Expert answers – meeting a new word


in Expert answers, Tools & Techniques

English students frequently ask me what to do about unfamiliar words when they read. Many of them feel obligated to do something, like look them up in a dictionary. They feel guilty if they do nothing. Today’s Expert Answer from Dr. Frank Smith will help you understand what happens when you meet a new word and what you can do about it.

Before we talk about your choices, let me describe what happens before you decide to do anything.


When you see a word for the first time, your brain goes into action immediately and automatically. According to Smith, your brain does something called “fast mapping.” It takes information from the text you’re reading – the sentence, the paragraph, the story or article – and gives the new word a possible meaning.

After that, each time you meet the word, your brain picks up a little more information about it. After you meet the word several times, your brain will have accumulated enough information about the word’s meaning for the word to become a usable part of your vocabulary. When that happens, we say that you have acquired, or picked up, the word.

Let’s see if we can put this into one sentence: Each time you see a word, information from the text you’re reading helps your brain accumulate, or collect, a little more of the word’s meaning until you get the full meaning of the word.

Your brain does its work automatically, but you have to make a decision. What is the best thing to do when you see a word you haven’t met before? Smith says that you have three choices.

Skip it and keep reading

First, you can skip the word – ignore it and continue to read. If you can make sense of, or understand, the text you’re reading, don’t stop. Keep reading. It’s not always necessary to know all the words in a text.

There are two reasons this is a good choice. First, if you stop and try to figure out every unfamiliar word, you interrupt the reading process and make understanding, learning, and memory more difficult. Even if you need the unfamiliar word to understand the text, read past it – for example, to the end of the paragraph – then go back and read the paragraph again. Rereading is a very effective way to pick up more meaning.

Remember, even if you skip a word, your brain doesn’t ignore it completely. Your understanding of the text you’re reading contributes to the fast mapping described earlier. So even if you skip a word, your brain picks up clues about its meaning and remembers them to help you understand the word in the future.

Guess its meaning

If you think you need the word to make sense of what you’re reading, Smith suggests that you guess the meaning of the word. There are two helpful strategies for doing that:

First, think about the meaning of the text you’re reading. Is there anything in the sentence, paragraph, or the rest of the story or article that might help you figure out the meaning of the word? If you take time to look around, you’ll often find help with the meaning of a word right there in the text.

Second, does the word look similar to a word you already know? Maybe it’s a different form of a familiar English word. Or maybe it’s similar to a word in your own language. Words that are similar to each other often have similar, or related, meanings.

Ask someone or …

Smith suggests one other action: ask someone to explain the meaning (in English, of course, not to just give you a translation!). But what if you have no one to ask?

If you really need to know a word, use a dictionary like the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Here’s why:

  • It has English definitions that are easy to understand.
  • It has example sentences for almost every definition.
  • If a word has more than one meaning, it includes all the word meanings so you can find the one that fits the meaning of the text you’re reading.
  • It has recorded pronunciations for most words so you can learn how to pronounce the word.

When should you use a dictionary? First, stop and use a dictionary if you have to know a word to understand the text you’re reading. But don’t stop unless it’s absolutely necessary! Second, if you’re curious about some of the words, choose 5-8 words and look them up after you finish reading.

Avoid using translating dictionaries. You will get the most benefit from using an English dictionary like the Longman.

A reminder

When you meet a new word, the best strategy is to continue reading. Don’t feel obligated to stop and look it up. Trust your brain to automatically begin to collect information about its meaning. Each time you see it, your brain collects more information until you know the word, and it becomes a usable part of your vocabulary.

Warren Ediger

Related articles:


  • Smith, Frank (2007) Reading FAQ.
  • Smith, Frank (2006) Reading without Nonsense.
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namcuahiem June 30, 2010

I have a question that If I read an article or listen to a podcast and there’re some new words there, but I still understand the whole meaning. And I don’t pay attention too much to these new words (maybe it’s new, complicated, difficult and unnecessary for the whole).Then, will my vocabulary be improved by listening and reading like that?
So, after reading or listening, if I don’t review and write these new words down, I will not learn anything new, right?

Warren Ediger June 30, 2010

Yes, your vocabulary will improve if you listen and read like that, even if you don’t do anything else. In one of his books, Dr. Smith says that “Words are learned by reading [or listening]…. No formal exercises are required, simply the opportunity to make sense of (understand) language in meaningful circumstances.”

Did you read about Adrian in the two Frustration to success articles? They are here and here. He did only two things: read and listen. And by doing those two things he developed a very good vocabulary as well as the ability to speak and write. Many other students have had the same experience.

Andreu Martínez July 1, 2010

I agree totally with Warren. I’m doing a lot of listening and reading, every day I do it. I do more or less what Warren explain here and it works. I’m not looking up words unless the word be necessary to understand the text or the conversation. Sometimes if I remember a word that I saw a lot of times I look it up when I finished the reading or listening.
My speaking has improving a lot and I have acquire a lot of vocabulary. Of course I have to continue with this strategy because I need to speak better, (for my job among other reasons) but I understand every day more and more English conversations.

Thank you very much Warren for your great advices!

Best regards,

Warren Ediger July 1, 2010

You’re welcome, Andreu! You make an important point when you say “I have to continue with this strategy.” I believe that too many English learners run from one English-learning strategy to another rather than making a commitment to a winning strategy like this one.

Kaori Fujino July 2, 2010

Thank you for your encouraging advice, Warren! I did not like reading books in English before, but now I enjoy doing this after changing my reading habit. I noticed two things. First, a book including too many unfamiliar words makes me feel let down. Second, so-called “a good book” does not always attracts me. Fortunately, I could find some interesting books and authors, then I naturally stopped inturrupting my reading process by looking up unknown words. Hereafter, I will make it a habit to reread my favorite books and enhance my vocaburary.

Mehrdad July 3, 2010

Dear Warren,
First of all thanks. Secondly, thanks again! Thirdly I am very happy, because now I have a very good guide which shows me clearly what I shall do when I confront a new word or expression.
The only thing that I am somehow concerned about is the pronunciation. Nobody can be sure about it unless s/he looks up the dictionary. When I guess the meaning of a word or just skip it, I can just guess the pronunciation depends on my former information. As you mentioned in the article, the mind does not stop working and remember everything unconsciously. Isn’t there a risk of mispronunciation which stick to my mind and I cannot get rid of it in future?
Finally I should mention that this post is one of your most practically useful articles. Many thanks for that.

Warren Ediger July 3, 2010

@Kaori – You’re doing the right thing. For many people, the “interesting books” are the best path to the “good books.” Or, to put it another way, popular fiction is often the best way to prepare for serious literature.

@Mehrdad – First, you can understand the meaning of a word when you read without knowing how to pronounce it. I experienced this recently when I read A Thousand Splendid Suns. The author uses a lot of words from one of the Afghan languages. By the end of the book I understood most, if not all, of them even though I had no idea how they were pronounced. In fact, if you take time to try to pronounce words when you read, you read more slowly and, perhaps, with less understanding because you paying attention to the details of pronouncing individual words rather than to the meaning of groups of words.

If you are curious about how to pronounce some of the words, look them up after you finish reading in an online dictionary, like the Longman dictionary I suggested, Encarta, or Webster’s, that include audio files with correct pronunciation.

Sanaz July 3, 2010

Dear Warren – I read your last article, expert answers-meeting a new word, and I found it as a complete answer to one of our questions when we meet an unfamiliar word during reading. It’s so useful because you organize all the solutions step by step and with their priorities. I mean now it’s clear for me when I meet a new word what I can do in first, second, third or fourth step. As you advice and recommend, I try to skip it and keep reading. But you know, for the first weeks it’s so difficult because there are 15 years I’ve been taught with the wrong strategies. In other words I was accustomed to look up words in dictionary. I can strongly say that I hated reading because of several reasons. First, the books which my teachers recommended were awful and I didn’t have any interest in them and there was no pleasure with them. Second, after several minutes reading a book converted into just looking up words in a dictionary and reading a dictionary instead. So in that situation you can guess what happened, leaving a book and giving up reading. You’re right I felt guilty if I did nothing because I was obliged to look them up and I had heard all the time I wouldn’t have learned any more if I hadn’t known all the words.

[Now] … I feel like Winnie-the-Pooh feels when he sees his jar of honey and then a sort of funny feeling began to creep all over him from the tip of his nose and trickled all through him and out at the soles of his feet. So now … I get back my confidence and start reading and listening and enjoy my time and the process of reading and listening. The more I read and listen, the more I enjoy.

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