Reading: Why Students Really DON’T Need To Understand Every Word

big-book1.jpgWhat’s a bumper harvest? What does it mean “though”? “Burgeoning?” Is there a different English word for an artificial beehive? What exactly is a fig?

These are just a fraction of the questions students have asked me about vocabulary that has come up in readings (extra points if you can name the Headway or Cutting Edge readings they came from).

Part of my job as a teacher is, of course, to help students understand, but a more important part is to help them improve their skills in English so they can read and speak and communicate on their own. When I first started teaching, I spent a lot of time trying to decide which words to pre-teach and how to elicit or explain them. I’ve since toned it down a bit – there are certainly important words that students need to know, but of course they don’t need to know every new word in advance. I think most teachers are made aware of this in their training – I certainly was – but it takes time to be able to really justify it to yourself and to your students.

This articles from the Taipei Times makes the point nicely: reading for pleasure and interest, without consulting the dictionary for every unknown word, is important.

It helps students become functional readers and skirts this: “Reading in English is so frustrating and slow, I can’t stand it!” Reading also gives students an opportunity to see correct language in context – the pressure doesn’t always have to be on them to fill the gap or produce the correct answer.

The reason that students should read without dwelling on every word or translating the text is not because you, the native speaker teacher who doesn’t speak their language, can’t do it. It’s not because there isn’t enough time. It is because they are practicing a skill which will further their English skills more in the long run.

Granted, the type of reading spoken about in the article is generally done outside the class – and I don’t interpret it to mean that we as teachers should never focus on vocabulary or ask comprehension questions…only that, just as these techniques have their place, so does this freer reading.

I’m also pretty sure my students won’t need to speak about figs or bumper harvests any time soon either.

For more on reading, check out Using Graded Readers at EFL Notebook.