Learning new words by guessing is a good idea but it is not enough.
Guessing new words from context is an important skill because if you use a dictionary every time you meet an unknown word you will read too slowly. This makes reading less fun but also slows your vocabulary learning as research shows you need to meet the same word ten to fifteen times before you’ll remember it. Reading slowly means this won’t happen enough. But, there are two big problems you’ll face when guessing new words:
- You may not know enough of the other words.
Studies show you need to know around 49 in every 50 words in a text if you want to learn unknown words using the ones around it. So, if you are reading a book at too high a level for your vocabulary knowledge it’s simply not going to be possible to guess many words from context.
- You may learn the wrong meaning.
Research suggest that English language learners make correct guesses around 25% of the time (Schmitt, 2008 ) and that even native speakers struggle to guess the correct meaning of new words from context. In one set of studies, native speakers were accurate only 14 to 45 percent of the time! (Gough & Wren, 1999).
So, what should you do? Here are two strategies that will help make guessing from context more effective:
- Read graded readers at the right level , that feel “easy” and where you are able to understand around 49 in every 50 words. If you know 95% of the words then the research shows you will be able to accurately guess the words you don’t know. Easy reading is also important as you will encounter the words you know in many more different contexts. This help you to enrich your knowledge of how the word is actually used. e.g. Does it often occur with other words? Does it have any special grammar rules? Is it formal or informal?
- Check your guesses using a dictionary but only when you are doing intensive reading (i.e. not for pleasure). Checking in this way improves memorisation. One study (Fraser, 1999) found this almost doubled retention.
It is also essential that don’t stop doing dedicated vocabulary learning – e.g. using flash cards or vocabulary learning books. The research shows that learning from reading is very unlikely to grow your vocabulary fast enough on its own so you should boost your learning by targeting high frequency words.
The good thing is that this will also help you learn by guessing as the more words you know, the easier it will be to guess new unknown words.
Instructed Second Language Vocabulary Learning. Norbert Schmitt (2008)
The lexical plight in second language reading. B Laufer 1997
Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context. Liu Na and Nation, I.S.P. (1985)
Post image by Véronique Debord-Lazaro.