Many learners of English read books or articles regularly and think that they are actively studying English–that is, they study vocabulary while reading.

The truth is, most people aren’t.

They’re reading passively and less than 1% of the language is entering their brain.

Why is this?

Most of your attention, as a reader is focused on the topic. That is just what our brains are programed to do: figure out what the subject is first.

And once we figure out the meaning, we don’t pause long enough to take in the new language.

So we need a solution. Of course, you can train yourself to be curious and investigate new words that are interesting to you, but what about studying them and actually learning them?

The most useful way to study vocabulary while reading: The Lexical Tutor

This is a test generator. It is very simple: you find a short paragraph from an article or book, paste it into the program, and you can test yourself on the words.

You can even choose what kind of words you want to learn. Studying for IELTS? Maybe you need to learn some academic words. Low level? Start with the easy words.

Let me show you how it works. I’ll walk you through two examples, one for low levels, one for high levels.

On first glance, it looks pretty scary:

But don’t worry. There are only two things you need to know. Firstly, we need an example text. If you are a pre-intermediate learner and you’ve been studying at the University of Victoria’s Study Zone, then you have lots of good reading texts to use.

I’ll take this one about Nasreddin Hodja and the Smell of Soup.

On first glance, it looks pretty scary:

So first of all, you should read the text and answer the questions on the right to understand the meaning. After you know what the text is about, you can examine it deeper by copying it into the Lexical Tutor.

After you paste it, you have to choose which level of words you want to study:

You should choose “second500_content”, “Post_1k”, or “Post_2k” if you are lower level.

Firstly, you should understand the difference between content and function words.

  • Content words have meaning. They are generally nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. For example, house, work, pretty, slowly.
  • Function words don’t have a clear meaning and are for grammar purposes. They are generally pronouns, articles, auxiliary verbs, or prepositions. For example, she, the, was, of.
  • Next, you should understand the frequency. These words are organized by the most commonly used. If you know the top 2000 words that are used the most in English, you can understand approximately 80% of a text.

    So you should choose which group of words you want to study:

    • Second500_content = the top 500-999 most frequent content words in English. This is the easiest.
    • Post_1k = slightly more difficult, this is the top 1000-1999 content words.
    • Post_2k = even more difficult, this is after the top 2000 content words. Sometimes this won’t work with texts below the intermediate level.

How many words you know = how much of a text you can understand

Finally, check your word count. It shouldn’t be more than 200 words.

Click on “Submit” and you will see this screen:

There you go! Use the words on the bottom right to complete the text.

That was the “Second500_content” category. Notice how the “Post_1k” is a bit more difficult:

How to study vocabulary while reading at higher levels

So that was fun, but it’s way too easy. Why don’t we try it with a few paragraphs from an article instead?

You can use anything you want: online newspapers, academic articles, blogs, fiction books, even IELTS reading passages. For this example I chose an article about risk taking, incentives, and accountability by Nassim Taleb.

Before we look at this exercise, you should know about the Academic Word List (“AWL”). It is a collection of the most frequent words used in academic contexts, organized in sublists. You can find all of the lists here. List 1 is the easiest, and most frequent, while list 10 would be the hardest, and least frequent.

You can see that I chose lists 1-10 to get the most coverage:

Then I checked my word count, which is 183, and clicked submit.

There you have it! If this is too difficult, go down a few levels to “AWL subs 1-9” or  “AWL subs 1-8”. Keep going down until you’re comfortable. If you want even more of a challenge, you can select “Post_AWL”.

Which list is the best? Well, it depends on the difficulty of the text you chose, and your knowledge of vocabulary. You just have to experiment until you find the right list. Keep trying the Lexical Tutor with different wordlists and a variety of texts in order to challenge yourself to learn more!

So while this is one of the many ways to study vocabulary while reading, it’s not the magic key to success. You should also make sure to really understand new words that you want to use.

Did you learn something? Help your friends to learn too!

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