Inferring unknown words from context (Part One)

It is very unlikely that any of our learners will ever know all the words they need. English has an enormous number of words - on the Oxford University Press website they estimate it at a quarter of a million words. Even advanced learners, who may have more than sufficient productive vocabulary for their needs are unlikely to be able to read something like a newspaper feature article without finding a word that stymies them (and if you’re a non-native speaker who I’ve just stymied with the word stymy – it means block or confuse). And even native speakers are going to come across a vast number of words that they don’t fully understand – if you doubt this, take a look at Oxford’s Word of the Day. As I write, the word is chrominance. It’s a technical term, but don’t ask me the meaning because I didn’t even understand the explanation. From chrom I can deduce that it’s something to do with colour, but that’s as far as I got.

On the other hand, when we meet new words in context, the contextual clues often allow us to understand what the word means. What’s the word which I’ve represented by XXXX in the next sentence? We had forgotten to close the XXXX of the field, and the cows got out. No prizes for coming up with gate. Learners, however, frequently block when they meet a word like this which they don’t know. They reach for a dictionary, panic and lose the thread of what they were reading about.

As you’ve been reading this, you may have thought Yes, but I always ask my learners to guess unknown words. But notice that I’ve not used the word “guess” at all. You can’t guess the meaning of a word, you can only infer, or deduce, it. And to enable you to infer the meaning of the word, there have to be clear clues in the context. A lot of lessons go horribly wrong because the teacher asks students to “guess” the meanings of words without checking whether or not they are inferable. It’s easy enough to do. Take the word out and replace it with XXXX. Reading the sentence or paragraph now, is it clear what the missing word is, or are there various possibilities? What are the clues which point you towards the meaning?

Let’s take an example. I doubt whether many of you have ever come across the word bonxie, so that puts you in the same position as the learner if I use it. Now if you read it in this sentence - There were a lot of bonxies around this year - you are not much the wiser. You can work out that it’s a noun from the sentence and word structure, but there are no clues whatsoever as to the meaning. If this is all the information that the text contains, then there’s no way you can “guess”.

Here are some examples of extracts from authentic texts where I suggest it’s impossible to infer the meaning.

a)But as Professor Weeks points out, those characteristics are dangerously elastic: an "adventurous" company that fails suddenly becomes a "XXXXXX" company; a "bureaucratic" company that succeeds is seen as "disciplined".
b) The British talent for self-deprecation is well known; disciplined Japanese companies and XXXXXXXXX Americans may not appreciate the subtleties of the issue, he says.
c) To people who have just joined Nutzwerk, the friendly atmosphere is XXXXXXX.
If you want to check that there's really no extra informatiopn in the text that helps comprehension, you'll find extracts a and b here, and extract c here.
You can probably work out from the sentence structure that they are all adjectives – and that in the first example that it’s probably disparaging, but I suspect that’s as far as you can get. Of course, you can easily fill in the gap with a word that fits – for example in the last extract stimulating would be fine. But that doesn’t mean that that’s the correct meaning. It could just as easily be disconcerting, which changes the meaning completely.

So when you’re analysing a text prior to using it in the classroom, that’s your first question : of the words which the students are unlikely to know, which are and which aren’t inferable? Once you’ve decided which aren’t, you then have to decide what to do with them.

Your answer will probably depend on another question : how important is the word for an overall understanding of the writer’s meaning? In example b for example it probably isn’t. You can understand the writer’s point without knowing exactly what he thinks of Americans. But in example c it’s much more important. Because both derogatory and positive adjectives would fit, it’s not possible to understand what the writer is trying to say without understanding the word.

This type of word – unknown, uninferable but important to the text needs to be dealt with in a different way, which we’ll look at in the continuation of this post tomorrow - and I’ll also tell you what bonxies really are :)

Click here for Part Two of this article .

Inferring unknown words from context (Part Two)

If you've not yet read Part One of this article, click on the link

To summarise where we’ve got to so far :
  • inferring words from context is a skill which is necessary for our learners if they are to deal effectively with the vast amount of unknown vocabulary which they will encounter

  • not every unknown word in the text will be inferable

  • not every unknown, uninferable word will be important to the overall meaning of the text
Firstly, the words which can't be inferred but are important. In this case you may decide to pre-teach them. One way of doing this is to include each word in a sentence where it is inferable, and to ask the students to work out the meaning. To take the problem word from extract c in the last post: He had to spend several weeks in quarantine because the disease was XXXXX (Obviously, for learners the actual word would be included.)
I doubt if you had much difficulty this time deciding the word was catching or infectious or contagious. But I also doubt that any of you thought of this meaning when you first read extract c. This time the clues were in the sentence, in the original they weren’t.
By using this technique, you’re actually killing two birds with one stone : firstly, you’re ensuring that the students will understand the words when they meet them in the text, and secondly you’re developing the skill of inferring from context. So that when students meet the other words in the text which are inferable, they’ll be better equipped to deal with them. If they have difficulty with your sentences it’s a good sign that the skill is not yet developed and they need help – which you can give by asking pointer questions such as Why do people have to stay in quarantine? What type of disease requires quarantine?
Notice here another point about inferring – to be able to do so, you need to understand the words which contain the clues. Here, for instance quarantine. If the text has a high proportion of unknown words, learners will have great difficulty inferring anything – they just don’t have enough clues to go on.

But even when a word is inferable, it is often only general rather than precise meaning which is accessible and students sometimes balk at the idea of not having 100% comprehension. Having only a vague idea of the meaning of words is something we take for granted in our own language, but which is often difficult for learners to accept. One way of showing them this is pointing out that even when they look it up in a bilingual dictionary, they often have no more idea of the meaning than when they inferred the meaning from the contextual clues. Let’s go back to our bonxie example. This time, I’ll give you a bit more information.

There were a lot of bonxies around this year. A pair attacked us as we were walking down to the beach ….
OK – so what can attack you? Must be something animate –animals? A pair of thuggish teenagers??
We must have got too near their nests ..
Aha - nests! Must be animals, probably birds.
They just dived out of the sky at us … They were huge, with great big beaks, and really frightening.
Yes, definitely birds. Large birds.
They spend most of the year at sea, but come to the island in summer to breed.
Oh – some sort of large seabird.
You’ve now got to the general meaning of the word bonxie – it’s the name of a large seabird. But, unless bird-watching is your hobby, you probably still don’t know exactly what type of bird. In fact bonxie is not standard English but a dialect word from the Shetland Isles. So let’s imagine that you have a bi-lingual Shetland Dialect-Standard English dictionary and you look it up. What do you find? Skua. (If you’re a non-native speaker teacher you might like to look it up in your own dictionary at this point.)

Now, presuming that you’re not an avid bird-watcher, how much more do you really understand than you did before, now that you know the word in your own language? Probably nothing at all. And if you came across the word skua while you were reading, as long as you understood that it was a large, aggressive, seabird, you would be unlikely to drop the article and rush to the library for a book on birds. You might decide to check later, but general comprehension would be adequate for reading the article.
Our knowledge of the language is full of words like this. Here are some of mine: I know that an apse is an architectural feature of a church, but I’m not sure what; I know that a spinney is a group of trees and so is a copse, but I’m not sure what the difference is; I think that a halberd is some sort of medieval weapon (though it might be a piece of clothing???), but I’m not sure what it looks like; and as I was writing the words infectious and contagious for the first part of this article, I realised that I wasn’t sure if they were really synonyms or not. I suspect there may be a difference (transmission via air or by contact ???). But I’m not sure, and unless I find myself teaching a group of doctors or nurses, probably won’t bother to check.
Many students reject this type of general comprehension when reading in English and don’t believe they’ve understood a word unless they’ve seen the exact translation. Give them words like skua in context and ask them to infer the general meaning. For example :
a. There are a lot of skuas nesting near the beach this year.
b. My last horse was grey, but this one is roan.
c. There was a lot of sedge growing on the bank of the river.
d. The church is famous for its apse.

Then let them check in their bilingual dictionaries and realise that they probably wouldn’t have known any more than they could infer even if they’d had the translation from the beginning. Once they recognise that they don’t have 100% comprehension even in their own language, they’re liable to feel happier about living with the uncertainty which is an inevitable part of using a foreign language.