ESL Vocabulary - Learning to Read English Enjoyably and Efficiently


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It takes a long time for students of English-as-a-second-language to learn to read well. This is not because they have a reading problem: They can read perfectly well in their own language. The problem is just that they don’t know the meaning of enough English words. In other words, they don’t have a big enough vocabulary.

It’s not easy to build a vocabulary that allows you to read as well, or almost as well, as people who grew up speaking and reading English. It's quite easy to build the basic vocabulary of 1000-2000 words that you need in order to speak English to other people and understand what they’re saying. You’ll probably pick up that many words, without really trying, during the early stages of your study of English. And if that doesn’t happen, you can always sit down with a good vocabulary list and a dictionary and start memorizing.

However, to be able to read English well, you need to know a lot more than 2000 words — about ten times that many, in fact. You won’t learn all these words without trying, even if you spend a lot of time taking English courses and talking to English speakers.

Learning the most basic words in English, or any other language, is easy because these words are used so often. ‘Second-level words’ — words that are not necessary for basic communication, but which are necessary for reading — can only be learned by the hard work of studying. But what sort of studying is most effective and most enjoyable?

One method is to take the direct approach and learn words ‘out of context’ — by studying word lists, doing vocabulary ‘exercises, ’ or even by reading through a learners’ dictionary. There are plenty of textbooks around to help you with this job and you may find English courses that concentrate on this sort of vocabulary building.

It’s also possible to take a more ‘natural’ approach and try to build up your vocabulary by reading English books, newspapers, and magazines — looking up words in a dictionary as you go along and taking notes.

Both the direct and the indirect approach can work, but both have serious disadvantages. Most people find studying word lists and reading dictionaries quite boring, and a boring method of studying is likely to be ineffective. In addition, even if you’re not bored, you may find it hard to remember the words you try to learn in this way. It seems that words, and other things, stay in our minds better if we see them for the first time while we’re doing something interesting — like reading an enjoyable story or article.

The disadvantage of the natural approach is that for intermediate learners — ones who are trying to build their vocabulary up to the 20,000-word level — the most readily available texts tend to be far too difficult and, therefore, they are ineffiicent learning tools. Books, even if they are quite easy to understand, tend to be much too long for someone who is reading slowly while using a dictionary and taking notes. Magazine and newspaper articles, on the other hand, almost always contain a lot of language that is unnecessarily difficult because it is idiomatic or metaphorical or because it includes unusual words that are not really needed. This slows down learners and also makes the experience of reading less interesting and therefore less effective.

The best method of vocabulary building is one that combines the advantages of both approaches while avoiding the disadvantages. One way to do this is to learn vocabulary in context, through reading, but with texts that have been specially written for vocabulary building. This makes for natural, efficient, and enjoyable studying.

Finding this kind of reading material can be difficult, unfortunately. The reading passages in ESL texts can be a good source, but they're often few in number and very short. Moreover, the readings in books for beginners’ are often quite uninteresting and the ones in books for more advanced students are often about quite difficult ‘academic’ ideas. To succeed with this method of vocabulary enlargement, you need long and interesting texts. The best sources are probably ‘simplified’ versions of famous works of English literature written specially for learners. Books of this kind are not used as often in ESL courses now as they were in the past, but, if you're taking an English course, your teacher may able to lend you some, and you should certainly be able to find some in your library. If you go to a library or bookstore to look for useful reading material, you should also look at children's and teenagers’ books. They are written for readers who, unlike you, have English as their first language; but like you, they still have to learn more words before they can read ‘grown-up’ material easily.

(I'm an ESL professional with more than thirty years experience in teaching and writing materials. My website url is: )


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