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Reading strategies: Dealing with new words

October 11, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

What are the most practical reading strategies you can share with your students? We asked ourselves this question and came up with 8 different approaches which we will share with you throughout the year. Reading in a foreign language is both fun and challenging. Students discover new worlds through a new language, and not only does this experience make them feel good, but it also gives them access to new territories. However, reading in a foreign language also poses challenges: these new words often open up new areas of knowledge, and there’s a new logic in the sentences, paragraphs, genres, and narrative structures. In this first series, we share some tips you can adapt and use with your students. 

In our first post, we focused on INTERACTION, and in the second on QUESTIONS. In the third post, we gave you ideas on BUILDING BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE. In our fourth post, we gave you two ways of WORKING WITH GENRES. In our fifth post, we presented NARRATIVE STRUCTURES.

In this post, we will look at how to deal with new words while reading

How is reading graded readers different from reading non-graded texts?

Graded readers are written with language learners in mind so the vocabulary will be carefully chosen with the level of the user in mind. In Helbling graded readers, students get support with unfamiliar words: words that are above level are signposted and glossed at the bottom of the relevant page, then reused in the story so the student can become familiar with their usage. There are also before and after reading exercises that help students learn and consolidate new vocabulary.

In non-graded texts, students are navigating less controlled texts without direct support. However, if they read online, they can click on new words and translate or define them using either a dictionary or a search engine. This requires good research and dictionary skills for a successful outcome. For example, finding the right meaning for the given context might be tricky for some students.

Classroom approaches to new vocabulary

Our main aim here is to help students successfully read texts that contain new words. First, let’s look at some tips on working towards this in classroom reading sessions. Then, we’ll share some strategies to try.

1 Talk about reading challenges.

2 Tell students how you approach new vocabulary.

3 Model your own strategies in class in a read aloud session.

4 Ask students to share their strategies. How do they deal with new words?

5 Practise different kinds of strategies during every lesson.

6 Let students practise on short paragraphs which you discuss and give feedback on.

7 Explain to students that meeting and learning new words is good for both their linguistic and cognitive development.

8 Explain that they don’t need to look up every single new word. If the new word does not stop them from understanding the gist, or if they understand the meaning of the new word in the general context, they should carry on reading. 

9 Ask students not to underline or mark words in a book unless it is their own copy! It can be really confusing for other students to read a text with comments. 

TIP: Students reading in a foreign language often stop as soon as they come across an unfamiliar word. The word may not necessarily be an essential one, and its meaning may also be gleaned from context. The following short exercise helps them address this issue.

Bring in an L1 text (newspaper article or editorial or anything else you deem suitable) that includes some vocabulary items that may stretch the students. Ask them to read it through quickly and to tell you briefly what it is about. Did they understand it? Then ask for precise meanings of some of the more difficult words. Students will be surprised to discover that although they understood the article they didn’t completely understand all of the language. However this did not affect their perception of understanding or stop them from continuing to read. Likewise, in L2, they should practise reading past the new word.


Reading strategies to use with new words

Here are some practical strategies your students can use. Each one develops a high level of lexical, textual and contextual awareness in students. 

1 The top-down strategy of reading texts in context

In general, it is important to introduce students to the top-down approach. This means that they learn to place a text within its wider cultural context and their own background knowledge. Here are some questions to check:

  • What type of text is it? What is the genre? What is typical in such texts?
  • What is the wider cultural context of the story? When and where is it set?
  • What do you already know about the story?
  • What words or word groups do you expect to meet?

When they are reading a chapter or a paragraph, tell them to check:

  • when and where the scene is set,
  • who the main characters present are,
  • what’s happening in that situation.

This works well because it stops students from focusing solely on unknown words out of context. 

2 Lexical awareness

Students often know a lot more about words than they realize. With some guidance, they can make links between new and more familiar words. Here are some questions to help them with this.

  • Does it remind you of another English word?
  • Does it remind you of another word in another language?
  • What part of speech is it (noun, verb, etc.)?
  • Do other words in the phrase or sentence tell you anything about it? 
  • Can you break the word up into smaller sections (Does it have a prefix or a suffix? You can introduce the basic idea of prefixes and suffixes through words like unkind, kindness).
  • When you say the word out loud, does the meaning change? It might happen that the spelling of the word makes it difficult to understand it.
  • Can you make a guess based on the immediate context of the word? Are there any clues before or after the sentence that contains the new word?

3 Research and dictionary skills

Students need to practise looking words up in the dictionary or in a search engine. Here are some tips to help them.

  • If you translate the word into your first language, make sure that you find the right meaning. Check if there are several meanings.
  • Use a monolingual dictionary for a simple definition and to see the word used in other sentences.
  • If the word is slang, check out a search engine for slang or urban dictionaries.
  • Check the images in your search engine for the new word. Sometimes a picture can be more informative and easier to understand.
  • Collect recurring words in a notebook or app. In your free time, check your list and see if you can use it the words in a sentence.

Which of these strategies do your students use?

Read more about the topic

Next month we’ll be back with strategies to combine reading and listening for skills development.

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