A 7-Step Framework for Vocabulary Study while Reading

Research suggests that reading can be one of the best tools to boost a language learner’s vocabulary. The following 7-step guide provides some tips to help students maximize their vocabulary gains while reading independently.

1. Read something interesting and at the right level.

The first step is to make sure students have access to appropriate reading materials. But what do we mean by appropriate?

Firstly, the readings need to be interesting. Students need motivation to read on, and they’ll be much more engaged with a text that they enjoy reading.

Secondly, readings need to be at the right level. Take a look at this quote from linguist Stephen Krashen:

“The best methods [for language acquisition] are … those that supply ‘comprehensible input‘ in low anxietysituations …” (Krashen: 1981)

Any reading should form what Krashen calls “comprehensible input.” Essentially, this means that a reading should fall into a kind of “Goldilocks zone” in terms of difficulty: Not too difficult, not too easy, but just challenging enough that learning can take place.

In our Reading Explorer series, we took great care in grading reading passages. One useful tool that can help is text inspector. You can paste in some text, and the website will give you a CEFR level for each individual word. In this way, you can make sure there aren’t too many high-level words in a passage. Here’s an analysis of a paragraph from Level 1 of Reading Explorer, for example.

You can see that almost 90% of words fall between A1 and B1 level. Only a few are above the student’s level, and these can either be pre-taught or dealt with using footnotes.

2. Don’t stop reading when you find an unknown word. Guess, and move on.

Many language learners will stop reading when they find a new word and immediately reach for the dictionary. This may not be the best approach for a few reasons:

1. It may affect reading speed and fluency.

2. Over-reliance on dictionaries may result in students being unable to cope without them in the long term.

3. It may make the act of reading tedious and less enjoyable, so students may read less.

It’s important that students are comfortable with not knowing every single word in a passage. After all, in our first languages we still frequently encounter new words. Encourage students to quickly try and guess the meaning of unknown words by using the context, their knowledge of word parts, or any visual clues, and then to continue reading.

Guessing meaning from context is a skill you can actively practice with students. Here’s an example of an activity in Reading Explorer.

3. Annotate the text as you read.

Annotating a reading passage can be useful in a number of ways. It helps keep engaged with a text, and it’s an essential strategy during examinations. It’s also a good way of keeping track of unknown vocabulary. Encourage students to underline any new words and put a question mark in the margin. Students will come up with their own style for annotations, but we can also give them examples to follow.

4. Return at the end of the passage/chapter to check any unknown words using a dictionary.

As mentioned earlier, there are some downsides to consulting a dictionary while reading. Instead, perhaps a better time to do this is at the end of the reading passage, or at the end of a book chapter. If students have annotated the text and highlighted unknown vocabulary, they can now spend a short time looking back at these words and, if necessary, checking their meanings in a dictionary.

5. Use a corpus to check how common each word is.

For a language learner, it’s not always obvious which new words will be the most useful to learn. Few students will be able to memorize every new word that they encounter, so it’s useful to prioritize them.

For example, suppose a student encounters the synonyms surprised and flabbergasted for the first time in a reading passage. The learner can check the words in a dictionary, but they may not know how useful each word would be to memorize.

A corpus can be a great tool for this. One of the best is the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), and it’s free to use online. Using COCA, we can check how common the words surprised and flabbergasted are in English. Surprised is the 1,902nd most common word in the corpus – just inside the top 2,000, so it’s an important word to know. Flabbergasted is only the 24,114th most common word, so it’s far less frequently used. A student might therefore decide to focus only on memorizing the word surprised.

6. Record the most common/useful words in a vocabulary diary.

When students have decided on which words to prioritize for further study, they will need to keep a record of them. Vocabulary diaries are a great way to do this. They can be simple lists of words with definitions, but they can also be more elaborate. Some diaries might include example sentences, synonyms, collocations, and even illustrations.

Again, a corpus can be great tool when compiling a vocabulary diary. COCA, for example, will give definitions, synonyms, collocations, and other information about every word in its database.

7. Review the diary and test yourself at regular intervals.

As the vocabulary diary fills up, it will become a great tool for self-study. Learners can review the vocabulary entries at regular intervals and use memorization techniques to study them. For example, students could cover up the words in their diaries, look at the rest of the diary entry, and try to remember the words.

For other ideas on helping students with their vocabulary studies, check out the recording of our webinar.

Learn more about what’s new in the third edition of Reading Explorer in this video.

Author: Chris Street

Christopher Street is a Senior Development Editor for National Geographic Learning. He has been based in Singapore since 2004 and has many years’ experience working in ELT, both as a teacher and Academic Director. Chris achieved his MSc in TESOL in 2014, with a specialism in course and materials design, and moved into the ELT publishing industry shortly afterwards. Most recently, Chris has worked as the lead editor on the new edition of National Geographic Learning’s Reading Explorer series.


  1. I felt happy when I finished reading because I realized I knew every tip and strategy suggested except for the item that suggests to look up words in a word frequency site such as COCA, for instance.

  2. I am suggesting this website to my students in Italy. Reading is the best way to learn new vocabulary. Especially reading about the world, which is of great interest to students who are young and already working. They should not stop at that one word, but also check out other words related in a Thesaurus to push their knowledge further. Learning is a never-ending story. Thanks!

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