Guessing meaning from context

Posted: November 28, 2019 in coursebooks, research, vocabulary
Tags: , , , ,

In my last post , I looked at the use of digital dictionaries. This post is a sort of companion piece to that one.

I noted in that post that teachers are typically less keen on bilingual dictionaries (preferring monolingual versions) than their students. More generally, it seems that teachers are less keen on any kind of dictionary, preferring their students to attempt to work out the meaning of unknown words from context. Coursebooks invariably promote the skill of guessing meaning from context (also known as ‘lexical inferencing’) and some suggest that dictionary work should be banned from the classroom (Haynes & Baker, 1993, cited in Folse, 2004: 112). Teacher educators usually follow suit. Scott Thornbury, for example, has described guessing from context as ‘probably one of the most useful skills learners can acquire and apply both inside and outside the classroom’ (Thornbury, 2002: 148) and offers a series of steps to train learners in this skill before adding ‘when all else fails, consult a dictionary’. Dictionary use, then, is a last resort.

These steps are fairly well known and a typical example (from Clarke & Nation, 1980, cited in Webb & Nation, 2017: 169) is

1 Determine the part of speech of the unknown word

2 Analyse the immediate context to try to determine the meaning of the unknown word

3 Analyse the wider context to try to determine the meaning of the unknown word

4 Guess the meaning of the unknown word

5 Check the guess against the information that was found in the first four steps

It has been suggested that training in the use of this skill should be started at low levels, so that learners have a general strategy for dealing with unknown words. As proficiency develops, more specific instruction in the recognition and interpretation of context clues can be provided (Walters, 2006: 188). Training may include a demonstration by the teacher using a marked-up text, perhaps followed by ‘think-aloud’ sessions, where learners say out loud the step-by-step process they are going through when inferring meaning. It may also include a progression from, first, cloze exercises to, second, texts where highlighted words are provided with multiple choice definitions to, finally, texts with no support.

Although research has not established what kind of training is likely to be most effective, or whether specific training is more valuable than the provision of lots of opportunities to practise the skill, it would seem that this kind of work is likely to lead to gains in reading comprehension.

Besides the obvious value of this skill in helping learners to decode the meaning of unknown items in a text, it has been hypothesized that learners are ‘more likely to remember the form and meaning of a word when they have inferred its meaning by themselves than when the meaning has been given to them’ (Hulstijn, 1992). This is because memorisation is likely to be enhanced when mental effort has been exercised. The hypothesis was confirmed by Hulstijn in his 1992 study.

Unfortunately, Hulstijn’s study is not, in itself, sufficient evidence to prove the hypothesis. Other studies have shown the opposite. Keith Folse (2004: 112) cites a study by Knight (1994) which ‘found that subjects who used a bilingual dictionary while reading a passage not only learned more words but also achieved higher reading comprehension scores than subjects who did not have a dictionary and therefore had to rely on guessing from context clues’. More recently, Mokhtar & Rawian (2012) entitled their paper ‘Guessing Word Meaning from Context Has Its Limit: Why?’ They argue that ‘though it is not impossible for ESL learners to derive vocabulary meanings from context, guessing strategy by itself does not foster retention of meanings’.

What, then, are the issues here?

  • First of all, Liu and Nation (1985) have estimated that learners ought to know at least 95 per cent of the context words in order to be able to infer meaning from context. Whilst this figure may not be totally accurate, it is clear that because ‘the more words you know, the more you are able to acquire new words’ (Prince, 1996), guessing from context is likely to work better with students at higher levels of proficiency than those with a lower level.
  • Although exercises in coursebooks which require students to guess meaning from context have usually been written in such a way that it is actually possible to do so, ‘such a nicely packaged contextual environment is rare’ in the real world (Folse, 2004: 115). The skill of guessing from context may not be as useful as was previously assumed.
  • There is clearly a risk that learners will guess wrong and, therefore, learn the wrong meaning. Nassaji (2003: 664) found in one study that learners guessed wrong more than half the time.
  • Lastly, it appears that many learners do not like to employ this strategy, believing that using a dictionary is more useful to them and, possibly as a result of this attitude, fail to devote sufficient mental effort to it (Prince, 1996: 480).

Perhaps the most forceful critique of the promotion of guessing meaning from context has come from Catherine Walter and Michael Swan (2009), who referred to it as ‘an alleged ‘skill’’ and considered it, along with skimming and scanning, to be ‘mostly a waste of time’. Scott Thornbury (2006), in a marked departure from his comments (from a number of years earlier) quoted at the start of this post, also questioned the relevance of ‘guessing from context’ activities, arguing that, if students can employ a strategy such as inferring when reading their own language, they can transfer it to another language … so teachers are at risk of teaching their students what they already know.

To summarize, then, we might say that (1) the skill of guessing from context may not be as helpful in the real world as previously imagined, (2) it may not be as useful in acquiring vocabulary items as previously imagined. When a teacher is asked by a student for the meaning of a word in a text, the reflex response of ‘try to work it out from the context’ may also not be as helpful as previously imagined. Translations and / or dictionary advice may well, at times, be more appropriate.


Clarke, D.F. & Nation, I.S.P. 1980. ‘Guessing the meanings of words from context: Strategy and techniques.’ System, 8 (3): 211 -220

Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Haynes, M. & Baker, I. 1993. ‘American and Chinese readers learning from lexical familiarization in English texts.’ In Huckin, T., Haynes, M. & Coady, J. (Eds.) Second Language Reading and Vocabulary Acquisition. Norwood, NJ.: Ablex. pp. 130 – 152

Hulstijn, J. 1992. ‘Retention of inferred and given word meanings: experiments in incidental vocabulary learning.’ In Arnaud, P. & Bejoint, H. (Eds.) Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics. London: Macmillan Academic and Professional Limited, pp. 113 – 125

Liu, N. & Nation, I. S. P. 1985. ‘Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context.’ RELC Journal 16 (1): 33–42

Mokhtar, A. A. & Rawian, R. M. 2012. ‘Guessing Word Meaning from Context Has Its Limit: Why?’ International Journal of Linguistics 4 (2): 288 – 305

Nassaji, H. 2003. ‘L2 vocabulary learning from context: Strategies, knowledge sources, and their relationship with success in L2 lexical inferencing.’ TESOL Quarterly, 37(4): 645-670

Prince, P. 1996. ‘Second Language vocabulary Learning: The Role of Context versus Translations as a Function of Proficiency.’ The Modern Language Journal, 80(4): 478-493

Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary. Harlow: Pearson Education

Thornbury, S. 2006. The End of Reading? One Stop English,

Walter, C. & Swan, M. 2009. ‘Teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time?’ In Beaven B. (Ed.) IATEFL 2008 Exeter Conference Selections. Canterbury: IATEFL, pp. 70-71

Walters, J.M. 2004. ‘Teaching the use of context to infer meaning: A longitudinal survey of L1 and L2 vocabulary research.’ Language Teaching, 37(4), pp. 243-252

Walters, J.D. 2006. ‘Methods of teaching inferring meaning from context.’ RELC Journal, 37(2), pp. 176-190

Webb, S. & Nation, P. 2017. How Vocabulary is Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press


  1. Neil McMillan says:

    Hi Philip, and thanks as usual for another interesting post. I’m just curious about the finding “that learners ought to know at least 95 per cent of the context words in order to be able to infer meaning from context”. I have got hold of the Liu and Nation (1985) article you reference and I just can’t see this claim there, though I have read in various sources figures of 94%, 95% and 98% related to Nation.

    It just leaves a lot of questions for me – e.g. how a learner can be said to ‘know’ a word, especially if that word happens to be highly polysemous (e.g. ‘get’) or if it’s part of a less transparent lexical chunk, etc. So I’d like to find the source of the claim and read further.

    Many thanks.

  2. philipjkerr says:

    Hi Neil, Thanks for this … and apologies. The citation was meant as a reference to the general point about how learners need to know a certain number of words in order to guess meaning effectively, and in the process of writing I conflated a pile of stuff. Hunting through my notes, here are some mentions of ‘95%’:
    Norbert Schmitt and Diane Schmitt (2014) suggest that a more appropriate threshold for high-frequency vocabulary is 3,000 word families. They argue that knowing 3,000 word families would allow learners to understand 98% of the words in most graded reading materials, as well as 95% of the vocabulary used in spoken discourse. Importantly on this point research indicates that learners are likely to understand speech when 95% of the words used are known (van Zeeland & Schmitt, 2013). Similarly, they are likely to be able to comprehend written discourse when 98% of the words in a text are known (Hu & Nation, 2000; Schmitt, Jiang & Grabe, 2011). Learning the 3,000 most frequent word families would therefore seem to have some very important pedagogical implications. (Webb & Nation, 2017: 11/12)
    In 1989, Laufer suggested that one needs to comprehend about 95% of a text in order to be able to understand the text. Later she suggested that 3,000 word families constitute a lexical threshold required for reading comprehension. This number has been refined, and now two thresholds for comprehension have been suggested: an optimal one, which is the knowledge of 8,000 word families yielding the coverage of 98% (including proper nouns), and a minimal one of 4,000 to 5,000 word families resulting in the coverage 95% of texts. […] For listening, on the other hand, it seems that a somewhat lower threshold can work. For example, van Zeeland and Schmitt (2013) have shown that even at 90% coverage levels most of their participants showed adequate comprehension, but at the 95% level, there was less individual variation. (Vilkaitė-Lozdienė, L. & Schmitt, N. 2020. ‘Frequency as a guide for vocabulary usefulness’ in Webb, S. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Vocabulary Studies. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge. pp. 81 – 96, p.85- 86)
    Apologies, then, for some sloppy writing. I think it’s clear that any figure that is given could only be a guesstimate, and the question of what it means to ‘know a word’ is a very tricky one. There are the reasons you give, but many others besides.

  3. eflnotes says:

    hi Philip

    regarding all of your bullet points – proficiency, longer reading passage, making errors from guessing and learners preferring dictionaries – one interesting study from 2019 (CONTEXTUAL WORD LEARNING IN THE FIRST AND
    SECOND LANGUAGE looked at giving definitions after study participants read a passage & made a guess at the target words, and compared this with giving definitions before asking participants to read a passage & guess word (plus a control where no definitions were given)

    the authors give some useful advice about dictionaries and guessing from context:

    “Therefore, the use of dictionaries should be encouraged in conjunction with reading and not discouraged, as is the case in some university preparation programs for L2 students. However, students should be encouraged to infer meanings of unfamiliar words from context prior to looking them up. Textbook publishers, course material developers and university teachers should note that, although presenting definitions of terms and concepts before their appearance in the text may have initial benefits during reading (particularly, for L2 readers), if the goal is to increase and enhance students’ specialized vocabulary knowledge, then providing definitions after reading is preferable for L1 and L2 readers. For students (particularly, L2 speakers), it could be reassuring to know that, as long as they verify their contextual guesses soon after reading, a negative effect of such guesses is minimal.”


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