Evidence for Reading

by Tamara Kula

Reading has a huge impact on vocabulary, both in one's native tongue and in a second language. Students often ask how they can improve their vocabulary in the months before a college-entrance exam, and most are advised to do one thing - read more.

Students who read are simply exposed to more words. Though most unknown words in a text are skipped, between 5% and 15% percent of these new words are learned through context on the first exposure. After multiple exposures, the rate of learning new words improves. With direct instruction in some words or simply an attitude of actively noticing new words, rates of learning and remembering new words improves again (Grabe).

Children learn their first language remarkably fast. A 16-month old child, though only able to produce about 50 words, can understand between 100 and 300 words (Fenson). From that time until age six, a child acquires about 10 words a day, and after that rates of acquisition can reach up to 20 words a day (O'Grady). By these numbers, a child will learn somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 words a year. However, by the time children are in first grade, there is a severe gap between those who have been read to and those who have not. A first-grader who has been read to often – at least 20 minutes a day – has a total (active and passive) vocabulary of 40,000 words. This child has heard over three million words. A child who has not been read to, in contrast, has been exposed to far fewer words and has a vocabulary of only 10,000 words (Strauss).

Now let's look at learning a second language. With limited instruction time and the lack of exposure to that language once leaving the classroom (in most cases), it is highly unlikely that a student will learn their second language at anywhere near the same rates as their first. High school graduates know, on average about 40,000 words in their first language, a significant amount that makes them fluent readers. How many words do second-language learners need to know to be able to read an academic text? William Grabe cites the number 10,000 as a minimum to be able to understand an average text, with support from teachers. Obviously, more than classroom instruction time is needed to acquire the amount of vocabulary needed (Grabe). Just like for the first-grader, any second-language learner needs the constant exposure to new words through reading.

In fact, students can learn words more effectively from free reading than through direct instruction, according to Dr. Stephen Krashen. Words have many subtle qualities that are hard to teach. Seeing a word in context, again and again, provides a better sense of the meaning as a whole. Free reading also results in better grammar, spelling, writing style, and, naturally, comprehension. It is important to note that, just like in one's native language, being read to aloud is wonderfully helpful in terms of language input. Students who are read to three times a week read better than students who are not (Krashen).

Of course, reading is not the only way to learn words. High-level conversations with people around you and documentaries or movies using rich language are also wonderful ways to learn. However, reading is an activity that you can actively choose to participate in, any time, anywhere, and at your own speed. It's always in your power to provide yourself with valuable input to improve your language, to reinforce and add to the language you've been hearing elsewhere.

This website tries to do the things mentioned in this article – provide instructional support for new words, provide multiple exposures of these words through interesting material, encourage you to appreciate and notice new words, and prepare you to be able to go and read anything you encounter. Language is an adventure of words – let's start reading.

Sources and Further Reading:

Fenson, L.; P. S. Dale, J. S. Reznick, E. Bates, D. J. Thal, S. J. Pethick (1994). "Variability in early communicative development." Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. See Wikipedia for a summary.

Grabe, William. Reading in a Second Language: Moving from Theory to Practice. "Chapter 13: Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension." Cambridge University Press. NY, NY. 2009.

Krashen, Stephen. The Power of Reading. Heinemann. US. 2004.

O'Grady, William. How Children Learn Language. Cambridge University Press. 2005.

Strauss, Valerie. "Why it is so important to read aloud to your kids." "Voices." Washington Post. Nov. 11, 2009.

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