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COMMUNICATION TECHNIQUES- I ENGLISH LISTENING AND SPEAKING SKILLS 13. PREDICTING AND GUESSING MEANINGS OF UNKNOWN WORDS AND PHRASES Given the large number of words in the English language, one cannot remember the meanings of all the words at one go. Thus for non-native English speakers it is very helpful to learn how to guess the approximate meanings of words. This lesson aims to develop skills to help in guessing meanings.

13.0 Objectives By the end of this lesson you will: i. ii. iii.

Predict and guess the meanings of unknown words and phrases Learn steps to follow when you see unfamiliar words Understand spoken words

13.1 Introduction English is a rich language with the largest vocabulary on earth (over 1,000,000 words). However, the average native English speaking adult has a vocabulary of only 40,000-50,000 words. For students developing fluency in the language, this number is even smaller. Imagine stopping to check or look up the meaning of every unknown word you come across! It is for this reason, that you must develop skills in predicting or guessing the meanings of unknown words and phrases. This unit will help you begin to develop such skills. You will also build upon the skills that you need to understand the main ideas of spoken language. These skills will progress as a result of your making good educated guesses that make sense. Towards the end of the unit, you will begin the series of Integrated ListeningSpeaking Activities. You will work on the ability to begin and end conversations appropriately. Additionally, you will work on the vocabulary used when people meet and greet each other.

13.2 Tips for Better Understanding Here are some tactics for helping you “figure out� the meanings of new words.

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Context: You can often understand part of the meaning of an unknown word from the way it is used in the sentence. So, when you come to an unknown word while reading/listening, try to use the words around it to help figure out its meaning. Glossary: Sometimes books have a glossary at the back. The glossary gives you the specific definition for the words that are important to understanding the subject matter. The glossary contains only the definition that fits the use in that particular book. Structure: Knowing the parts of words—prefixes, roots, suffixes—helps you understand and unlock the meanings of whole families of words. A prefix is the part that's attached to the front of a word; there are about 100 common ones. The root is the basic part of a word; most of our root words come from Latin and Greek. A suffix is often attached to the end of a word. Read: In addition to using these strategies it is important to read a variety of text materials. The more you expose yourself to new words, the more words you will learn. Use the following strategy to help you remember new words: ο Practice Remembering New Words ο Unless you actively work at reviewing and remembering each of the new words you come across, you will have to work at “figuring out” the meaning each time you see the word.

13.3 Predicting and Guessing Meanings of Unknown Words and Phrases When you read a text and come across an unfamiliar word you can do several things to help you understand the word. The same steps can be followed when we listen to a discourse. We will learn these strategies through written text at first, and then apply them with listening activities. Try to go through the following steps to help you when you are “stuck” on a word. 13.3.1 Steps that you can follow when you come across unfamiliar words • •

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Stop at the word for a minute. Think of the beginning, middle and ending letters of the word and try to match the sounds to the letters. You may also break it up into smaller parts (syllables). Another way is to also look for familiar word patterns, and then try to “sound out” the word. Ask yourself if the word sounds like any other word you may have heard before. If not, skip the word and read on till the end of the sentence. Use context clues to guess the meaning of the word. Context clues refer to the immediate sentences containing the word, statements/sentences already spoken/read, pictures accompanying the text, facial/hand gestures or definitions, restatements, examples or other descriptions that help a reader/listener understand the meaning of an unknown word or phrase.


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Once you make a guess, reread the sentence, replacing the unknown word with the word you guessed. Does it make sense? Even if you do not guess the exact meaning of the word, it is important to be as close to the real meaning so as to understand the overall main idea (gist) of the text (spoken or written). It may be a good idea to practice this skill as often as possible. It is equally important to try and verify the correct meaning (either from a dictionary, or someone who is proficient in the language) after you have understood the overall gist of the text. This will help you build on your vocabulary and make you better at guessing. Remember, reading and listening is not just reading and hearing words, it is the actual understanding (or comprehending) of them. Now, let us read a small paragraph with some words that we will pretend we do not know and have to “figure out” using the steps given above: Excerpt taken from “The Princess and the Tin Box” by James Thurber On the day the princess was eighteen, the king sent a royal ambassador to the courts of five neighbouring kingdoms to announce that he would give his daughter’s hand in marriage to the prince who brought her the gift she liked the most. The first prince to arrive at the palace rode a swift, white stallion and lay at the feet of the princess an enormous apple made of solid gold which he had taken from a dragon who had guarded it for a thousand years. It was placed on a long ebony table set up to hold the gifts of the princess’s suitors.

Let us follow the above given steps to help understand the underlined words. In sentence 1 we see the word ambassador. • • • •

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We first need to stop at the word. Next, we “figure out” the pronunciation of the word based on “sounding out” the different parts. We have not heard this word before, so we go on to reading the rest of the sentence. Now we begin with our context clues. We learnt from the sentence that there is a princess in the story, and the king wants her to get married. Even though we do not know the meaning of the word ambassador we understand from the text that this probably refers to an important person who is part of the king’s court (the king would not trust an unimportant person with matters relating to his daughter, would he?) Since the ambassador was sent to different kingdoms to make an announcement, it seems that he must have been some sort of messenger. Now that we have narrowed our thinking to the word messenger we need to replace this word in the sentence to see if it makes sense. Let us do that now:

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On the day the princess was eighteen, the king sent a royal messenger to the courts of five neighbouring kingdoms to announce that he would give his daughter’s hand in marriage to the prince who brought her the gift she liked the most.

Some questions we must ask ourselves at this time are “does this sentence make sense”; “does this word help me understand the sentence properly?” Indeed, it makes sense. Hence we may go on with the rest of the text. It is important for us to remember that there is a possibility that we have not “made out” the exact meaning of the word. We must read the rest of the text and think of our background knowledge to narrow our thinking to the closest possible meaning. As long as we understand the overall meaning we should be fine. However, it is equally important to be able to develop the skill to know when we need the exact meaning. At such times, we need to refer to a dictionary to verify our guess. It seems like this process will take a long time. However, with enough practice and our being conscious of this strategy, we can increase our knack for making good guesses without slowing down our reading/conversations. We can follow the same steps for the other unknown words. In sentence 2 we see the words swift, stallion, enormous. Following the steps ahead, we reach the conclusion that swift may mean fast, stallion may mean some kind of animal that is used for transportation (probably a horse), and enormous may mean delicious looking or big. Let’s replace the words with our guessed meanings to see if it makes sense. The first prince to arrive at the palace rode a fast, white horse and lay at the feet of the princess a delicious looking or big apple made of solid gold which he had taken from a dragon who had guarded it for a thousand years. Note: We can see that the words delicious looking and big do not have the same meanings, however, since both fit well in the text and make sense we can use either. The exact meaning of the word enormous is not crucial to the understanding of the whole text. Hence, we can be safe in choosing not to look up the word in the dictionary. In the last sentence we see the words ebony and suitors. Now try to go through the steps above and discuss the possible meanings of the two words with a partner before reading the sentence with the guessed meanings below.

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It was placed on a long wooden table set up to hold the gifts of the young men who were interested in marrying the princess. 13.3.2 Understanding Spoken Words Often when we listen to anyone speak, we come across unfamiliar words. It is important to try and understand what message the sentence is giving us. A good way to “understand” the meaning of unknown words is to try and think about other words in the sentence, and the context in which that sentence has been spoken. Then we need to make an educated guess that makes sense in the sentence. For Example: Mr. Singh said that he would like the new staff to report at his office at 8:30 a.m. I think this word (report) means “go to”. Explanation: Now, when I think of the word “report” I think of a document that tells more about a situation or how something was done. I realize that the kind of “report” that may be referred to here is probably not a document because it does not make sense. I then begin to think of all the things that a person may have new staff members do. The way I approach this is by the following thought process. The sentence tells us that a person named Mr. Singh wants new staff members to do something at his office at 8:30 a.m. • • •

Chances are that it is not a specific task like typing a document or sending a fax. So I start thinking of the idea of it being either “go to” or have a meeting”. I then pick “go to” and wait to listen for more clues from the next set of sentences (if there are other sentences that follow).

Self-Check Questions Answer True or False 1. A suffix is something that is attached at the beginning of a word to form a new word. 2. To understand a sentence it is not important to know the exact meaning of all the words in the sentence. 3. If the meaning of a word is not known, ‘Context clues’ can help in understanding the meaning.

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Multiple choice questions 4. If you are stuck at a word that you do not understand, how would you arrive at the most likely meaning of the word: i. Use context clues ii. Check if a simpler word can help you understand the sentence better iii. Sound out all the syllables of the word iv. All of the above 5. A prefix is a part of the word that is placed: i. Before the word ii. At the end of the word iii. At the middle of the word iv. None of the above

13.4 Summing Up In this unit you were taught strategies that would help you comprehend spoken and written language well. You learnt that in order to guess and predict the meanings of unknown (written) words you need to… • • • • • •

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Stop at the unknown word Go back and re-read the sentence Think about what you have read and understood before the sentence with the unknown word Think of other(easier) words that may fit in that context (that is, other words that make sense in the passage you are reading) Substitute the word in the sentence See if it… o Sounds right o Makes sense Go back to the text and continue reading the rest of it so you understand the gist of the whole passage. Check in the dictionary or ask someone who is proficient in the language to tell you the real meaning, later. Remember, if you start making a list of unknown words/phrases you come across, and begin using them in your own sentences, you will build your vocabulary skills. It is essential that you continue applying these strategies on a daily basis so they come naturally to you, hence, making problem-solving easier. As always, we recommend that you continue to read extensively and participate in conversations in English as much as possible.


13.5 Answers to Self-Check Questions 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

False True True iv i

13.6 References 1. Ferreira, Linda A. Beginnings 1. United States of America: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.,1985. 2. Gill, Mary McVey, and Pamela Hartmann. Tapestry Listening and Speaking 2. United States of America: Heinle & Heinle Thomson Learning, 2000. 3. Croes, John. Ready? Listen!. San Diego, CA: Dominie Press, Inc., 1991.

13.7 Glossary • • •

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Comprehend: To understand Comprehension strategies: Comprehension strategies are a specific series of steps that good readers use to make sense of text Context clues: Context clues refer to the immediate sentences containing the word, statements/sentences already spoken/read, pictures accompanying the text, facial/hand gestures or definitions, restatements, examples or other descriptions that help a reader/listener understand the meaning of an unknown word or phrase Guessing: Guessing from context is using prior knowledge of the subject and the ideas in the text given thus far, as clues to the meanings of unknown words and phrases, instead of stopping to look them up Occurrence: An occurrence is something that happens. It refers to an event, incident or circumstances Predicting: Predicting is using knowledge of the subject matter (your background knowledge about that particular topic and/or the author’s style) to make educated guesses about content and vocabulary that will follow Prefix: Prefix is the part that is sometimes attached to the front of a word. Each prefix modifies or changes the meaning of the root of the word slightly e.g. It is unlikely that I will learn to speak English if I do not practice regularly. (Here, the prefix is un-; it has changed the meaning of likely to not likely) Proficient: Capable; expert; skilled Root: The root is the basic part of a word e.g. The baby snatched the pencil out of her brother’s hand. (Here the root of the word snatched is snatch.) Substitute: To replace with an alternative word Suffix: A suffix is often attached to the end of a root word to form a new word e.g. The angry man shouted at the taxi driver. (Here the suffix in the word shouted is “–ed”). Text comprehension: Text comprehension is the understanding of what is read. 7


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Vocabulary: Vocabulary refers to the words an individual knows. Listening vocabulary: refers to the words a person knows when hearing them spoken aloud. Speaking vocabulary: refers to the words we use when we speak. Reading vocabulary: refers to the words a person knows when seeing them in print. Writing vocabulary: refers to the words we use in writing.


Lesson-13