Reading works of literature helps us to expand our minds and our horizons in so many ways, and it plays a pivotal role in our acquisition and retention of new words.
The Department of Education (2015) describes reading as “one of life’s profound joys” as well as being the most crucial skill that determines our academic success and a key to our wider social development.
However, we cannot become accomplished readers if we do not develop the ability to absorb new words and build our vocabulary with each new text we encounter. Reading regularly introduces us to a bountiful world of words that with the right approach, we can learn to channel, and absorb the new vocabulary that we come across.
If children are supported by parents and teachers from a young age to develop successful strategies for retaining new vocabulary when reading, they can become fluent readers, eloquent writers, and articulate speakers with a rich and varied vocabulary at their disposal, which will continue to expand throughout their lives.
This blog will discuss why reading plays such an instrumental role in our acquisition of words - find 5 effective methods for understanding and retaining new vocabulary.
We will find that in most cases, anyone we meet who has an extensive vocabulary is also an avid reader. This is no coincidence. Reading comes with many benefits, one of which is the way it helps to expand and enrich our vocabulary. This is true for everyone as we read throughout our lives, not just children or people who are learning a new language.
Regular reading has been found to sharpen our concentration, increase our attention span and improve our memory. For children, developing positive habits for vocabulary acquisition early on supports them to understand and engage with each text they read, absorb new cultural knowledge alongside learning new words, and continue to expand their vocabulary as they get older by nurturing a love of reading. For adults, regular reading continues to expand their vocabulary arsenal - it’s never too late to pick up a book and cultivate a love of reading, and the benefits can be felt at age four and age forty.
Reading fiction can be just as educational and insightful as reading factual books, as well as providing the escapism and sense of well-being that comes with reading for pleasure and immersing ourselves in a gripping story. It is this desire to connect with the text because we are enjoying it so much that makes us want to understand what motivates a character, identify the nuances of dialogue or descriptors in an important scene, or gain an insight into a different world by understanding the specific vocabulary associated with a particular place, professional or time period. This propels us as readers to absorb the meaning of new words, phrases and concepts so that we can understand every aspect of the story as it unfolds.
The more we read, the more we understand, and the more we want to know the meaning of new words as we come across them, because we begin to appreciate just how much the depth of our vocabulary enhances our reading experience. Literacy is the language of learning, both in fiction and non-fiction.
Whether reading for purpose in class or for pleasure at home, there are several simple steps we can take to help children sharpen their ability to absorb new words. We can also incorporate some of these strategies into our reading habits to get the most out of each book we read and continue to develop our vocabulary.
With reading, as in life, we cannot grow if we do not challenge ourselves. Of course, there is nothing wrong with reading something light, familiar and easygoing when we want to relax – it is a comforting pastime and a great way of unwinding for children and adults alike. However, if we never push ourselves out of our comfort zone when we are reading, we will not have as many opportunities to develop our vocabulary.
Teachers can play a huge part in encouraging learners to push themselves and embrace more difficult texts when choosing their reading material, and parents can stimulate children’s curiosity by introducing them to books that they perhaps enjoyed as a child, as well as keeping up to date with new books across a range of genres.
Having access to books at home and seeing their parents reading has a hugely positive impact on children’s motivation to read and it will encourage them to try out different books and more challenging texts. It is important to be realistic when recommending more complex books for children: ensure that the content is appropriate for their age group and that they can engage with material that is challenging but manageable, rather than being overwhelmed by content which is far too advanced or too niche.
Being introduced to the right books at the right time, which includes challenging new vocabulary and more complex concepts, can encourage learners to take more of an interest in the particular issues or topics that feature in the book in real life, whether it is in class or through further independent reading.
Just as it is important to challenge ourselves when reading, it is also important to vary what we read as much as possible. Whilst we all have our favourite authors, genres and types of stories, diversifying what we are reading is the only way of building a rich and well-rounded vocabulary that spans different subjects, settings, concepts and cultures. If we always read the same types of books that all contain a similar style of language and are set in a similar universe, we are limiting the breadth of new words that we encounter.
Literature is our doorway into other worlds and all of the new vocabulary and ideas contained within them. The wider our choice of reading material is, the more varied our vocabulary will be.
Everyone has genres and themes that appeal to us more than others, but we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving something a try that may be completely new to us, whether that is sci-fi, fantasy, horror, historical fiction, detective fiction, adventure stories, or some interesting nonfiction. Exploring new genres, subject matters, settings and lived experiences brings readers into contact with a wealth of new Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary, all while broadening your cultural understanding and encouraging empathy.
You cannot follow the story in a book properly if you are not fully absorbed in what you are reading. Much in the same way as an irritating distraction during an important movie scene, if your mind wanders halfway through a page, you’ll find that your reading material hasn’t truly “sunk in” - this can affect your enjoyment of the book overall, whether that’s due to not understanding the plot or having to reread sections.
Whilst skim reading may suffice if we just want to get the gist of a text, we need to be completely engaged in what we are reading if we are to absorb it, remember it and understand its message. Being immersed in a story is not only essential for absorbing new vocabulary, but also extremely beneficial for our mental well-being.
Encouraging full immersion while reading is especially important when encouraging a love of reading in children and students. When students are given page targets or uninteresting reading materials, you may find learners skimming the book to get through pages faster, thus losing out on the entertainment of the text. Encourage learners to read at their own pace in a quiet space, and to understand that quality reading time trumps quantity.
When we come across a new term or concept in a book, it can be tempting to gloss over it or hope that context later in the book confirms its meaning. While this saves time getting the dictionary out, it prevents readers from becoming fully immersed in the book’s content. Plus, it sacrifices a valuable encounter with an ambitious word!
When you encounter a new, interesting term in a book you’re reading, make a note of it. Read around the word to determine if context clues can inform the word’s meaning. If not, consult the dictionary and find the definition of the word - but still keep that word written down to come back to later! This way, you can deepen your understanding of the new word and expand your vocabulary in the long term.
The same process can be used in the classroom. Children can be encouraged early on not to gloss over words they don’t know, but to instead take the time to reflect on them and try to determine their meaning from context. Asking learners to try to gauge the meaning from clues embedded in the rest of the passage will also make them examine the text as a whole more closely, which can deepen their connection with it.
If learners cannot work out the meaning of the new word from context, the word can then be defined and discussed. In class, teachers can encourage learners to come up with synonyms to confirm that they fully understand each new word and ask them to write it down on a themed word chart or vocabulary board or to create and update a vocabulary journal.
Similar activities can be carried out at home to assist with the learning and retention of new words, using visual aids, simple props and different colours to make learning more fun.
The Oxford Language Report (2021-2022) discusses the success of explicit vocabulary teaching at school and the importance of incorporating it into lesson plans. The report emphasises that regularly revisiting new words through reading, writing and speaking will help to fully embed them in learners’ minds.
Encouraging learners to incorporate new words they learn into their writing and speech will reinforce their understanding, provide additional high-quality encounters with new vocabulary, and strengthen their literacy skills long term.
As well as this, taking the time to focus on new vocabulary ensures that learners fully understand the story they are reading, enabling them to discuss its content, themes, characters and plot in a more articulate, confident manner.
If we make the effort to push boundaries, both our own and those of our children and students, by reading challenging books and trying different genres and themes that are new to us, we develop an increasingly broad and sophisticated vocabulary. Reading a wide variety of books regularly equips us with a wider framework of cultural and subject-specific knowledge.
Literature often acts as a gateway into realms that we otherwise never would have been able to access, and inspires us to pursue new knowledge long after we have finished reading the book. By supporting young readers to develop reading habits early on, the acquisition of vocabulary when reading becomes a natural, enjoyable and rewarding process that improves literacy skills, increases cultural capital, unlocks career and higher education prospects, and fuels a lifelong love of reading.