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Building and expanding vocabulary in your reading class

November 05, 2021 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

A recurring question every language teacher gets asked is "How can I learn new words?", along with questions about the best ways to build vocabulary with children, teens, and adults. The answer is surprisingly simple: "through reading!" As linguist Paul Nation reports, based on a wide range of research studies, extensive reading is one of the most valuable activities to build vocabulary and other language skills when learning a foreign language. When you decide to include extensive reading in your teaching programme, it is important to combine two approaches: reading stories which include words to help vocabulary extension, and reading easy texts for fluency. Both approaches are well supported by graded readers either at or just below your students’ level of English.

In this post, we take a look at how you can systematically build and expand your students' vocabulary in your reading class. First, we will look at some stories, and then we will give you some strategies, activities, and app ideas you can share with your students. Our ultimate goals are encouraging independent reading, building word awareness, and creating opportunities for dialogues in class.

The stories

Every story has a special atmosphere that comes to life through the words and topics it includes. The other day, while watching a film, someone asked me the meaning of ‘bit’ (i.e. the mouthpiece used to control a horse). Later, I realized that I only knew this word because I had read Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. How many other words do we know from stories? When we think of ‘marshes’, we may think of Great Expectations and ‘moor’ reminds us of Wuthering Heights or The Hound of the Baskervilles. 

You can play a free association game and think about the words that stories have given you. Your personal experiences will be interesting for your students. Then, ask them if there are any words they remember meeting in a story for the first time, either in their first language or in English.

Encouraging independent reading and vocabulary building

The recipe for encouragement is simple. We need to give students enough time and space to read, suggest interesting titles and appreciate their reading. When students see that we spend time reading or talking about stories in class they will think of it as something valuable. When any kind of reading they do is appreciated (long stories, short stories, online reading, magazine reading), they will feel proud and excited about sharing what they are reading. You can organize reading lessons every week or month when students can read for 15-20 minutes in class and then do an activity based on their reading.

Strategies to build vocabulary

When you are reading in class, share and practise strategies students can use to help build new vocabulary. 

1 Take notes

Students can take note of new words on their phone or in a notebook. They can record the word, write down the example sentence, write a sentence of their own, and find a synonym. When they spend some time getting to know a word, their incidental learning becomes deliberate so the two ways support each other. 

An easy way for a quick reminder is taking a photo of the sentence in the book or a screenshot on their phone.

Download our worksheet to support note taking.

2 Guess meanings

There are two strategies to deal with new words. Students can either look up the meaning of new words in a dictionary (it’s really easy when they are reading online), or guess the meaning from context. If you do some guessing from context practice together, you can model how to do it, so students will automatically try to infer meaning when they are reading on their own.

3 Make word trees

Students can learn to organize and categorize new words by making word trees. Word trees help them manage and make links between different word sets.

4 Keep reading journals

Students can collect the new words on a page and then write a summary of the story or an event using those 5-10 words.

Read our blog about reading journals.

5 Use illustrations

If the book you are reading has illustrations, use them to brainstorm vocabulary, then build sentences from the words. 

If you are doing it in class, turn it into a team game. The winner is the team that labels the page with the most (correct) words.

Using the new words in classroom dialogues

Reading stories is an effective learning activity, and when you combine it with discussion, you open up new possibilities. Give time in the class to discuss and raise awareness of new words and talk about their function in a sentence, how you use them, (e.g., talk about collocations) and different meanings. 

You can also discuss:

  • in what contexts and who might use it (register);
  • what word family it belongs to;
  • word formation with prefixes and suffixes;
  • and collect synonyms/antonyms.

Focus on the content and talk about

  • the plot;
  • the main themes;
  • the characters: their personalities and decisions;
  • the setting.

Focus on culture and talk about:

  • cultural differences between your experiences and those of the characters;
  • historical events;
  • anything interesting in terms of traditions and behaviours.

Focus on new words and collect unusual or interesting ones and build mini dialogues around them.

Apps to build vocabulary

Students can use simple apps to help them take notes and practise new words.

  • Note taking apps: keep track of new words. Some examples: Google Keep, OneNote, Evernote, GoodNotes
  • Dictionary apps: look up words as you read. Use any dictionary with a reliable corpus, for example Oxford, Merriam-Webster, Macmillan, Cambridge
  • Mind mapping apps: build word trees. Some examples: MindMaster, Mindmanager