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Learning Vocabulary from Independent Reading

Grades 4-8 Comprehensive Vocabulary

Comprehensive Vocabulary

Research has debunked the word list method of vocabulary instruction. The give-them-twenty-words-on-Monday-and-test-on-Friday approach is as American as apple pie, but is also highly inefficient. The English lexicon of over 800,000 words is just too vast to rely on rote memory of individual words. I suggested that the two most efficient methods of vocabulary instruction consist of 1. wide reading with refined context clues strategies and 2. word part memorization. This article will discuss how we learn vocabulary from independent reading.

To understand how we learn vocabulary, it is helpful to examine how children build their bank of words through oral vocabulary acquisition. By age five, children have gained up to a 10,000 word vocabulary including common inflections such as suffixes. How did children who may only have one year of pre-school and one year of kindergarten gain such an extensive vocabulary? Exposure and practice. Children are bombarded with oral language from parent “oohs and ahs” to simple conversations to the background noises and words of daily life. In homes that are rich in communication, children before the age of four have heard 45 million words. In contrast, in homes that do not provide rich communication, children before the age of four have heard only 13 million words (Hart and Risley 1996).

Noam Chomsky’s theory of an innate universal grammar explains how children are able to apply words into meaningful phrases and sentence structures in an efficient manner. Children fit new words into the morphological (meaning) and syntactical (grammatical) context of old words and so language acquisition compounds. New words are not learned in isolation, but in the context of what has been previously mastered and practiced. But why do children learn words so quickly while adolescents and children learn words at such a slower rate? Is it because “you can’t teach a dog new tricks” or a change in brain development? No. Primarily the reasons are exposure and practice.

After the first 10,000 words, the rest are rare words, and these play a critical role in academic reading. The utility of our academic vocabulary is determined not by the first 10,000 words, but by how many of the rare words we understand (Hart and Risley 1996). The next 20,000 words learned by most college-educated adults takes about twenty years to acquire. Exposure to and practice of more sophisticated words is much less frequent than the “meat and potatoes” words of childhood. A brief example may be helpful. A child learns the word hungry at a very early age. The word has two syllables and is phonetically regular. A late teen or early adult may learn the word famished. The word has two syllables and is phonetically regular. The difference in word acquisition between hungry and famished is influenced by exposure. A child first hears the word hungry early in life and most every day thereafter from parents or from television. An adult may hear or read the word famished once every few months. The difference in word acquisition between hungry and famished is also influenced by practice. The word hungry is a high utility word. Both children and adults say this word often in all of its inflected forms. The word famished is just not said as often.

So, beyond the first 10,000 words of life, do we continue to learn most of our vocabulary through skillful listening? No. A few interesting facts will prove this point. The first 1,000 words acquired by children constitute the vast majority of words used by and heard by even the most educated adults on a daily basis. Watching and listening to thirty minutes of Sesame Street exposes the viewer to an average of only one word beyond the highest frequency 1,000 words. Watching and listening to the nightly news for the same amount of time exposes to viewer to only nineteen of these key words (adapted from Hayes and Athens 1988).

However, in contrast, reading provides a much higher exposure to words beyond the most frequently used 1,000 words. For example, reading a challenging comic book for thirty minutes exposes the reader to fifty-three of these words. Reading a challenging book for the same amount of time exposes a reader to seventy-five. So, reading challenging text certainly provides a greater opportunity to expand one’s vocabulary through exposure and practice than does listening alone.

Now, how can we make wide reading of challenging text more efficient for vocabulary acquisition? First of all, because exposure to the right words is so critical, it is essential to carefully choose reading text for optimal practice. According to reading specialists, reading text that has 5% unknown words should be our target reading text to maximize vocabulary acquisition. Readers can maintain good comprehension while exposing themselves to 300 unknown words in thirty minutes of reading. This assumes an average reading rate of 200 words per minute with 6,000 words read in thirty minutes, of which 5% unknown words would be 300. Assuming that a reader would “naturally” acquire 5% of these unknown words via unrefined use of context clues, the reader would have a net gain of 15 new words from the reading session. Thus, four days of thirty minutes (two hours) reading practice would better a reader’s vocabulary by 60 words—substantially better than acquiring 20 new words each week by memorizing a list of words. Also, the prospect of additional practice of these words is much higher than that of the random word list memorized for the Friday test.

How can you pick a book to read that has 5% unknown words? Choose a book of any genre and count the number of words on any complete page found near the beginning of the book and multiply that number by 3. Read a page toward the beginning of the book, counting the number of unknown words. A good guideline would be “if you can’t define it with a synonym, antonym, or example,” it is unknown. Then, read a page near the middle of the book and continue the count. Finally, read a page near the end of the book and finish the count. Divide the total number of unknown words by the total number of words found on the three pages. The result will be the percentage of unknown words. Anything within the 4-6% range is acceptable. For example, a reader counts the number of words on a page and arrives at 225. 225 x 3 = 750. After reading the three pages, the amount of unknown words totals 30. 30.00 divided by 750 = .05, or 5%. Check out these independent reading resources to help you develop a model independent reading program.

Additionally, reading specialists would argue that the 5% retention rate can be doubled to 10% by applying refined context clue strategies. Doubling the number of words acquired from thirty minutes reading each day would produce a net gain of 30 new words from each reading session or 120 words each week, considering four such sessions. 120 words per week, multiplied by 33 weeks in a school year produces 3960 new words in a school year—surpassing the target for the 3,000 new words that reading specialists suggest are necessary to make grade level growth in vocabulary development.

In order to refine context clue strategies, readers need to learn the types of context clues that work most often to help readers figure out unknown words. By examining surrounding sentence and word clues according to these context clue categories, more unknown words can be figured out. So, grab a second cup of coffee for the next article, Part III, and learn how to teach the refined context clue strategies that will double the amount of words that readers acquire through reading challenging text.


For full-year vocabulary programs which include multiple meaning words (L.4.a.), Greek and Latin morphology with Morphology Walls (L.4.a.), figures of speech (L.5.a.), words with special relationships (L.5.b.), words with connotative meanings (L.5.c.), and academic language words (L.6.0), check out the assessment-based grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Comprehensive Vocabulary.

Get the Context Clue Strategies FREE Resource:

Get the Grades 4,5,6,7,8 Vocabulary Sequence of Instruction FREE Resource:

Get the Greek and Latin Morphology Walls FREE Resource:

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