Improving your vocabulary through extensive reading


About a year ago, my UK-based partner, Simon Dalton, and I made Read Listen Learn available for students to improve their reading and listening skills in English. It offers (young) adult students a variety of texts - both short stories and non-fiction articles - adapted to their linguistic levels. We also hope that it is very easy to use. We made the site because we believe that reading is the best way to acquire a foreign language. But what's the evidence for this?

In 1962, Anthony Burgess published a book about the future. It was a dystopian novel because Burgess’ future was a frightening one where young people were extremely violent. The novel was unusual though for another reason. The young man telling the story used English mixed with a dialect that was nonsensical to us. It was called Nadsat and Burgess’ dangerous young storyteller used 241 words from this imagined language to tell his story. On average, he used them fifteen times each.

But what has this notorious book got to do with reading and writing to improve English language skills?

In 1978, three academics, Saragi, Nation and Meister, did a study with native speakers of English. They asked them to read the short novel and said that, after a few days, they would get a multiple choice test on what the book was about. They were not told to learn the Nadsat words. But, in fact, the test was ninety questions on Nadsat. Surprisingly, the average score on the test was 76%. In other words, the adults had learnt three quarters of the words just by reading.

In 2003, in another piece of research, Hermann compared two groups of students learning English on how many unknown words they could remember from George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. One group learnt the words by memorizing them. The other group did not know they were going to have a test, on the vocabulary. After one week, the students who memorized the words did better than the group which did not know they were going to be tested. After three weeks, in a surprise test, the two groups scored the same.

You might think that the people who’d learnt the words by heart had forgotten some and this was true. But the interesting thing in Hermann’s test was that the students who had not made an attempt to learn the words did 40% better than in the original test.

What does this tell us? Reading is the best way to assimilate new vocabulary and also to become familiar with grammatical structures. Stephen Krashen’s ‘The Power of Reading’ (2006) provides a wealth of evidence to show that reading outside the standard curriculum is a powerful way to learn a language. Sadly, it’s the linguistic skill that is most neglected by students. As teachers, we need to change this attitude if we want our students really to excel at learning English!