OET Reading Tips: Detect the meaning of an unfamiliar word/phrase

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During the reading section of the OET exam, it is likely that you will face many unfamiliar vocabularies.
Whilst terms such as myocardial infarction and tachycardia are unlikely to cause any problems. Other terms such as elaborated, messed up and be-all and end-all are likely to prove trickier. Agree?
In some cases, we can ignore vocabulary that we are unfamiliar with. If the questions do not demand our understanding of unfamiliar terms. Then it makes no sense to waste time trying to work them out.
In other cases, however, it is of great importance that we are able to make sense of unfamiliar vocabulary. Because: (a) that vocabulary will help us make sense of an overall idea which we need to understand to answer one of the questions. And/or (b) a question in the test itself focusses specifically on the understanding of unfamiliar vocabulary.
The latter will occur in section C of the exam as two of the 16 questions are dedicated to detecting the meaning of words or phrases from context. The former is likely to apply to a much greater number of multiple-choice questions in parts B and C.
So it is worth honing our strategies to tackle these questions as effectively as possible. So, how can we improve our techniques in this area? I will provide three crucial steps.


1. Try to work out the function


When trying to work out the meaning of an unfamiliar word or phrase. The first thing that we need to do is to try to relate it to the wider sentence. One way of doing this is to try to detect its function; for example, is it operating as a subject or object? Or might it be a verb or complement?
Let’s have a look at an example sentence from an OET practice test where we have to work out the meaning of the phrase “by no means the be-all and end-all”:
“But adenosine levels are by no means the be-all and end-all of sleep deprivation’s effects on the brain or the body”
So, what is the function of this phrase within that sentence? Well, we have a typical clause structure here which is subject-verb-object (adenosine=subject; are=verb by no means the be-all and end-all= object). We need to know where is the object of the sentence, it is very likely to be a noun (as most objects are). So now we know that we have a noun phrase which relates to adenosine level’s effects on the brain or the body.


2. Is it positive or negative?


This is quite a crucial question as misunderstanding whether a word or phrase is positive or negative can give us a very different impression of its meaning. The sentence “Sleeping tablets will prove effective.” has a very different meaning (the opposite in fact) to “Sleeping tablets will prove ineffective.” Understanding negation, therefore, will help us understand the meaning we are looking for.
In the phrase “by no means the be-all and end-all” we have the word “no”. This is the most common way of expressing negation. In relation to a noun phrase in English, it looks very likely as if it’s creating a negative phrase. In fact, the entire phrase “by no means” can be seen as having the impact of providing negation. Such as in the phrases “in no way” or “under no circumstances”. So the effect of adenosine levels is being described as not being something. Rather than being something, which, as we’ve established, is a crucial difference.
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3. Look for connectors


Connectors are words or phrases which help to determine the relationship between sentences or clauses. If we can find a connector near our unknown phrase, then we can detect its relationship to a preceding or following phrase.
In the case above, we have the connector “But” at the beginning of the sentence. This tells us that the information which will follow will contrast a perception. That we may have developed from reading the text before this point. Let’s have a look at the preceding sentence:
“McCarley and colleagues found that infusing adenosine into rats’ basal forebrain impaired their performance on an attention test, similar to that seen in sleep-deprived humans.”
OK, so we have information about the impact of adenosine. The contrast then comes by saying that adenosine levels are not “the be-all and end-all of sleep deprivation’s effects on the brain or body”. We want some more information now, though, as to what the meaning of our phrase could be. If we look at the sentence which follows, we should find some extra support:
“Over a century, Sleep research has revealed many undesirable outcomes from staying awake for too long.” (Emphasis added)
Here is some key information, then. Rather than adenosine levels being the “be-all and end-all of sleep deprivation’s effects on the brain or body”. There are many undesirable outcomes from staying awake too long.”
So, from looking at the wider context of the text, we can see the contrast. If there are many outcomes, that means that what is being stated is that adenosine levels are not the only outcome of sleep deprivation’s effects. Therefore our original phrase “by no means the be-all and end-all” essentially means not all of or not the entirety of. Or, as the OET test puts it:

“Sleep deprivation has consequences beyond its impact on adenosine levels.”

Which is the same idea but stated in an affirmative sentence rather than a negative one. Success! And we have worked this out via looking at the context in which the phrase appears. This is quite fortunate as, in the OET exam, that’s exactly what you are required to do.
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Now it is time to practice….are you ready?


OET Reading Bonus Practice Test

1. Have a look at the following sentence:

This is because the body stops producing the appropriate levels of neurotransmitters that ADHD drugs replace − a trademark of addictive substances.

What function does the word “trademark” play in the sentence? What kind of word is it grammatically? A verb, a noun, or an adjective?

2. Look at the sentence again. Is the word trademark being presented in a positive or negative sentence? How do you know this?

3. Look at the sentence one more time. What connecting word or phrase is used? What is the function of this?

4. Now look at the two sentences which come before our original sentence. How do they help us to understand the meaning of the word trademark?

As Dr Saul asserts, “addiction to stimulant medication isn’t rare; it’s common. Just observe the many patients periodically seeking an increased dosage as their powers of concentration diminish. This is because the body stops producing the appropriate levels of neurotransmitters that ADHD drugs replace − a trademark of addictive substances.”

5. Look at your answers to all the previous questions. What do you think the word trademark might mean in the context of the original sentence?



1. Object; noun

2. Positive as there is no use of negation within the sentence

3. Because it is used to provide a reason or explanation for something. It indicates that we should read the preceding sentences to discover more information.

4. It provides a wider context for the word and shows that the information is being given as a quotation. More importantly, it demonstrates that the focus of the quotation is to provide information as to how ADHD medication acts as an addictive substance by having a physiological impact on the patient in a similar manner to other stimulant medication.

5. “a physiological reaction”



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