Learning new words is easier when we read - here's the proof


In 1962, Anthony Burgess, already a well-known British novelist, published a short book about the futureAlex Suit .Clockwork. It was a nightmare novel because Burgess' future was a frightening one where young people were extremely violent.

The novel was unusual for another reason though. The young man telling the story - and he was one of those who loves hurting others - used English mixed up with a dialect that was nonsense to us. It was called Nadsat and Burgess's dangerous young story-teller used 241 words from this imagined language to tell his story. On average, he used them fifteen times each.

The novel soon became very famous and was made into a film with some great Hollywood actors. In Britain, it could not be shown in cinemas for twenty-seven years because of its extreme violence and graphic sex scenes. This, of course, only made it more famous.

But what has this notorious book got to do with reading and listening to get better English?

In 1978, three academics, Saragi, Nation and Meister, did a study with adult 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 and what they thought of it. They were not told to learn the Nadsat words or that they would be tested on them. 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 Nadsat words just by reading a novel.

In 2003, in another piece of research, Hermann compared two groups of students learning English as a foreign language on how many unknown words they could remember from George Orwell's wonderful short novel, 'Animal Farm'. One group learnt the words by memorising them in lists. The other group did not know they were going to have a test on the vocabulary in the book. After one week, the students who had memorised the words did better than the group who did not know there was going to be a test. After three weeks, 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 never tried to learn the words did better than they had in the first test.

You can read more about the benefits that reading has on other skills in English in Stephen Krashen's 'The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research' (Heinemann, 2004).


Image of suit as worn in the film of Clockwork Orange by China Crisis (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons