“Radiance,” “strike a deal,” “gorgeous” “ecosystem.” In my 40 years of teaching academic ESL, I’ve probably seen these word in a reading passage at most only once or twice. And I’ve never seen a student use them in a writing task. And yet, these words were included in several vocabulary exercises in a textbook, and students were asked to write sentences with them. Because the words were in a reading passage, the author of the textbook, for some reason, decided that these were important words for students to study and try to internalize.
I think most of us would agree that spending time on a words so rarely used as “radiance” or “strike a deal” is probably not the best use of students’ precious time and mental energy if our true goal is to help them develop their reading skills. At the same time, many of us who have studied a foreign language would agree that reading comprehension is enhanced by knowledge of a lot of vocabulary words.
At this point, two questions come to mind: (1) How do learners increase their vocabulary, and (2) which vocabulary words would perhaps be beneficial to study through exercises?
How learners increase their vocabulary
For a perspective, Krashen has written, “There is a substantial research literature showing that vocabulary knowledge comes largely from comprehensible input, especially reading, in both first and second languages. Many second language speakers acquire enormous vocabularies, and it is highly doubtful that they did it through vocabulary study”
This isn’t to say we should stop doing vocabulary exercises. Students believe that they are helpful, so they seem to have credibility. Also, vocabulary exercises provide students with another way to work with the words, and they help students focus on the words. And, if they are studied in reading contexts, the exercises themselves provide comprehensible input, which can help student internalize the meaning of the words.
It’s seems safe to say the more vocabulary students are familiar with, the better able they will be to decode passages. Also, the more vocabulary they know, the better they will be able to understand ideas from context and infer meaning of words that they don’t know.
The type of vocabulary that will be most useful
The type of vocabulary words that are going to be of greatest value for them to learn are the ones that they will typically encounter in any academic reading. They are words like conditions, focus, significance, concern, deals with, concept. (These are sometime labeled as Tier 2 words.)
In other words, they are not specific to a particular subject of study, e.g. ecosystem, continent, omnivore). (These are sometime labeled as Tier 3 words.)
If students become comfortable words like critical and aspects, which they will see often in academic writing, then they will be more apt to be able to understand other lesser-known words from context. Also, they might then just need to perhaps look up the area-specific words like imperialism or isotope, which they will rarely come across outside a specific subject. This will save them time and energy.
A good site for identifying common academic words in a reading passage
At this site, Vocabulary Profiler , you can paste in a passage, and it will identify the common academic words (highlighted in yellow). Those are the ones that are best for students to spend their time and energy on.
By the way, radiance is not on that list.