitions, topic sentences, thesis statements are important.

If  NO è skip the word; ignore it.


If YES è use one of the following strategies


Strategy #2: Guess the meaning from context (VIC = vocabulary-in-context).  Look for clues to the meaning in the same sentence, the sentence before, the sentence after, and the rest of the paragraph.

American writing usually has redundancies built in so that important words are either explained,
   defined, or repeated as a synonym
.  It is your job to find those explanations/definitions/synonyms by looking at

similarities in the words and sentence structure around the word you are trying to find the meaning for.


Strategy #3: Find the meaning through punctuation clues.


EXPLANATION:  Punctuation is a powerful tool in unlocking the meaning of unfamiliar but important words.  American
writers usually give an explanation or synonym after a new, important word has been introduced.  The new, important word
would be first, followed by an explanation or synonym that is set off by punctuation marks. 


Examples of punctuation clues

a.       Parentheses  (…..)

I often mark my reading texts with VIC (vocabulary-in-context) in order to highlight a term that is explained in context.


b.      Dashes   —…..—            


In the 19th century, U.S. businesses embraced the philosophy of laissez-fairethe principle that the government should not interfere in the economy but should let business function without regulation and according to its own “natural” laws—and … (Ebert, 2000, p. 32)

John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil controlled—in fact, monopolized—the petroleum industry (Ebert, 2000, p. 33).


                           c.       Commas   , ….. ,              
The very first legal form of business organization, the sole proprietorship, is owned and usually operated by one
                           person who is responsible for its debts (Ebert, 2000, p. 35).


d.      Colon   : 

The biggest advantage of regular corporations is limited liability: The liability of investors is limited to their personal investments in the corporation  (Ebert, 2000, p. 39).       


Strategy #4:  Look for context clues.


These include words like


·        for example, for instance, e.g.     è An example follows.

·        in other words, i.e.   è A restatement of the sentence follows.

·        but, however, on the other hand, in contrast  è A contrast is made with the previous item/sentence.

·        If … then…; because; as a result  è A cause/effect relationship follows.

·        is/can be defined as; ….. is a …. which/that  è A definition of the term follows.

·        this/that/these/those  è A reference is made to a noun/nouns used previously.

·        the former  è A reference is made to the first item mentioned.

·        the latter  è A reference is made to the last item mentioned


Context clues also include keywords that are repeated, synonyms of keywords, explanations of keywords or key terms, descriptions, reason/result and cause/effect explanations, comparisons/contrasts.


Strategy #5:   Use word analysis.


This includes analyzing the word by looking for familiar roots/stems (the main part of the word), prefixes (the beginning part of the word, either Latin or Greek), and/or suffixes (the ending, which designates the part of speech—Noun, Adjective, Verb, Adverb).


Example: liquidate

              Liquid = something that is not solid or firm

                       -ate is a suffix that designates a verb.


Liquidate means “to make something liquid”, for example a business, by turning all property into cash, which can be used to buy other goods easily and immediately. 


Strategy #6: Ask someone (native speaker or teacher).


Take advantage of the great number of native speakers around you.  Asking a legitimate vocabulary question is a great way to make initial contact with American students.  They will be happy to help you out and often give you a much more detailed explanation than a dictionary would.  In addition, you get an opportunity to meet someone and practice your English.  This is one of the best opportunities to learn, both vocabulary and culture.


Strategy #7: Consult the English-English dictionary.


When you look up a word in the English-English dictionary, you automatically get at least one synonym, sometimes several.  This expands your vocabulary immediately.  In addition, you find out how to use the word in a sentence and how to pronounce it correctly.


Recommended dictionaries:

            Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English (for high-intermediate + students)

            Collins COBUILD Dictionary (includes easy-to-see grammar notes in the margin)


Strategy #8 (absolutely last!):  Consult your bilingual dictionary.


A word of caution: Many bilingual dictionaries, especially small ones—with only 10,000 or 20,000 words—contain many errors in grammar and meaning.  Do not use them for academic purposes. 


© 2005: Christine Bauer-Ramazani; last updated: July 09, 2017