We all know that one of the best ways to build vocabulary is to read - read constantly, and read widely.
In this article, we discuss the link between reading and vocabulary and explore book selection for a range of ages and reading levels.
There is a mutually beneficial connection between reading and vocabulary. Reading leads to expanded vocabulary; expanded vocabulary leads to enhanced reading comprehension; and so goes the productive cycle of reading, learning and recognising new words.
When children begin their word learning journey, they use phonics to learn sounds and practise blending those sounds to read words. According to research by Georgiou, Inoue and Parrila, when children achieve basic proficiency in word reading, they can become independent readers and improve their vocabulary.
Reading, and being read to, puts words into context and shows how they interact with other words to create meaning, going beyond the limitations of dictionary definitions. Encountering words multiple times within the context of different sentences or stories allows for a deeper understanding, better word recall and later on an ability to use words in writing and speaking. As learners gain more words under their belt, they can read wider and more complex texts.
Words need to be encountered more than once in order for them to stick; a great way to encourage repeated exposures to new vocabulary is through ‘extensive reading’, sometimes called reading for pleasure. Research by Alan Maley (2008) shows that successful extensive reading is where readers read often, they read what they want to read, and reading itself is the reward of the activity. Where there is pressure to meet the demands of the curriculum, it can be easy to lose out on regular opportunities for extended reading. This is where books in the home, libraries and dedicated quiet time for reading – in and out of the classroom – are beneficial.
When it comes to selecting the best books to encourage learners to read, the most important factor to consider is whether the learner will enjoy the text. No matter the complexity or the format the reading is presented in, the crucial element of using reading to improve vocabulary is encouraging learners to read for reading’s sake - this means choosing a book they love and are excited by, encouraging them to keep reading. However, the process of encouraging a love of reading differs between older learners and younger learners.
When children first start learning to read, they frequently come across many words they haven’t seen before and are focused on practising the decoding skills of sounding out and blending. This doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the process. Young readers respond well to rhyme and alliteration, and fun stories and illustrations help to convey context and word meaning. Fun tales and characters stick in young readers’ minds; children and carers can find themselves revisiting the same book or books over and over again. While this may be a tad tedious for adults, it is the start of the beneficial reading for pleasure experience for the young learner.
Readers need to be exposed to a wide range of texts as they develop in proficiency. This provides opportunities for them to encounter a variety of vocabulary, allows them to discover more about the world and is an opportunity to hone in on the type of reading matter they prefer. Graphic novels, comic books, non-fiction, poetry and the many genres of fiction are all potential sources of great reading enjoyment and the reading habit required to boost vocabulary.
Learners can benefit from variety in the media they use for reading, with the multimedia and interactive features of digital books enhancing the reading experience. Research by Jiawook (2021) has shown that the use of digital tools in the classroom improves learners’ vocabulary. Reluctant readers who have grown up with access to technology may respond well to ebooks and digital texts, while audiobooks may motivate struggling readers to persevere with books and, particularly when paired with a printed book, can reinforce vocabulary learning.
The key to ongoing vocabulary acquisition is moving through levels of difficulty, away from a position of comfort to face new word challenges, but not leaping too far ahead to be demotivating.
Some educators use the five-finger rule to achieve this with the youngest readers. When children read a page of a book, they hold up a finger for every word they don’t know or can’t pronounce. Two to three fingers mean the book is just right, anything less might be too easy, anything more too hard.
When learners begin the National Curriculum, many educators use guided reading bands or Lexile levels to match reader ability with the complexity of reading material, so learners understand what they are reading and engage with the process. Publishers in the UK are increasingly placing a Lexile measure on books and the levels cover a variety of types of reading material, so readers can still look for content they enjoy.
Content appropriateness is another thing to consider, particularly for young readers with strong reading skills. Some learners may be technically able to read high bands or levels, but the content may be aimed at an older age range; for example, moving from pre-teen to young adult can involve new themes. There are tools to help with this, such as the Commonsense Media website, which provides independent age-based ratings for books, as well as other media.
Books for younger children often feature rhyming stories and come with great illustrations to capture interest and add visual cues to the reading process. Look for rhyme, alliteration, strong characters, humour, colourful illustrations and interactive elements. A positive shared reading experience between child and guardian/teacher can establish reading as a fun activity in the child’s mind.
Here are some books with word play at the heart of their story, encouraging a love of words in younger readers:
- 13 Words, Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Jaknab
- A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, Fred Gwynne
- An Interesting Word for Every Day of the Year: Fascinating Words for First Readers, Dr. Meredith L. Rowe, illustrated by Monika Forsberg
- Big Words for Little People (series), Helen Mortimer and Cristina Trapanese
- Max’s Words, Kate Banks, illustrated by Boris Kulikov
- Thesaurus Rex, Laya Steinberg, illustrated by Debbie Harter
- The Boy who Loved Words, Roni Schotter, illustrated by Giselle Potter
- The King who Rained, Fred Gwynne
- The Word Collector, Peter H. Reynolds
Books in this age range have plenty of scope for capturing readers’ imaginations, whether they’re adventure tales, fantasy sagas or science-fiction series. Book series have familiar characters and consistent vocabulary that this age group enjoy, and they encourage readers to work through the entire collection.
Here are some books and book series you could consider for this age group:
- Artemis Fowl series, Eoin Colfer
- Emily Knight I Am… Becoming series, by A. Bello
- Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia Wrede
- Fly Me Home, Polly Ho Yen
- Journey to Jo’Burg, Beverley Naidoo
- Noughts and Crosses series, Malorie Blackman
- Percy Jackson series, Rick Riordan
- The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
- War Horse, Michael Morpurgo
At this stage, it’s beneficial to expose readers to a variety of texts. This widens their vocabulary pool and opens up possibilities for finding genres that they really enjoy. Dystopian fiction is popular as young teens try to make sense of the world and the impact of individual and societal actions.
Here is a list of books and their genres to try with this age group:
- Animal Farm, George Orwell (dystopian fiction)
- Empire of the Sun, JG Ballard (war story)
- His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (fantasy)
- I am Malala, Christina Lamb and Malala Yousafzai (non-fiction)
- Illegal, Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin (graphic novel)
- Jane Goodall, Researcher Who Champions Chimps, Mark Venezia (non-fiction)
- Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (dystopian fiction)
- Surprising Joy, Valerie Bloom (fiction)
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon (mystery)
- The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins (dystopian fiction)
As teens progress in their reading ability, they are able to tackle heftier texts, in terms of content matter, length and vocabulary.
It’s important to encourage readers to continue reading texts that have interested them in the past - one of the main struggles for this age group is sacrificing a love of reading in favour of the texts they need for their exams. While reading set texts is crucial for their progress, continue to encourage recreational reading also.
Here are some titles across a range of genres to stretch teen readers:
- 1984, George Orwell (dystopian fiction)
- Beloved, Toni Morrison (historical fiction)
- Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby (autobiographical)
- Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (fantasy)
- House of Salt and Sorrows, Erin A Craig (fantasy)
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou (autobiographical)
- Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (classic novel)
- The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (fiction)
- The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (historical fiction)
- The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien (fantasy)
Adults tend to have a particular genre of book that they enjoy, however, delving into other genres and experimenting with different texts helps to keep building vocabulary. It can be fun to create a reading challenge that involves a particular type of book over a certain period, such as a classic book each month, books from debut authors, Shakespearean plays, or short-listed titles in book awards – the possibilities are endless.
For adults who struggle with reading, the Quick Reads titles are a great way into reading for pleasure. Written by bestselling authors, they are adult-focused books that are accessible and easy-to-read.
Here are some suggestions of titles for a classic reading challenge:
- Another Country, James Baldwin
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
- Moby Dick, Herman Melville
- Orlando, Virginia Woolf
- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
- Women of the Harlem Renaissance, Marissa Constantinou
- All Quiet on the Western Front, Eric Maria Remarque
- The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
- 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
- Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
At Bedrock, we teach through bespoke fiction and non-fiction texts, crafted by teaching experts to encourage reading for pleasure while improving vocabulary. Our human-narrated stories and knowledge-rich texts are embedded with explicit vocabulary and grammar techniques for each age range.
Primary-age learners follow the tales of Grace and Otis, older learners delve into the world of Adapa and other characters through our original fiction, and our original non-fiction covers topics such as Malala, the Harlem Renaissance, Galileo, Muhammad Ali and Foods From Around the World.
We use original texts because learners retain knowledge best when literary skills are introduced through a variety of authentic contexts. By using accessible Tier 1 language, we ensure all learners can unlock ambitious language and literacy skills while retaining a love of reading and learning about the world around them.
Our original texts also close the gap between struggling readers’ comprehension levels and age-appropriate content, by conveying exciting and engaging stories and intriguing non-fiction through accessible language.
At Bedrock, we believe every learner deserves the opportunity to love reading. Strong reading skills unlock progress in all subjects; students learn through literacy.