How to work out AQE Test word meanings

AQE Test word meanings can be one of the hardest things to prepare for in the Transfer Test. Often we think that if we don’t know it, we just don’t know it, and we may as well guess.

It’s better to get in the habit of making a guess a last resort, once you’ve done a bit of detective work. That’s because you can always find clues about tricky word meanings, just by looking around it.

It takes a bit of practice, but you can get better at this, and it’s quicker than studying a dictionary!

This post contains 5 easy steps you can teach your child to help them work out tricky word meanings.

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As well as following the tips in this post, we recommend trying some word meaning games to keep things fun. This game will help expand your vocabulary and ensure you’ll remember words that mean the same as ….

Whizz match synonyms transfer test
Whizz Match synonym card game, Amazon £14.99.

Tricky AQE Test word meanings – help!


You must know the feeling when you hear language that you don’t understand! Business nonsense like …

“Let’s take a look at levering our decision-making matrix.”

“If we can just migrate to a new software platform…”

This is how it feels when your child reads a passage in a book, comprehension or test paper, and comes across mystery words.

These may be words they’ve never seen before, or they might LOOK familiar, but your child isn’t sure exactly what they mean.


Some lucky children can decode most tricky word meanings instinctively.

They mightn’t be able to tell you how they’ve worked it out, but they’re quick to understand the clues left for them in the text.

It’s not simply intelligence or mind magic! Here’s their trick – THE CLUES ARE ALWAYS THERE!


Don’t worry if tricky word meanings don’t come naturally. For those who find it harder, there’s a plan!

If you don’t understand a word, there is no point staring at it, and hoping the meaning will come to you. It probably won’t.

It’s far more useful to look at the words around it – the CONTEXT.

Luckily there are 5 foolproof steps you can teach your child to help them nail the meaning! Tell them they are meaning detectives and they need to work their way through these 5 clues, so they can figure the meaning out.

If they follow these 5 logical steps, there’s a great chance they’ll be able to make a sensible, educated guess at the tricky word meaning.

AQE Test word meanings – five steps to work it out the tricky ones

Step 1

Look at the words around it.

The CONTEXT is the most important first step – look at the words all around the unfamiliar one – 99% of the time, the clues will be there to help you.

tricky words AQE English step 1

Step 2

Look for an obvious DEFINITION.

Sometimes your tricky word will actually be linked to a definition – how handy is that?

It might say “such as”, “like” or “that is” around your tricky word.

Tricky word = glacier

The glacier looked magnificent, like a huge river of ice, moving slowly downhill.


Other times, the definition comes in a phrase with a comma on either side.

Tricky word = evaporated

The water in the saucepan evaporated, transforming from liquid to steam, just as her back was turned.

If you find clues like this in the context, you can be sure you’re getting a definition, or at least a really big hint, right there for the taking!

tricky words AQE English step 2

Step 3

Look for EXAMPLES that help tell you what the word refers to.

Sometimes you’ll find examples linked to the word – these can help you figure out the meaning.

Tricky word = anatomy

She looked at Leonardo’s drawings of anatomy. They were incredibly accurate, and she wondered how he captured the bones, muscles, and even the eyes, so clearly.

Even if you’ve never heard the word anatomy before, by thinking about the examples that are linked to the unfamiliar word, you can work out that it refers to the body.

Here’s another one. Even if you’ve never seen the word primates, you can use the examples in the context to help you nail the meaning!

Tricky word = primates

Fred had devoted his working life to studying primates. He had even written a book about the habits of apes and monkeys.

tricky words AQE English step 3

Step 4

Look for words nearby that seem to mean the SAME or OPPOSITE.

Tricky word = galleon

The ship surged through the water. All the smaller boats were bobbing in the bay, while the galleon seemed to glide powerfully over the waves.

There are two clues here that tell you all you need to know about the word galleon. Firstly, the context is all about ships and boats, so it’s logical for you to assume that a galleon is a type of ship too. Secondly, look at the phrase smaller boats. This tells you that, in contrast to these smaller boats, a galleon is a larger, more powerful ship.

Tricky word = pollinators

Every garden needs pollinators, as around 75% of plants are pollinated by animals. Without butterflies and bees, there would be few flowers, fruit and vegetables.

The important link in the sentence is between the unfamiliar word pollinators, and the familiar butterflies and bees. By spotting the link, you can assume that pollinators are the type of animal that move pollen, like butterflies and bees.

Tricky word = scorched

The grass by the swimming pool was scorched by the hot sun, while the lawn under the shade of the tree still looked green and moist.

To find out what scorched means, look for the clues that tell you about its opposite (green and moist). This tells you that scorched grass is dry and has lost its colour.

tricky word meanings AQE English step 4

Step 5

Swap it!

Once you think you’ve worked it out, try your meaning in place of the word and see if it makes sense.

tricky word meanings AQE English step 5



Here’s the proof.

These 5 steps can turn you into a genius! All you need to do is follow the clues…

You can use them with any sentence. As long as you apply the same principles, you will be able to work out the meaning of the most complicated-looking words.

Here’s a real challenge for you – a sentence from Gustave Flaubert’s novel, ‘Madame Bovary’. This is grown-up, complicated literature, not a children’s story. The author is describing some drawings of English ladies –

Super-tricky words = equipage, postilions

You saw them lounging in carriages, gliding along through the park, with a greyhound bounding ahead of the equipage driven at a trot by two little postilions in white breeches.

Ever heard of an equipage? What about a postilion? Thought not! So what clues can you find to work out what they are?

Look at the CONTEXT for words you DO understand. The key word is carriages – it means exactly the same as the tricky word equipage, which is an old-fashioned carriage pulled by horses. You can even work out the horse bit too, if you spot the word trot.

So far so good – the meaning is right there if you look for it, and it’s simpler than you think!

Postilion is trickier, but not impossible for a genius like you. Once you’ve worked out that an equipage is a carriage, you’ll see that it is driven by these mysterious postilion things!

Now, are you confused about whether a postilion is a horse or a person? If you recognise the easier word in the sentence – breeches (old-fashioned trousers) – then you can picture the postilions wearing white trousers as they drive the carriage, and you can be pretty sure that postilions are people, not horses in fancy clothes!

That example is far more complicated than anything you will have to tackle for AQE English. But you can see from this example how important it is to look for clues in the context. If you just follow the clues, you’ll be ready to deal with any AQE comprehension with confidence.

Remember those 5 steps to solve tricky word meanings and you’ll be fine! Why not print off this tip sheet below and use it if you’re stuck on a word meaning?

AQE transfer test English word meanings

For our AQE Test workbooks, click here.









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