Special Report - Lexical Inferencing… A Chance to Demand High?

by Margaret Horrigan

How to encourage informed guesses about the meaning of new words in the language classroom


A quick research on the internet will provide you with a number of ideas on what inference is. We make inferences about situations, events, people etc. without formalizing our thoughts. We do this every moment of the day.  When we make inferences we are basically making personally informed assumptions about what we see or hear. However, our eyes and ears can often deceive us and we can make completely inaccurate assumptions. For example, if we hear a group of people shouting we automatically might assume that there’s an argument in full swing. If however, we add a few contextual clues, well, things change drastically…

  1. We are outside a door
  2. The door leads into a theatre stage

In essence, in order to appropriately infer meaning we need the bigger picture. In language teaching this bigger picture is context. Context is not the only way we infer meaning however, but it is always the first step, a top down approach, to  infer meaning of new vocabulary.

Most articles and studies in the field of lexical inferencing are quite linguistic in nature and can often overwhelm the EFL or ESL teacher who would like to experiment with challenging their learners and encouraging them to reflect at deeper levels. In pedagogical literature it tends to be mentioned in passing (Thornbury 2002: 148) or explicitly avoided (Ur 1991:202) and without much usefuladvice for classroom application. Hence the scope of this article, a quick introduction to lexical inferencing and suggestions on how to demand high through meaningful questions in order to harness lexical inferencing strategies in the language classroom so as to increase potential retention (Haastrup  1991:29) with particular reference to lexical items occurring in written texts.

Pros & Cons

The outstanding question about lexical inferencing in the classroom is ‘Is it worth taking a whole lesson segment to deal with lexical inferencing strategies?’  We have the following arguments against lexical inferencing:

  • Successful arrival at desired meaning is not guaranteed
  • There are cultural issues connected to context
  • The language proficiency level of learner and ultimately the difficulty of the text are important variables which contribute to the success of a lexical inferencing lesson segment

However, arguments in favour are:

  • It involves both declarative and procedural knowledge to arrive at conclusions
  • The more effort we put into arriving at those conclusions, the more likely successful retrieval will be
  • It is giving students strategies for use beyond the classroom
  • It may push learners towards more complex production
  • It may be an opportunity for teachers to demand high

So the pros outweigh the cons and therefore lexical inferencing is certainly worth addressing in class

Context and Register

This is without a doubt an essential ingredient and must be part of learners’ schema (Soria 2001:4)) in order to be effective as it informs us on many subtle levels. What, for example, does /’lu:dЗ:r/ mean? I hadn’t heard of it until about 3 years ago on a visit back home. Three little boys in the west of Ireland, my nephew, Michael and some friends were outside playing. They started speaking to each other about their go-carting abilities. The lucky lad who was being referred to had run a go-cart into a wall. Now, here’s the text:

”Go on-you luder! You’re useless!”

From the context we know that a ‘luder’ is not something you’d ever strive to be.

Concept questions:

  1. Is it a formal or informal situation?
  2. Why?
  3. Is a ‘luder’ something positive or negative?
  4. Why?
  5. What do the boys think about the other boy’s driving?
  6. Why?
  7. What do you think “luder” means?

For the purists among us, the word ‘luder’ is from the Irish ludramhain /’lu:drəmɔ:n/ which means ‘fool’.

In a top down approach to lexical inferencing a good strategy is to blank out the words somehow so that the learners are forced to go above the word level and draw on clues which lie outside the word itself. The word could be gapped with a line, blacked out or substituted with a nonsense word. By starting from this point the challenge level can be adjusted more readily on the spot. Starting from a bottom up approach can compromise the challenge level as the ‘game is given away’ too quickly and therefore the demand high nature of the task could be lost. Therefore, questions about the context, register and discourse communities around the text, in our example childhood friends, may enable to learners to reflect more usefully on potential cultural issues and, therefore, might be more demand high.

Synonyms and Antonyms

A synonym is a word with the same or nearly the same meaning. For example, ‘small’ and ‘little’ are synonyms of each other. If you consider their meanings more deeply, though, you will notice that ‘little’ carries the meaning of not just size but also the speaker’s attitude towards the object or person being described. This is true for most ‘synonyms’ in English. If all the words were really doing their job well we wouldn’t need so many ‘near synonyms’  which mean almost the same thing but have a grain of extra meaning. Therefore ‘little’ and ‘skimpy’ show a positive and negative attitude respectively towards a portion size, for example, and ‘small’ is neutral. Antonyms, on the other hand, are words with opposite meanings such as ‘short’ and ‘long’. Mutual exclusives such as ‘dead’ and ‘alive’ are sub-categorised as complements (Graddol et al. 1994:111) and cannot have any other opposites. Other examples are ‘father’ and ‘son’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ etc.

For lexical inferencing purposes synonyms and antonyms should go hand in hand with the context issue set out earlier in this article. A teacher can certainly design tasks or ask learners to pick from a potential list of synonyms and antonyms what a new word might mean. In cases of opposites the word ‘not’ will often come into play of course as this must be employed to bring the antonym closer to the meaning of the new word. Sometimes this can add unwarranted complexity, however, in negative sentences. For example attempts to deal with the word dreadful in:  ‘He’s not a dreadful writer’ could cause confusion if we say

  • Does he write badly? No.
  • Is he not a bad writer? Yes.

Weaker students would find the negatives very confusing and assume that ‘dreadful’ means ‘not bad’.   Therefore, this will mean that the learners need to scour the previous and subsequent lines of the text around where the word sits in order to arrive at an informed conclusion.

If a list of synonyms and antonyms is provided immediately you could be setting up a potential moment of haphazard guesswork which is not conducive to lexical inferencing skills at all. The board is possibly a more useful tool here to drip feed the list of synonyms and antonyms to the learners when training them to use these skills initially for this reason. Perhaps a pair of words of which only one is the correct option would help somewhat here.

Eliciting justifications for choice of word made is essential as the learners will be forced to explicitly state the ‘clues’ which led to their choice. Carton (1971) set out a neat trio of terms to show that these clues can occur at intralingual (sentence), extralingual (schematic) and interlingual (between languages) level. This ‘think aloud (pair) problem solving’ (TAPPS) (Lochhead and Whimbey 1987) strategy should be encouraged as often as possible between students, and teacher with student(s), and is currently the only tool available to researchers in the field. It is also, in my opinion the type of task which is promoted by demand high teaching moments where the learners are pushed to reflect and think at much deeper levels and for longer periods of time than is normally expected but such sustained effort requires teacher orchestration (Bingham Wesche & Pribakht 2010).

Despite the apparent simplicity of synonyms and antonyms it is my belief that many of these antonym and synonym tasks could prove counter-productive as the learner will more than likely rely on the old reliable word rather than make the new word part of their lexicon. I say this because I cannot remember a single incident where inference via synonyms or antonyms occurred when I was learning Italian. The logic being perhaps, why learn a new word when you already have a similar one which seems to do the job quite well?’ It may be something akin to going out to buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes when what you have is fine…so there will certainly be people out there who are serial gatherers of clothes and, of course, words. The teacher’s trick should be in highlighting the slightly different meaning between the old and new synonym or antonym in order to illustrate the value of the new word. A well placed prompt or question would go far in these moments I believe in order to demand high and push learners into deeper understanding of a text and increase potential of retention.

Hyponymy, Hypernymy, Meronymy and Holonymy

These are words which are subordinate to a word with a more general meaning, for example:  rose, lily, tulip are hyponymy of flowers. The word ‘flower’ however, is the hypernym of rose, lily etc. An example of how this fact might help lexical inference? I remember being an avid reader of a girl’s comic called Misty many many moons ago. One of the stories in this comic carried the word ‘rhododendren’ . Not being much of a gardener back then either I could have been at a loss as to what a ‘rhododendren’ actually was but given that the actual text said something on the lines of: “She smelt the roses and rhododendron as she walked up the path…” I was convinced that it was some sort of flower but discovered later that it is a shrub. Now, bitter debates may erupt between horticulturalists if I had dared declare that a rhododendron was a flower but for all purposes that I might ever need to use the word, assuming that it was a flower was absolutely fine.

The fact remains; however, that ‘rhododendron’ is not a hyponym of ‘flower’ but it is a meronynm of ‘garden’…the word ‘garden’ is the holonym in this instance. So how can we turn this into a useful classroom inference task? Try answering the questions in clockwise order:

Fig.1. Concept checking questions

The above example of concept questions for ‘rhododendron’ should have guided most people to the fact that the word indicates something which grows in a garden but which is not necessarily a flower. The questions have exploited the hyponymy, hypernymy, meronymy and holonymy relationships in this way:

  • Where is this thing? Obviously in a garden or where there are lots of things growing
  • Is it alive? Probably, because it had a nice smell like the roses
  • Is it a flower? Well, there is a great chance that it actually is a flower
  • What else could it be? A tree, shrub, weed, bush, tree – anything that grows in a garden, basically.

However, in order to demand high, the following questions and prompts could be added:

  • What is it NOT? A chair, a bench, a gnome…
  • Why? It was mentioned alongside ‘roses’ and had a pleasing smell
  • Draw the scene in 1 minute


One of my favourite definitions of collocations is ‘how words hang out together’ as it really gives you the idea of little communities or groups of words that frequent the same hotspots together. More technically, it is how words tend to co-occur at lexical level (Lewis 2008:8). This co-occurence is often very difficult to guess  or certainly justify. An example of how I inferred meaning from collocation many years ago was when I was reading Herman Hesse’s (1973) Siddhartha in Italian. From the start, Siddhartha ‘giaceva’ everywhere;on the ground, on the grass, on his bed. Being a lazy dictionary user it took me a couple of chapters to infer that giaceva must mean ‘lie down’. It is, in fact the imperfect form of ‘to lie down’. It hung out with too many horizontal surfaces to mean anything else.

In a classroom situation one of the best tools for collocations is the substitution table. This is reiterated many times by Lewis (2008). For example the verb ‘to have’ can be collocated as in table 1 below, to exemplify and some useful teacher questions about possible categories for the different meanings of ‘have’ would certainly push students to reflect at a deeper level. Table 2, however, would challenge the learners much more. If a teacher wanted to demand high they could ask the learners to justify their combinations. The teacher could also play devil’s advocate by proposing some awkward combinations and asking why these are acceptable or not. For example, ‘I have a dog in my pocket’ is not as absurd as it might seem. My brother’s pocket was the means of transport for our long gone family dog, Ratzer, many many moons ago. Such short anecdotes, sometimes seen as tangents on formal training courses, are, however, another meaningful encounter for the learners with the target item.

                                   Table 1.                                                                                         Table 2.

Etymology, Spelling and affixation

It might sound ridiculous but how the word looks from a visual point of view can help many learners. Obviously compound nouns carry two nouns where one of the nouns, usually the first in the compound, behaves like an adjective . So a toothbrush is a brush (noun) for cleaning your teeth (function). A hair-dryer dries (function) your hair (noun). However, it seems that the more time passes the less relevance the name of the item has to the object and for teaching purposes this is a disaster. The ‘walk-man’ didn’t pick you up and carry you places. The iPod looks nothing like a pod.  So, branding has taken over somewhat in more recent times. However, for inventions which range from the middle ages up to the early 80s the use of compound nouns is a common phenomenon and worth considering for this reason (Licata 2013).

Specialist words, or professional jargon, may require a more bottom up strategy when the target language is close to the learners’  first language (L1) or if these terms have been borrowed from another language as is the case for many legal and medical terms in English. In such instances comparisons between first and target language items should be encouraged as these may draw on the interlingual clues (Carton 1971) such as spelling or affixation.  Anthony Burgess’ (1962) A Clockwork Orange is a go-to favourite of mine for activating lexical inferencing strategies during seminars but if a native Russian speaker were present they would not see the point as Burgess relied heavily on Russian in order to force the native English speaker into unfamiliarity at a lexical level. Native speakers of Latin based languages, however, would be at an advantage with most English legal and medical terms. Therefore, consideration of learners’ L1 and their L2/3 etc., if not English, obviously has an important role to play when dealing with interlingual clues. In more focused learning contexts, the learners’ profession may play an equally important role as a lawyer, nurse or doctor would have a better chance at grasping medical or legal terms in English due to the specialist jargon they are exposed to on a daily basis in their L1.

An example of exploiting ‘how the word looks’ I would like to strategically use here are the words ‘epidermolysis bollosa[1]‘. There are three clear indicators here that the word is a skin disorder/disease. From our own world experience we’ve heard of halitosis, thrombosis and possibly myxomatosis. So we know that the suffix ‘-sis’ tends to indicate a medical condition or disease. The ‘epiderm’ obviously means skin and even if you’ve never opened a biology book you have probably heard of some skin care product with ‘derm’ embedded in its name. The ‘bollosa’ part sounds like boils, or something unpleasant, because your brain has managed to pare down to limited possibilities what epiderrmolysis means and jump to a conclusion for what ‘bollosa’ probably means. In addition to this, there is the potential phonological sounding out of ‘bollosa’ which obviously has an etymological root which can be linked to boils . So, because the word contained a spelling pattern we’ve seen before and the affixation, we can tip this knowledge onto the third word and make an informed guess that ‘epidermolysis bollosa’ is a medical condition or disease. However, this can be misleading too as in the case of impeachment, for example, but it may allow the teacher to play devil’s advocate (Scrivener &  Underhill 2013) once more in demand high moments in the classroom .

In the classroom you might ask the learners to find familiar sections of words and work outwards with questions by asking what the function of each part of the word is. Give the learners options. For our example above we could ask:

  • Which part of the word looks familiar/Have you seen before? (Epiderm)
  • What other words have the ending ‘-sis’?
  • So if epidermolysis is a disease of the skin what do you think bollosa means?

Naturally, the words here never occur in isolation but in a clear text and context which should be exploited in a top down manner via open questions to ensure that learners are moving as closely as possible to the core meaning of the words and encourage real reflection. So, some solid top down and demand high type questions or prompts regarding the text/context of epidermolysis bollosa might be:

  • Is it a common disease? No, very rare
  • Where would you find this text? A hospital, clinic, online
  • Who would normally read it? Patients, parents or friends of patients
  • Why? They are in a waiting room with nothing to do, they are informing themselves about the condition online

Parts of Speech

Closely related to affixation is ‘part of speech’ when we discuss lexical inferencing strategies. Probably every teacher has dealt with lexical inferencing at this level where a student gets a ‘blind spot’ and cannot see that the word which is causing her trouble is a close relative of another word which might be familiar to her in verb or noun form. So again we should work out from the root of the word.

In the classroom you could ask learners to underline the root of the word and to identify the remaining parts of the word. So, to use Haastrup’s (1991) ‘indisciminately’ example- it clearly comes from the verb ‘to discriminate’ but here it is an adverb and probably means the opposite because of the pre-fix ‘in’. Here lies a solid example of how declarative (knowing ‘what’) and procedural knowledge (knowing ‘how’) work together in shaping meaning around the unknown word . In Merrill Swain’s (1995) output hypothesis learners are capable of providing themselves with their own comprehensible input+1 (Krashen 1986). Therefore it is highly likely that the more we probe learners’ declarative and procedural knowledge of an item in a teaching moment the more the teacher is demanding high and creating the ‘prefect storm’ so to speak for language acquisition to occur, but more of that later.


Although not a category as such the connotations we link to words reflect our social and cultural experiences. This leads me to comment on how connotation can change or shift over time. When I was interviewed for my CELTA course 18 years ago I was asked to describe what the differences were between ‘skinny’ and ‘thin’. Now, there are a number of people who would say that being called ‘skinny’ is a compliment today but 18 years ago there was a clearly negative connotation to the word ‘skinny’. Unfortunately, the number of products that exploit this change in connotation are many, skinny jeans is an example that comes to mind, and without a doubt advertising has a huge role in changing language and connotation.

In the classroom you could simply ask the learners if they think the word means something good or bad, positive or negative. Some words are completely neutral, such as ‘thin’ and ‘small’,  and asking a connotation question will help in these cases also and increase the demand on learners to process the language at a deeper level. Another strategy to involve demand high moments where connotation is being dealt with in the classroom could be to encourage L1 comparisons (Carton 1971) with the target item in order to highlight the connotation of the target item more thoroughly.

The Perfect Storm

It is my understanding that demand high teaching requires teachers to select tasks and craft questions  which encourage learners to probe deeper into language. Demand high teaching is not an approach or method but more a belief or meme that learners need to be challenged more during formal instruction in order to increase the quality of their second or other language. It is my suggestion, therefore that the teacher work on crafting questions, tasks or handouts based on accuracy, fluency and complexity of new language items in order to trigger learners’ procedural and declarative knowledge (Haastrup1991:32) and make the encounter more meaningful because these questions may indirectly or directly encourage reflection to occur at deeper levels. I suggest that the following schematic representation is a good starting point for crafting questions in particular but may serve well also in screening tasks and activities which can be exploited for demand high teaching:

Fig 2. X= The perfect storm

In the last decade a clear movement away from the accuracy fluency continuum has occurred. Research into task based learning (Ellis 2003) has showed that complexity is often an indicator of learners attempting to express themselves beyond their level. It is my belief that the errors which occur from these attempts should be embraced by teachers as opportunities to demand high. As a teacher you should craft as many accuracy, fluency and complexity questions as possible to encourage the learners to reflect at deeper levels about use, meaning and form, to create the perfect storm (X above) in the brain, so to speak, where acquisition is more likely to occur. Adhering strictly to the labels of accuracy, complexity and fluency is not essential but should be attempted to provide balance and avoid emphasis on one feature over another. In our case, lexical inferencing, some demand high questions and tasks relating to our very first example, ‘Go on you luder!’ could be:


  1. What type of word is it?
  2. Does it refer to a person or a thing?
  3. What do you think it means?
  4. How do you know that?
  5. Is it plural or singular?
  6. What’s the plural?
  7. Where is the stress?


  1. Say it angrily.
  2. Say it comically.
  3. Listen to X…how are they saying it?
  4. Say it quickly.
  5. Say it slowly.
  6. Say it like a child.
  7. Say it like a mother.
  8. Say it like a teenager.


  1. Is it formal or informal?
  2. Use it in a formal situation!
  3. Is it OK for a child to call an adult a ‘luder’?
  4. What might the adjective be?
  5. Why?
  6. Is there a verb form?
  7. Why?
  8. Put it in a negative sentence.
  9. Put it in an interrogative sentence.

10.  What’s the opposite?

11.  Would English people use this word?

12.  How do Irish people pronounce the ‘er’ suffix usually?

13.  Do you know any ‘luders’? Who are they? Why are they ‘luders’?

14.  Have you ever been a ‘luder’?

Obviously, the more experienced teacher will realise that the last 4 questions above are moving towards procedural knowledge and sourcing of long term memory which is clearly a good strategy. There is also an ideal order to all the questions above which might involve moving back and forth between categories but working systematically through the questions would also help to create the perfect storm which seems to be brewing at the foundations of the demand high meme. I would, however, argue that it is essential for teachers to analyse target items and craft meaningful questions or prompts at planning stages rather than rely on their instincts ‘on the spot’ which seems to be at odds with some of the literature emerging from the Demand High debate and discussions. This type of planning would place the teacher herself in a much more informed position in order to determine what is a useful TAPPS and how to exploit these fully in demand high moments of a systems focused lesson by encouraging different strategies through well-placed questions and increase the potential of retention (Haastrup 1991).

On the down-side, there is no account for how demand high teaching can transform declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge and move beyond short term memory retention. There is also the indirect re-kindling of the learning-acquisition debate where the activation of the learner’s monitor (Krashen 1986), or formal teaching and correction, is no guarantee of acquisition. However, this may not be the case in the skills of reading and writing where the monitor would naturally be more active (Stern 1983:404) and therefore give more support to a demand high teaching moment involving these 2 skills which, in turn, adds support to the lexical inferencing classroom suggestions and ‘perfect storm’ proposal set out above. Regardless of skill involved, a fine line needs to be drawn between what might be useful, thought-provoking questions and tasks and what might be perceived as essentially a ‘hokey method’ which could, at its worst, do damage to the classroom dynamic and general integrity of the profession and the professionals proposing it.


Despite the challenges involved in planning, I believe that a lexical inferencing lesson, or lesson part, is well worth a try as the teacher has as much to learn from planning and implementing the lesson as the learners have from participating in it. The importance of designing questions is obvious.  Learners may be pushed to reflect at deeper levels. For this reason, lexical inferencing lessons or lesson parts also require handouts. As lexical inferencing is inherently a cognitive effort employing many strategies, a well-crafted and well-timed handout is essential as a record to remind the learners of the processes involved.

This is by no means a conclusive study on how lexical inferencing strategies could demand high in the language classroom. It is basically a hunch that by implementing these types of lessons, or lesson segments, that teachers may have an opportunity to plan for demand high teaching through top down and bottom up strategies where learners are forced to draw on their declarative and procedural knowledge systematically and increase their chances for language acquisition to take place. It is a schematic starting point for teachers who are interested in creating demand high lessons around lexis in general and lexical inferencing in particular but clearly has potential application for grammar focused lessons also.


Burgess, A. (1962). A clockwork Orange. Penguin Books, London, England.

Carton, A. (1971). Inferencing: A process in using and learning language. In P. Pimsleur & T.

Quinn (Eds.), The psychology of second language learning (pp.45-58). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford University Press.

Graddol, C. Cheshire, J. & Swan, J. (1994). Describing Language. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Haastrup, K. (1991). Lexical inferencing procedures or talking about words: Receptive procedures in foreign language learning with special reference to English. Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Hesse, H. (1973). Siddharta. Adelphi Edizioni S.P.A. Milano, Italy.

Krashen, S.D. (1986). The input hypothesis: issues and implications, Longman.

Licata, G. (2013). CLIL-The Middle Ages. Presented at:International House World Young Learner Conference, Rome, Italy, March 2013, unpublished.

Lochhead, J. & Whimbey, A. (1987). Teaching analytical reasoning through thinking aloud pair problem     solving. In J.E. Stice (Ed.), New directions for teaching and learning, No 30. Developing crtical thinking and problem solving abilities (pp.73-92). San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Scrivener, J. & Underhill, A. (2013). http://demandhighelt.wordpress.com – accessed on May 27th 2013.

Soria, J. (2001). A study of Ilokano learner’s lexical inferencing procedures through think-aloud. Second   Language Studies, 19, (2), 77-110.

Stern H. H. (1983). Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. OUP.

Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In Cook, G. and Seidlhofer, B.,  Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics. Oxford University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2002). How To Teach Vocabulary, Pearson Education Lts., Harlow, Essex.

Ur, P. (1991) A course in language teaching: practice and theory. CUP.

Wesche, M. & Paribakht, T. S. (2010). Lexical inferencing in a first and second language: Crosslinguistic dimensions. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

[1] This is a very rare skin disease which is worth Googling and donating to as  it gets very little publicity worldwide. Any revenue from this article is donated to Debra Italy.