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.
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.
- Smith, Frank (2007) Reading FAQ.
- Smith, Frank (2006) Reading without Nonsense.