Using Reading Materials to Build Vocabulary

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Building vocabulary is an important and ongoing effort. In this lesson, you will learn some strategies for using reading materials to build working vocabulary.

Building Vocabulary

Throughout your life you are constantly building your vocabulary. A wider vocabulary is incredibly useful for reading, writing, speaking, or anything that involves language--which is a lot! If you want to purposefully build your vocabulary, there are a few different strategies. One is to have a list of words and definitions to study. You're probably familiar with this from school, and it's common in formal instruction settings. Another method is to increase vocabulary through reading materials. Independent reading can be one of the very best ways to widen your working vocabulary, which is the vocabulary you use in everyday life.

Quantity and Variety

The most important thing for building vocabulary is pretty simple--read often, and read a lot of different things. Read about different topics, and in different genres. Different topics and genres are going to use different vocabulary, so the wider your variety of reading materials, the larger your potential vocabulary. For example, a science fiction novel is going to have different language than an informational book about wildlife. In addition, it's important to read often. Reading more often means you have repeated exposure to new words, which is ideal for learning and retaining information.

Reading is vital for building vocabulary

Targeted Reading

When choosing materials for building vocabulary, one method you can use is targeted reading. That means deciding what field you want to improve your vocabulary in, and then reading books in that field. So, for instance, if you wanted to have a larger vocabulary of words about trains, you could read an informational book about trains.

You can also do targeted reading by level. You would still choose books in your desired topic area, but you would purposefully select ones that are a level or two beyond where you are completely comfortable. The key here is choosing the right level. If you go too far beyond your comfort zone, there will be too many unfamiliar words, and you won't be able to read fluently. Without fluency, it becomes harder to retain the words you read. You also don't want to always read at or below your comfort zone. Here, there won't be many unfamiliar words, and it won't be as helpful for increasing vocabulary.

When looking for appropriate reading materials, if you are using a non-school library that doesn't have actual 'levels', the best method is to read a few pages of the book before selecting it. That should tell you whether it is too easy, too hard, or just right. This type of book selection can be done even if you aren't looking in a specific topic.

Context Clues

When you're building vocabulary without a list, using context to figure out the meaning of a word is an important skill. Context clues are information around the word will help you determine the word's meaning. For example, look at the following sentence:

'The house was a strange shade of aquamarine, like a calm tropical sea.'

If you didn't know the word 'aquamarine', the context clues ('like a calm tropical sea') would help you figure out that it is a light bluish-green color. When you encounter a new word, use context to figure out the meaning, and then keep track of when you see it again later. If the definition you came up with from context doesn't work the second time you see it, then you might want to check a dictionary. However, don't consult a dictionary if you don't have to. Learning the word on your own from context makes it more likely that you'll retain the word and actually add it to your working vocabulary.

Context is another reason to read from multiple genres. Some genres are more likely to provide good context clues than others because of the difference in expected audience. A science fiction novel, for instance, will likely give better context clues than an article in a medical journal.

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