Vocab from context vs Vocab in Context

We probably all remember being told “if you see a word you don’t know try to understand the meaning from context.” While this was pretty good strategy for early readers (let’s say through 6th grade), the older you get the less it works.  Trying to learn vocabulary from context as you get older is fraught with peril (is fraught a typo?). Let’s explore the difference between vocabulary in context and vocabulary from context. We also explore some strategies on how to use this to help us with the SSAT, ISEE, SAT, and GRE.

Learning vocabulary from context
Children’s books are often written with the intention of helping children acquire new words. To help children learn new words, these authors of children’s books will often use a word and then immediately define it in the context of the text. That text might look like this:

Dora the Explorer was precocious; she started exploring her tiny neighborhood earlier than any other child in her grade and did better in school than Boots, Benny, and Isa.

The use of precocious can easily be figured out by the phrase that follows telling you that Dora did something earlier than any of her peers. The provides a young reader a new word, an immediate definition, and an example of how the word is used. The provides a great starting point for gaining familiarity with a previously unknown word. When texts are written like this learning vocabulary from context is easy. The great challenge with this word will now only be retention. The reader will only remember this word if they see it used and use it (one study suggested that a word only becomes part of a person’s active vocabulary after being exposed to that word 15 times).

Vocabulary in context
However, when authors write books intended for adults they no longer feel the need to help develop the readers vocabulary and the writing style shifts to use appropriate vocabulary in context. Let’s revisit our sentence about Dora written for an older audience:


Dora the Explorer was known to be quite precocious; her explorations with no supervision other than that of her equally youthful companion, Boots, went beyond her tony neighborhood venturing to the beach, mountains, and even to the Forest of Prickers and Thorns.


Reading these two sentences you might conclude from the second one that precocious meant brave or mature but in fact the definition remains advanced for a young age. You might also convince yourself that the second sentence had a typo, the word tony, but in fact it doesn’t.

What to do?

Knowing this now you should feel equipped to help yourself and possibly others improve their word acquisition and vocabulary. Here are few suggestions to make that better:

1.  Always go to the dictionary and verify whether your guess from context was accurate. Anytime we (you, me, a student, etc) encounters a word we are even unsure about it makes sense to try to figure out the definition from context but we cannot accept that as the final word.

2. Don’t assume it’s wrong. If you see what you think is a typo in a respected text, like our image from the LA Times, don’t assume you know better than the editors (though typos do happen). Make sure you check it in the dictionary and verify whether it’s just a word you don’t know yet.

3. Remember you’re human. We are all human and make mistakes, even our noted presidential wordsmith, Barak Obama, has been taken to task for misusing words (Check out this post on VisualThesaurus.com about Obama’s use of nonplussed)



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