Can we learn words by reading?

Sometimes it is interesting to look at what the academic research is telling us. I happened to find this on the web.

Vocabulary acquisition from extensive reading: A case study

Maria Pigada
Norbert Schmitt

University of Nottingham


A number of studies have shown that second language learners acquire vocabulary through reading, but only relatively small amounts. However, most of these studies used only short texts, measured only the acquisition of meaning, and did not credit partial learning of words. This case study of a learner of French explores whether an extensive reading program can enhance lexical knowledge. The study assessed a relatively large number of words (133), and examined whether one month of extensive reading enhanced knowledge of these target words’ spelling, meaning, and grammatical characteristics. The measurement procedure was a one-on-one interview that allowed a very good indication of whether learning occurred. The study also explores how vocabulary acquisition varies according to how often words are encountered in the texts. The results showed that knowledge of 65% of the target words was enhanced in some way, for a pickup rate of about 1 of every 1.5 words tested. Spelling was strongly enhanced, even from a small number of exposures. Meaning and grammatical knowledge were also enhanced, but not to the same extent. Overall, the study indicates that more vocabulary acquisition is possible from extensive reading than previous studies have suggested.
keywords: vocabulary acquisition, extensive reading, incidental learning, word frequency, testing, French as a foreign language


A number of studies during the last two decades have confirmed the widespread belief that second language learners can acquire vocabulary through reading. However, the same findings suggest that incidental vocabulary acquisition is a time-consuming and unpredictable process and, hence, raise questions about the suitability of the approach for second language (L2) learners (Paribakht and Wesche, 1997; Zimmerman, 1997). At the same time, Meara (1997) comments that most of these studies do not contribute to the understanding of the acquisition process, since they do not investigate the factors that lead to word retention. As a result, the process of incidental vocabulary acquisition is not yet understood to any great degree (Paribakht and Wesche, 1997; Paribakht and Wesche, 1999; Schmitt, 1998), and therefore, it cannot be fully exploited by teachers and learners.

In an attempt to further this understanding, this case study investigates the relationship between incidental vocabulary acquisition and extensive reading, with a particular focus on a variable that is commonly assumed to affect the retention of words; that is, the number of times a word occurs in the text (Horst, 2005). Few reading studies have actually examined this factor (exceptions include Horst, Cobb and Meara, 1998 and Saragi, Nation and Meister, 1978). Moreover, reading and vocabulary studies have almost exclusively focused on word meaning in determining vocabulary acquisition. However, it has been acknowledged by a large number of lexically-minded researchers that knowing a word involves much more than just understanding its meaning (Aitchison, 1994; Laufer, 1997; McCarthy, 1990; Nation, 1990; Nation, 2001; Richards, 1976; Schmitt, 1998; Schmitt, 2000). Therefore, our aim is to examine the effects of text frequency on the acquisition of word meaning, spelling and grammatical behaviour. This study, as far as we know, is the first to relate the number of encounters with a word during extensive reading with multiple types of word knowledge other than meaning. It also endeavours to capture partial knowledge of those aspects since, as Newton (1995: 171) comments, “there is a need to develop instruments which are more sensitive to degrees of acquisition.” Finally, it is one of the few studies on this topic that has been conducted in a non-English language, i.e., French.

What I find interesting is the suggestion that only small amounts of vocabulary can be acquired by reading. Does LingQ change this parameter? Des it change what is meant by extensive reading? I believe that we can acquire lots of words by the combination of reading, listening and vocabulary review. Maybe this is not the same as extensive reading.

Interesting. Sample size of one makes it almost anecdotal.

Does “incidental vocabulary acquisition” as mentioned mean learning without reading or reading without the purpose of acquisition?

Is the full text online?

Here is the link.

This is a very interesting paper. From reading through some of it I noticed a few things:

  • The study was over 1 month, obviously here at LingQ we’re more long-term focused than a month, but this is good to get a rough idea
  • They were reading approximately 30,000 words, whereas I imagine people using LingQ read far more than this (I know that I do)
  • The texts that they were reading were at 95% comprehension, I don’t know about other people on LingQ, but the things that I tend to import are a bit lower than this in terms of comprehension. At 95%, I’d be following it, but I wouldn’t find it as challenging

I feel that I’m getting a lot more out of LingQ than the person in this case study did in their month, that’s for sure. Taking the above into account, and the user-friendly way we can look up words at LingQ to reinforce knowledge and gain new knowledge, I feel that “The LingQ method” would be more beneficial.

It’s totally possible to do exactly that much study here on LingQ too. (30,000 words at 95% comprehension.) I couldn’t imagine actually do that, of course :stuck_out_tongue:

LingQ is nothing like this study’s concept of extensive reading. If anything, LingQ is either intensive reading (when you listen/read the same material over and over again , usually at the beginner stage) or basically a form of flashcarding (if the material is difficult, you have to mouse over the words when reading or be happy with a fragmented understanding when listening, until it gels of course). So there is really no relevance here.

No one agrees on what it means to know a word. It is really a kind of open question. But the applied linguistics community pour energy into this because the classroom needs to feel validated in its “objectives”.

I read somewhere that educators think that learners can only learn 1,000 words a year. Ed, do you know?

It seems to me that we can achieve a lot more at LingQ. This study was devoted to one learner reading content at 95% comprehension. Perhaps some researcher would like to look at LingQers reading at varying degrees of comprehension.

Never heard that but 1000 seems like a suspiciously round number.

In not quite 3 1/2 months, I’ve learned 2439* words for Dutch. Combined with my other languages (probably something like 3000 in total). That would, theoretically mean close to 10 thousand in a year. Although I don’t reach the 100 per day level, I’m happy with my average of 25.

Steve, when you say ‘learn 100 words per day’ do you also include the words which you recognise and move to known instantly? I’ve assumed that you mean ‘words moved to known per day’ whether they be cognates, worked out from other knowledge or worked up through the levels by reading and listening. Taking these things into account, I would be averaging around 170 words per day. I’m trying to imagine what sort of progress I will make in German after Dutch and Yiddish. Probably more than I expect.

I’m thinking that this rate would be far slower for languages with few words which are recognisable to me. I could certainly learn more than 1 thousand words per year for Chinese, but 10 thousand? It’s an interesting question and I’ll have to try it out - one of these days. :slight_smile:

A study being done on LingQ members would be very interesting, Steve. Might be hard to set up and formulate in a way which will capture the data in a good way, but I’d certainly participate.

  • I just noticed that 957 of those have been in the last month. Perhaps my rate is increasing over time. (I’ll have to wait and see what the longer term results may prove.)

I only count the statistics of known words, which is the number of words that I don’t save. I do not move very many of my words to known.

Well, I must say I don’t understand how you do it then.

For example, your Russian: known 75884 Lingqs 34222 learned 3108. How is it that you’re able to know almost 40,000 words if you don’t lingq them? Learning from context makes a lot of words rather obvious, but more than half for a language which was not closely related to any you already knew? That seems…almost supernatural of something. haha

I say this because it’s rather odd. Having looked at the statistics of other heavy users of LingQ, they all show similar patterns to mine. Lingqing a lot and moving a substantial number of them to the known category (many in much closer ratios than me).

I think we learn most words incidentally. I also like seeing my saved LingQs left yellow when I read new texts. Many of the words that I have moved to known are high frequency. I could go in to the vocab section and move a bunch to known but I prefer to read more new content.

I most certainly don’t learn most words incidentally. Like you, I prefer to move onto new content continuously (as you can see from my stats 600k words read in the first 2 months and 600k in the last month.) The way I do things, I move words to known on the lesson page, on-the-fly - while listening and reading. Years of using a computer, perhaps, has allowed me to do this without distraction. So, my learning of words is not incidental but not exactly purposeful in the sense of consciously sitting down learning words with flashcards and such methods.

I think that perhaps YOU learn such a huge quantity words incidentally and this is what makes you different from most language learners. How you manage it, I’ll never know. But, anyone here can see that there’s something different about you. Others here have followed the advice: listen, read, interesting new content and lots of it, occasional grammar review and nobody at all has achieved the same results. If this is because of the fact that you’ve already got a dozen languages under your belt or because you’re got something weird going on in your brain, I’m not sure. Though, it does seem that you managed the same feat with Chinese early on in your ‘language career’.

Don’t think I’m doubting your achievements, but they seem to be so far beyond what anyone else can do.

1000 words a year seems ridiculous, do they expect people to take 20 years to learn a language?

I’ve learned or at least reinforced a lot of words by reading books I like in the language I’m learning. It works for me and I like it.

I can imagine the challenge of gauging the vocabulary learning of people reading for pleasure… if only there was some sort of online system where people gauged their own vocabulary learning… and this system LingQ would be a neat name for it… yeah :stuck_out_tongue:

In all seriousness LingQ is not set up for doing a well controlled experiments, but I think it can give a good idea of the effectiveness of reading and listening.

@IMY - I think people have achieved (perhaps equally) good results using Steve’s method (i.e. LingQ). I don’t think the way I do it is very different from how Steve does it, although I hadn’t made an effort to read A LOT until recently. I do move words to known (like you), but I occasionally move them back to unknown when I don’t understand them in another context. It probably doesn’t make much difference either way. It’s worth noting, however, that there are two things that make Steve’s Russian word count seem higher than you’d probably expect it to be. One is that, as far I’m aware, he doesn’t remove names of people, places, movie titles etc. from the articles he reads, so these are added into his word count. Also, Russian is very inflected, so the number of words you clock up will be possibly several times that of a non-inflected language. During the first month of Finnish on LingQ, I clocked up 17,000 known words on LingQ (most of which I already ‘knew’), but you have to consider that there are, for example, 15 different ways you can say ‘house’ and 15 different ways you can say ‘houses’, so the count is going to be somewhat inflated.

Yeah, I’ve had all of that in mind Peter. I know that people can have the same results as Steve or even better. I don’t doubt it for a second. But, my point of confusion is how he seems to acquire so many words ‘incidentally’.

Absolutely, I think that for inflected languages, you need to realise that fact. For Dutch, I’m thinking that with 50,000 words known - I’ll be at that ‘near native’ with the language. At almost 18,000 words I can understand almost everything. Of course, my primary goal is to be able to understand, read, write and speak well but I can quantify my input skill to some degree.

That’s the key: “vocabulary review” whether by creating lingQs or by using a conventional dictionary. If you don’t do this then I believe it’s true that only small amounts of vocabulary can be acquired by reading, since many times the sheer context is not enough to “decipher” or intuit the meaning of a word that you still don’t know.

Imy…whether you mark each word as known or , as I do, just click on"LingQ’d" when I am done, does not really make that much difference I think. I don’t think we can look up and review all the words we learn. Therefore, just as with our own language, I am convinced that we learn our words incidentally, if we get enough exposure through reading and listening. Of course the numbers are inflated for the reasons given by Peter. I try to eliminate non-words and names in QuickLingQ where it is easier to do. On the other hand, in inflected languages, the different forms need to be learned, including the different forms of names.

AI3, the verb review helps in that it makes us more attentive, but I do not think we can review all the words we learn. Most of the words are acquired without us making a special effort. I do find however, that flash card review, or reviewing my vocab list based on “starts with” or “ends with” or “contains” helps me notice words, and how they are similar and different.

I think the combination of reading, listening, and some word review to make us more attentive, enables us to learn a lot of words both deliberately and even more so, incidentally.

Regardless of what you’re saying, Steve, I’m still finding it to be rather odd and hard to understand Steve. I’ve tried get more information out of you but none of it’s very satisfactory. Not that that’s your fault, but I think that while you think you’re describing your process very well, it’s fairly difficult for many other people to understand.

You somehow learn a majority of your words through context. Whether you believe that’s how ‘we’ do I, I can most certainly assure you that it’s not how ‘I’ do it. I’m completely convinced of it, too. While it’s certainly a part of it and increasingly a part of it in the advanced level where the context is greater, the levels at which you do it are just simply impossible for me. And I don’t say that out of a lack of confidence. I do get the input, as you can look at for yourself - I still am not able to learn thousands of words just within context, even for a language I know fairly well now. And, once again, I get lots of input - more than you and most people.

My combination of reading, listening, word review does indeed make me more attentive, and allows me to learn words deliberately, not mostly incidentally.

I think that we must be fundamentally different language learners, Steve.