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Academic reading: Vocabulary acquisition and awareness

Why increasing your vocabulary matters

When you think about it, a text is no more than a collection of paragraphs, each of which is made up of sentences which in turn comprise a number of words. As a result, it is hardly surprising that knowing more words makes reading easier. Think about the last time you encountered an unknown word while reading a text in your first language. It probably was some time ago. Because you are familiar with most of the words in such a text, you never think about the role your knowledge of words plays in understanding the text. This is different when reading in a second (or third or fourth…) language; because you see unfamiliar words more frequently, you experience the reading as more difficult.

There is ample scientific evidence that the more words you know, the easier reading is and the better you become at it. In fact, the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and understanding a text is so strong that by merely testing a person’s vocabulary it is possible to determine how easily that person can understand a text (Grabe, 2009). Many experts in the field of linguistics assume that in order to read fluently and understand the text well the most essential skill is the ability to recognize words quickly and automatically (Grabe & Stoller, 2011).

What it means to know a word

Your first response might be “Well, if I know what a word means, I know that word.” Unfortunately, reality is a bit more complicated. To really know a word involves knowledge of more than the meaning. It includes knowing the spelling and pronunciation of a word and what its part of speech is (so, for example, whether it is a noun or a verb). It means that you are familiar with other forms in its ‘word family’ (e.g. the word disability is part of the family of words formed from -able-; other members include enable, ability, unable and disabled) and that you know some related meanings, such as synonyms (e.g. help and aid) or more general or specific similar words (e.g. the category vehicle and its member car). You know some other words the word in question is often used with, so-called collocations, like doing your homework and not making your homework. Finally, you know the word’s usage and register, for example whether the word is formal or technical in nature. 

Of course, it is not necessary to have all of this information for every word you read. For easier texts, it is enough to know the meaning, the spelling and maybe the part of speech. The more complex the text becomes – and let’s face it, the texts you read at university can be quite complex – the more of this additional information about a word you will need. 

There is another aspect to knowing a word that is important to mention here, namely that of passive and active vocabulary. Think about the words you use when you speak or write your first language and the words that you are able to understand when reading a fairly challenging text, such as an employment contract. Most likely the number of words you use in speaking and writing is lower than the number of words you would be able to read and understand. In the first situation, you are using your active vocabulary while in the second, you are using your passive vocabulary. Your passive vocabulary, no matter if it in your first or second language, will always be larger than your active vocabulary. The following image demonstrates how the two types of vocabulary are related.

Click to see image

The largest circle is all of the vocabulary you know and understand while the smaller circle represents the vocabulary you actually use in speaking and writing.You should focus on expanding your passive vocabulary to make understanding texts easier. Keep this in mind when using the strategies for improving your vocabulary below.  

How to increase your vocabulary?

Increasing the number of words that you know may feel like a daunting task. However, trying to cram many words into your head is not going to help you much become a better reader. With a few tips, you can both become a better reader and a more efficient vocabulary learner. Collapse the following headers to find out more about each tip.