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Vocab activities for your classroom

Debunking the Great Reading Myth

One of the most persistent myths about word acquisition is that students don't need to be taught words; they just need to read more and their vocabularies will magically expand. This theory — which I like to call "learning words by osmosis" — doesn't hold much promise for your average or struggling reader. While it may hold true for a select group of students who are strong, avid readers possessing a curiosity about words, most students don't learn words by simply encountering them in reading.

Don't get me wrong. There is a strong, positive correlation between amount of reading and vocabulary size. And, of course, getting students to read more is a worthy goal in and of itself for students. However, teachers cannot assume that students are learning unfamiliar vocabulary words in the course of their reading, and they therefore have a responsibility to ensure that all students gain vocabulary knowledge, not just "the readers" of the class.

What the Research Says

In terms of learning new words in the course of reading, research shows that does occur, but in small increments. That is, by no means will all the unfamiliar words encountered in reading be learned, and those that are learned will require multiple encounters with them before learning is accomplished. Studies estimate that of 100 unfamiliar words met in reading, between 5 and 15 of them will be learned (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985; Swanborn & de Glopper, 1999).
Bringing Words to Life (Beck at al., 2002)

Why are students only picking up 5-15% of the unfamiliar words they are encountering? One reason is that most writers are not using words to "teach words" but rather to tell a story or to make a point. Authors do not usually and intentionally seed their works with contextual clues to lead their readers to infer the meanings of words, nor should they; that would make for stilted and inauthentic writing. For example, read this climactic scene in Jane Eyre — when, after years of painful separation, Jane returns to her true love Rochester, who has been crippled and blinded by a fire. As you read, identify any vocabulary words that might stump young readers and consider any contextual clues that could help readers infer their meanings.

[Rochester] put out his hand with a quick gesture, but not seeing where I stood, he did not touch me. "Who is this? Who is this?" he demanded, trying, as it seemed, to see with those sightless eyes—unavailing and distressing attempt! "Answer me—speak again!" he ordered, imperiously and aloud.
"Will you have a little more water, sir? I spilt half of what was in the glass," I said.
"Who is it? What is it? Who speaks?"
"Pilot knows me, and John and Mary know I am here. I came only this evening," I answered.
"Great God!—what delusion has come over me? What sweet madness has seized me?"
"No delusion—no madness: your mind, sir, is too strong for delusion, your health too sound for frenzy."
"And where is the speaker? Is it only a voice? Oh! I cannot see, but I must feel, or my heart will stop and my brain burst. Whatever—whoever you are—be perceptible to the touch or I cannot live!"
He groped; I arrested his wandering hand, and prisoned it in both mine.
"Her very fingers!" he cried; "her small, slight fingers! If so there must be more of her."
The muscular hand broke from my custody; my arm was seized, my shoulder—neck—waist—I was entwined and gathered to him.
"Is it Jane? What is it? This is her shape—this is her size—"
"And this her voice," I added. "She is all here: her heart, too. God bless you, sir! I am glad to be so near you again."
Jane Eyre (Bronte, 1847)

If you are a student who has made it to page 400-something in Jane Eyre, are you pausing to consider the meaning of imperiously in this scene? Has Charlotte Bronte provided you with the context clues to figure it out? Was Charlotte Bronte even thinking about context clues as she wrote? Of course not. Bronte was not writing sentence completion questions for the SAT; she was writing a love story, and using the words that came naturally to her to convey that story.

As a reader, if you were to revisit the sentence "'Answer me—speak again!' he ordered, imperiously and aloud," you might be able to infer the meaning of imperiously as "in a commanding manner," but you could also inaccurately conclude the word as meaning "desperately" or "in a pleading manner." All three meanings would make sense in the context. But more to the point, as a reader, are you even thinking about the meaning of imperiously in this scene? Or, are you so swept up in the moment of Jane and Rochester's reunion that you are oblivious to the unfamiliar words you are encountering?

When it comes to literature, most readers tend to be plot-driven. If you are truly riveted by a story, do you really want to pause to interrupt the ride to look up a word? Fiction fans are usually reading to find out what happens next. They might not even consciously realize that they have encountered unfamiliar words in the story. That would be a small crack in the sidewalk, not disturbing them on their path to discover if Harry Potter will ultimately conquer Voldemort or if Atticus Finch will win his case.

As a point of contrast, read the following excerpt from the children's story Charlotte's Web:

"Are you awake, Charlotte?" [Wilbur] said softly.
"Yes," came the answer.
"What is that nifty little thing? Did you make it?"
"I did indeed," replied Charlotte in a weak voice.
"Is it a plaything?"
"Plaything? I should say not. It is my egg sac, my magnum opus."
"I don't know what a magnum opus is," said Wilbur.
"That's Latin," explained Charlotte. "It means 'great work.' This egg sac is my great work—the finest thing I have ever made."
Charlotte's Web (E.B. White, 1952)

E.B. White goes well beyond providing contextual clues for the meaning of magnum opus; he has woven in its definition through the dialogue between Wilbur and Charlotte. A young reader exposed to this scene may remember the meaning of magnum opus after this one exposure, but chances are still unlikely. If you poll the second grade class who is exposed to this scene the day after hearing it in a class read-aloud, the term may be familiar. If you ask the students what it means, one or two students may respond "an egg sac." If the teacher, while collecting students' homework the next morning, had referred to Billy's short story as a magnum opus, students would have an even better chance of recalling the term and may generalize its meaning to "any great work" instead of only associating it with Charlotte's egg sac.

The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Poorer

Returning to the excerpt from Beck's Bringing Words to Life, the incremental nature of vocabulary growth is reliant on multiple exposures to a single word. Wide readers will receive those multiple exposures through the many texts they encounter. And, some of those readers are lucky enough to be surrounded by friends, family members and teachers who act as "word mentors" and use those same words in their daily conversations. Strong readers also commonly possess the reading skills to figure out a word's meaning from context, if those contextual clues exist.

Struggling readers, on the other hand, tend not to challenge themselves with complex readings, have trouble making sense of contextual clues, and may not be surrounded by "word mentors" who use academic vocabulary in their daily lives. As a result, these students can't catch up in the word acquisition race without interventions.

The Teacher's Role

It's not realistic to expect that teachers can single-handedly compensate for students' lack of exposure to vocabulary from wide reading and oral reinforcement, but teachers can institute certain practices to help struggling readers experience multiple encounters with words and to become more word-conscious.

Previewing the vocabulary of a particular text before reading is commonly thought of as an ELL practice, but all students can benefit from being exposed to a group of words in isolation before reading them in context. Previewing a vocabulary word does not interrupt the reading process and students may experience a heightened awareness of the word and its meaning when they encounter it in the context of the reading. Previewing vocabulary does not necessarily have to take up valuable class time either. In a blended learning format, teachers can send students to Vocabulary.com via their computers or mobile devices to preview vocabulary by assigning lists based on popular works of literature, founding documents, speeches, or news articles.

Even though students may skip over—consciously or subconsciously—unfamiliar words in their reading, teachers can revisit pivotal passages in class and model word inference strategies that can expose students to the "habits of mind" most helpful for word learning. For example, students could be asked to highlight contextual clues present in the Jane Eyre passage that they most likely overlooked during their initial reading, such as demanded and ordered that are consistent with the meaning of imperiously. This exercise could also be extended to a discussion of characterization, since Rochester is consistently seen as having an imperious manner throughout Jane Eyre, even during his crippled state at the end of the novel.

As esteemed vocabulary instruction researcher Michael Graves candidly puts it, "You might as well not teach a word if you're not going to bother to review it." Because research has shown that students usually require between 10 and 16 encounters with a word before they learn it, it is necessary to have a systematic mode of vocabulary review. Just as Vocabulary.com can help students preview words before reading, it can also help students to review words after reading. Once a word has entered a student's learning program, it will periodically reappear based on the students' performance history of answering questions about that word in multiple contexts.

National Louis University professor Camille Blachowicz uses the analogy of the dimmer switch on a light to illustrate the incremental process of learning a word. The dimmer switch may start to move when a reader first encounters a word in the course of reading, but it can take multiple encounters in multiple contexts — oral or written — before the "light" goes on and the reader is able to use it with precision and accuracy. With this in mind, teachers can play a vital role in making sure that the light keeps getting brighter.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 22nd 2013, 11:42 AM
Comment by: GUSTAVO D. (Brazil)
This article is the best I've ever seen. I am Brazilian and I am studying a lot because I am enrolled in a Law Course in the United States. I am practicing my English all the time. And, this site "Vocabulary.com" is an important tool for me.
In my struggle to put more words into my brain I have been reading many books and I have been taking notes about the new words that I had been seen.
The main message is that if you want to learn Advanced English, you have to listen like a baby, repeat like a parrot and read with love in the idiom.
I do agree with Georgia Scurletis.
Your message makes me strong to go ahead in my studies.
Tuesday October 22nd 2013, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Jean-Luc (San Jose, CA)
I am one of the few readers who love words and probably forage your site daily. Being French, many of the words you introduce are familiar because of their latin root. However, in the course of reading, I sometimes encounter a new word, or one I vaguely remember. I immediately add it to my notepad alongside the sentence that contains it. Here are the last 20 words in that list: adumbrate, portmanteau, untoward, bevy, slough, conflate, hiatus, jettison, anaphora, epigone, dross, shibboleth, vapid, ken, hark back, callow, pare, addled, bespangled, stultify.
I enjoyed your article - and especially its authoritativeness based on research.
Tuesday October 22nd 2013, 1:35 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Excellent article; it's well organized and you make some very good points, each one perfectly illustrated by the excerpts and other examples you've chosen. Thank you!

A couple of minor glitches: in the third paragraph, I think "well" should be "will". And in the fourth paragraph from the end, "ELL" (English Language Learners?) might be an unfamiliar "word" to many non-teachers.

Again, thanks for your helpful observations of problems and your advice for solving them!

The Happy Quibbler

[Thanks for spotting the typo, now fixed. ELL stands for English Language Learner. —Ed.]
Tuesday October 22nd 2013, 5:15 PM
Comment by: jesterness (NJ)
Very interesting. I am one of those wide readers that learns words through reading them, however even that has problems with it, since learning words through context doesn't necessarily tell you how they're pronounced. This can be problematic, and occasionally fairly embarrassing
for example, "coiffed". difficult to know which way to pronounce if you've only read it. etc
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 6:36 AM
Comment by: Bbuzz (Greece)
A very logical and straightforward article. I would give out a little more credit to book reading as an English learning tool than what is presented here, contesting that a 5-15% "learning ratio" is not a complete description of the learning experience.

Let's take your example: "Answer me—speak again!" he ordered, imperiously and aloud.

First scenario: you've never met "imperiously" before. English class is the first time you see it. And you study the meaning, and you try to memorize it. Along with a list of other phrases and words, whose only common feature is that they are in English. And the list expands every day. Even the brightest and most imaginative English teacher cannot obviate the existence of long, stale, vocabulary to-learn-lists at some point.

Second scenario: you were leisurely reading a book of your choice, Jane Eyre, and Rochester is trying to make sense of it all. You skipped through "imperiously". You didn't look it up. It doesn't count towards the 5-15% figure above. But you've seen it used, and it is now more than just a word in a list.

At a later time, a tool like vocabulary.com comes along and throws a phrase with "imperiously" at you.

First scenario: Most likely you're probably back where you started, learning it again from scratch. You attempt the question ten times before you get it right consistently.

Second scenario: the moment you learn the meaning of imperiously in context, the Rochester scene is enhanced. You have fast-forwarded the learning process. You don't need 10 iterations to get it right, the first is already enlightening. And the bonus is - it is effortless. You don't have to try to memorize, you don't specifically devote an hour each day to learning English, it just happens automatically.

That's why a simple percentage measurement of words learned after reading a book (5-15% as stated) does not describe the complete picture, because it leaves out the "pop-out" effect you get when later on you are taught the meaning of a familiar word or phrase. It doesn't work in all cases, you can't remember everything you read, and some people don't like reading at all, but when it happens, I find that learning is easier and retention is essentially permanent.
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Khloe.R (Australia)
Wow, thank you so much for this piece. I've been trying to read more to learn new words but have been finding it really difficult, now I know why. This has helped me a lot, I was starting to lose faith in myself when it came to expanding my vocabulary.
Monday October 28th 2013, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom)
I wish I had had a teacher like you. But every day is a school day right? Not just for students. So from now on I will aim to understand all the words I read instead of glossing over those with which I am unfamiliar, or simply assuming I know their meaning. The real test is when someone asks you the meaning of a word. If I've read it and I think I understand it contextually then on I go with what I am reading. But then trying to describe its meaning to someone else puts you right on the spot and therein lies the test of your own comprehension.

This brings me to a wider point about this website. I love your word of the day and the snappy paragraph which goes with your definitions. However, our learning would be massively enhanced if you could add an example of the word being used in a sentence. Don't take this the wrong way but sometimes your search for a clever or witty description comes at the expense of a comprehensive definition. Sorry to hijack your article Georgia - I loved it so thanks!!

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