How Do You Read Difficult Words in English?

One of the biggest challenges facing language learners is maintaining focus while reading a new, challenging text. When we have to start and stop our reading to look up the definitions of unknown words, this can really affect our enjoyment of the text.

In test situations, this also slows us down or we might not even have access to a dictionary to refer to!

This is why it’s important to have actionable strategies that allow us to quickly find the meaning of unknown words that we may not know.

There are four main strategies available to readers when reading a difficult English text. Those are: using synonyms, antonyms, or general sense to identify unknown words. Another is called vocabulary elements or using the pieces of English words to understand new ones.

Reading in a foreign language is tough. It can be slow, labour intensive (flipping through that dictionary is hard work!), and really ruin a good book. If you’re anything like me you soon learn to dread reading in your target language. (picking up a dictionary every third word becomes a real drag after the 15th word!)

This is the opposite of what we want as learners of a foreign language. We want to feel excited each time we dive into a new material, not daunted. This is why having some go-to tools for reading is so important.

When you make use of reading strategies you can cut your dictionary use in half or eliminate it altogether!

To start off we’re going to briefly talk about three strategies you can use which uses information you already know about words (synonyms, antonyms, and general sense) before diving into the strategy that will really supercharge your reading: vocabulary elements!

General Sense

When we talk about using the general sense of a passage to figure out the meaning of unknown words we are talking about using our knowledge of the text. A lot of the time when we are reading, we will be able to understand what we are reading even if we do not understand every single word used in the text.

Use this to your advantage! Here’s an example:

Say we don’t know what the word discombobulate means, but we see it in a passage like the one below:

Peter was talking so quickly and using such large words that it completely discombobulated Sarah.

What do you suppose this means? Is it positive or negative? If Sarah is discombobulated by what Peter is saying, do you think she understands him?

Now, before I spill the beans and tell you exactly what this word means (go ahead, write down your own definition for what you think.), let’s examine the word using our other strategies.


Another option available for figuring out the meaning of unknown words is to use synonyms.

A synonym is a word that has the same meaning as our target word.

Now you might be saying to yourself,

“But Kyle, how do I use synonyms if I don’t even know what the word means?!”

A completely valid concern! I agree! However, just think back to our last strategy of general sense. Above we used general sense to extract some valuable clues about the word’s meaning.

We learned that the word “discombobulated” is probably a negative word. Now we can further check our understanding by substituting it with another negative word we know and checking to see if the sentence still makes sense.

Can you think of any words we could possibly replace “discombobulated” with? Go ahead, give it a try. I’ll wait for a moment…got one? I came up with confused. Let’s substitute this word in our sentence and see.

Peter was talking so quickly and using such large words that he completely confused Sarah.

How does that sound? It keeps the meaning, doesn’t it? That’s how we use synonyms to help us identify the meanings of unknown words we find in texts we are reading.


The same sort of thing can be applied to using antonyms to identify the meaning of unknown words.

An antonym is a word that has the opposite meaning as our target word.

When you know what a text is trying to tell you, you are able to utilize an antonym from your arsenal of words to pinpoint what the meaning could be.

You can use this in conjunction with the previous strategy to really test your intuition about a word.

We already used general sense to discover some clues about the word, remember? It’s a negative word, so let’s return to our sample sentence and try out the antonym strategy.

Peter was talking so quickly and using such large words that he completely discombobulated Sarah.

As you already know, we agreed that this word, “discombobulated”, sounds negative. Let’s try substituting in a positive word and seeing what that does to help us understand the meaning of this word.

Peter was talking so quickly and using such large words that he completely energized Sarah.

Does this sound like these two sentences have the same meaning? Really? I don’t know about you, but when someone is speaking very quickly in my target language, and they’re using very large, complex words, then I get tired. That’s the complete opposite of energized!

We’re starting to pinpoint what this word might mean, so what do we know about this word so far? It’s a negative word, it’s not related to being energized, and it’s similar to confused.

Is there anything else we could learn about this word that would give us an idea about its meaning?

Sure there is; we could figure out its part of speech. What this means is that we figure out if the word is a: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, determiner, preposition, or conjunction.

Part of SpeechFunction
NounA person/place/thing. (man/cat/house/etc.)
AdjectiveDescriptive word for nouns. (hot/cold/red/dark/etc.)
AdverbDescriptive word for verbs. (quickly/slowly/etc.)
VerbAn action word. (run/eat/sleep/etc.)
PrepositionExplains the location of something. (in/at/on/etc.)
DeterminersThese specify nouns. (this/that/these/the/a(n)/etc.)
PronounsTakes the place of a noun. (he/she/it/her/him/etc.)
ConjunctionsJoin sentences together. (and/so/but/yet/or/etc.)

If we know what part of speech a word belongs to then we know a lot more about that word, so which part of speech do you think “discombobulated” belongs to?

In this case, discombobulated is a verb. How do we know this? It’s thanks, in part, to a little piece of the word stuck on at the end, -ed. This gives us a lot of information about the verb packed into those two little letters! It tells us that “discombobulated” is:

  1. A verb
  2. In the past-tense
  3. third person
  4. singular

All this information is packed in tight into those two letters!

With all this information, we should have a pretty understanding of the word now. I guess now is a good a time as any to let the cat out of the bag. Just what does this word mean?

Well, the word “discombobulated” means that Sarah was confused or upset.

This also brings us to the most important strategy you can use to supercharge not only your reading, but also pronunciation.

Vocabulary Elements

What are Vocabulary Elements?

When we talk about a vocabulary element, we’re talking about the pieces that make up each word in English.

What do I mean by this? Here, let’s take a look.

redore-, do
battleshipbattle, ship
tonsillectomytonsil, -lec-, -tom-, -y

Each word on the left has been divided into its individual pieces on the right.

Every single one of those pieces has a meaning that it gives to the entire word.

This is a very important strategy to understand and master. In the field of linguistics we call this morphology, but let’s forget about this fancy jargon and put it into plain old English.

When we talk about vocabulary elements, what we’re really talking about are those individual pieces of the word like we saw above. All English words are created from a large pool of these pieces. These pieces each have a unique meaning they give to the words they create.

If you know what each piece means, then you have a very good understanding of what the whole word means.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at an in-depth example.


Whew! What a mouthful! That looks absolutely impossible, right?

Not so fast, I see you reaching for that dictionary. Instead, let’s figure out what this word means through the power of vocabulary elements.

The first thing we want to do is split this word up into parts. As you begin to learn about vocabulary elements this will become easier, however for now there is a trick that you can use to easily split new words up into easier pieces. Let’s talk about that now before we go any further.


A syllable is a way of organizing a word into groups of sounds. For example:


This word contains 3 syllables. We would break it up like this.


When native English speakers are in elementary school, we often learn a quick and simple way to split up words into syllables. We do it by clapping.

We would say a word and clap at each syllable.

Fan *clap* tas *clap* tic *clap*

This technique works just fine. However, is there another way to do it? You bet there is.

Look again at the word fantastic, then look at the 3 syllables. Do you notice anything?

You’re right! Each syllable has a vowel in the middle of it.

A vowel sound (a, e, i, o, u, eu, ou, ei, ie, etc.) is at the heart of every single syllable in the English language. If you count the vowel sounds in a word, that is the amount of syllables in that word. Try it out now. Try and split the word


into its syllables.

Here’s the answer.


Immediately, the word becomes easier to read, pronounce, and understand. I bet you recognize some of the elements already! (volcano, anyone?)

Don’t worry if you didn’t get it exactly. The biggest help in being able to split a word is being able to recognize each piece. With continued practice, you’ll become a pro in no time.

As you begin to learn more about English vocabulary elements, you will find that unfamiliar words begin to reveal their meanings to you.

Let’s look more closely at our word above. Together we identified 9 elements.

SilicoSilicon (chemical element)
VolcanoMountain the spews fire
OsisA disease

Once we recognize all these elements, then it’s easy to understand what this word means, even if we have never seen it before!

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is a word that describes a very small silicon dust particle from a volcano that causes a disease in the lungs.

Ta-dah! Almost like magic, the meaning of the word is revealed to us in a lot of detail.

The best part is, if we learn each of those elements, we will see them again and again in many different English words! These meanings stay the same no matter which word you see them in.

How Can Vocabulary Elements Help my Reading and Pronunciation?

As I already said, the meanings of vocabulary elements stay the same no matter which word you’re looking at, so if you learn one vocabulary element you’re actually learning the meaning of multiple words! Wow! What a deal!

This can really supercharge your learning. As you begin to learn more about vocabulary elements, you’ll find yourself having to rely less and less on dictionaries to read more fluently.

What about pronunciation? How can vocabulary elements help with those?

Compare our word above before it was broken up


and afterwards


Isn’t it easier to say once it is broken up into those readable chunks?

Let’s look at another example.

Ornithology (this is the study of birds)

Take a moment to try and split this word up into its parts by yourself. The best way to become comfortable with vocabulary elements is to practice with them. Use your knowledge of words you already know and give it a shot. Even if you don’t quite get it right, the practice is very valuable.

Here’s the answer.


-o-Helps with pronunciation
-logyDealing with logic/the study of something

Did you catch that?

Look back up at the chart; did you notice anything about one of the elements?

The -o- in the word above doesn’t actually mean anything. You caught me. Not ALL vocabulary elements give meaning to a word. It’s not as simple as that.

Some vocabulary elements exist only to help us pronounce a word easier.

However, these are always obvious and there are not many of them. They shouldn’t cause much trouble during your study of vocabulary elements.

You can see how learning and understanding English vocabulary elements can help you drastically improve your reading and pronunciation. When we’re able to break words up into smaller pieces, this makes both reading and pronouncing them a lot easier.

Now that we understand how they can be useful, let’s take a look at the types of vocabulary elements that exist in English.

Types of English Vocabulary Elements

There are three main varieties of elements in English. Namely, inflectional, derivational, and lexical elements. These three types of element categories are made up of different types of elements which affect the words they attach to in different ways.

  • Inflectional elements are those which give us extra grammatical information about the words they attach to.
  • Derivational elements are those which change the category of a word into another.
  • Lexical elements are those which can appear independently as a word.

Inflectional Elements

As we said above, an inflectional element gives you extra grammatical information about the word in a sentence. Frequently, these elements appear as suffixes attached to the ends of words. Let’s look at the word dogs as an example.

The word dogs is made up of two elements. You know what they are, right?

Exactly: dog + -s

The first element, dog, is known as a lexical element. We’ll talk more about these later. While the second element, -s, is inflectional. What does this tiny letter attached to the end of dog tell us?

It tells us that there are multiple dogs. This element is one of the few which creates the plural in English. this is the same for many words in English. You’ve very likely seen this hundreds of times while reading English.

Remember that the role of the inflectional element is to add extra grammatical information to the word.

Here’s another word: crushed

This is another word that is made up of two elements. Here’s its breakdown:

crush + ed

This word is made up of the lexical element crush and the inflectional element -ed. What does this element do in English?

Can you think of any other inflectional elements you’ve seen?

Here’s a list of commonly occurring inflectional elements in English:

WordInflectional Element (meaning)
cats-s (plural)
oxen-en (plural)
syllabi-i (plural)
happier-er (comparative)
happiest-est (maximum degree)
creates-s (third-person singular)
created-ed (past tense)
creating-ing (progressive participle)

Including a list of all the inflectional elements in English is beyond the scope of this article. It would take multiple full pages to detail all of them. This list is some of the more common ones, and you’ve likely seen many of them before.

As you can see, some suffixes are used to form the same type of word. There are at least three elements that make English words plural, for example.

Derivational Elements

A derivational element is one which takes an existing word and transforms it into a different category of word. For example, an element might create adjectives, and another might turn a verb into a noun. Don’t forget our discussion of parts of speech above. When we talk about different categories, we’re talking about different parts of speech.

Here’s an example: reaction

This word is made up of the pieces react + -ion. The element -ion is an example of a derivational element that takes verbs and transforms them into nouns. In this case, the verb to react was turned into the noun reaction by attaching -ion to the end of it.

Let’s take another look at this process in action:

  • creation
    • create + -ion
  • production
    • produce + -ion
  • amputation
    • amputate + ion

This tiny three letter element is very productive (catch any elements there?) in English. You’ll find it being used to transform verbs into nouns in many places.

As I hinted to above, another derivational element in English is -ive. This element is similar to -ion in that it works on verbs, but instead of turning a verb into a noun; it turns a verb into an adjective. Let’s take a look:

  • creative
    • create + -ive
  • productive
    • produce + -ive
  • amputative
    • amputate + -ive

Unlike inflectional elements, a derivational element most frequently changes the part of speech the word attaches to. Many (but not all!) derivational elements also give some kind of meaning to the word they attach to.

For example, can you think of the meaning the words above receive from -ive?

We know that this element creates adjectives from verbs. An adjective is a word which adds some kind of description to a noun, so I would say that the element -ive tells us that the word which follows the adjective is capable of producing the underlying verb. For example:

A creative worker is capable of creating new ideas.

A productive worker is capable of producing efficiently.

An amputative surgery is a surgery with amputating.

Many times we will find that the meaning of derivational elements is vague or imprecise. Don’t torture yourself trying to create or understand precise meanings for derivational elements.

You only need to get a feel for the kinds of words that a derivational element creates. Seeing the element used in words in context will be valuable help for acquiring this understanding.

WordDerivational Element (meaning)
forgetful-ful (possessing a large degree of a quality)
sourish-ish (possessing a small degree of a quality)
agility-ity (creates nouns)
enjoyable-able (able to do something)
deployment-ment (creates noun)
maximize-ize (creates verbs)

Some derivational elements have meanings, while others do not; they only change the category of the word they attach to so that it can be used in new ways. Like we discussed before, understanding the part of speech of a word can help you understand how it is being used in a sentence, so you can have a better idea of what it means.

Lexical Elements

So far we have looked at inflectional and derivational elements. In the case of inflectional elements, we can recognize them when we see an element that is adding extra grammatical information to a word. While we can recognize a derivational element when we see an element that is changing the part of speech for a word from one category into another.

Lexical elements are the largest category of vocabulary elements in English. That is because entire words can be lexical elements. Words like man, dog, cat, hot, cold are all lexical elements.

However, lexical elements aren’t always complete words. Many of the lexical elements found in English have been borrowed from foreign languages and we find them only in pieces.

The two languages English has borrowed many of its words from are Latin and Greek. Some of the words we use every day like justice, bicycle, or helicopter are words that have lexical elements derived from these two languages.

Let’s take a look at one of the words above:


This word is made up of three elements, and two of them are lexical elements.

helic + o + pter

The element helic means spiral. The -o- helps us pronounce the word better, and the pter means wing. So if we analyze this word from its parts we find out this word has something to do with “spiral wing”.

That’s kind of like a helicopter, right? It flies by spinning its blade “wings” in a circle.

Remember when I said earlier that we can use the elements of words we learn to understand the meaning of new words we encounter? Let’s see an example of that now:

Helix (plural: Helices)

What do you think this word means? I’ll give you a hint. This word is a noun. Any ideas?

Quite simply, a helix is a spiral. This also shows us another property of English vocabulary elements that is very useful to know and understand.

The element, helix, doesn’t look like our element above helic-. It does, however, when it becomes plural in helices.

What does this tell us?

When the vocabulary element helix is attached to other elements, then the final x changes into a c!

Take a look!

helix + o + pter = helicopter

helix + es = helices

This is true for many vocabulary elements in English. Depending on the form of the word different elements may look different.

However, not all lexical elements are complete words. One of these elements you’re likely familiar with is tele-. It comes to us from ancient Greek and it roughly means “far away”. We see this element in words such as: telephone, television, telescope, and teleport.

All these words involve the idea of something far away, look.

A telephone allows us to hear from far away.

A television allows us to watch shows from far away.

A telescope allows us to see things that are far away.

Teleport is a power that allows someone to travel to a place far away using their mind.

This element is in many English words, but it never appears alone as a word by itself in standard English. This is only one example of many words that come to us through Latin and ancient Greek as pieces which attach to other vocabulary elements in English to create new words.

By learning different lexical elements not only will you grow your vocabulary, but you will also create a toolbox of different vocabulary elements that you can use to understand new words you’ve never seen before! Watch:


You may have never seen this word before. However, you’ve seen one of the elements! That’s right, Tele- is the element we talked about above. If you remember, it means far away. We know that this word has something to do with that.

Are there any other clues you can find in that word? For example, what is the word’s part of speech?

If you guessed noun, you’re right! How do we know that? The second element in the word is -pathy

This is another ancient Greek vocabulary element which means “feeling” or “sensation”. This element only appears in English nouns.

Now we know the meanings of the two elements. “Far away” and “feeling/sensation”. We can understand a rough idea of what this word means now! A far away feeling. This is a good start for understanding the definition of this word.

If we are reading it for the first time in a longer passage, we could use the context that the word appears in to help us further. Telepathy is a power which allows someone to communicate over a large distance with another person using only their mind.

It’s not a real ability, but it’s used in supernatural or fantasy contexts to talk about this superhuman ability!

This has been a primer on reading difficult English words using general sense, synonyms, antonyms, and vocabulary elements. There are many more vocabulary elements than could be covered in such a short article, but I hope I’ve shown you how important they are for not only building a large English vocabulary, but also for your reading abilities and pronunciation.

As a bonus, I’ll let you in on a secret. There’s an incredibly useful website called wordinfo. You can use this website like a dictionary to look up new vocabulary elements! Make good use of it.

This was Kyle with, and I’ll see you again in my next article, happy studying!

I don't want a 9 band score! (X)
FREE IELTS Lessons. Cooked up just for you.

Receive exclusive subscriber content to your email! I value your privacy. I will NEVER share your email.

I don't want a 9 band score!