3 Reasons Why More Reading Won’t Build Kid’s Vocabulary

By | First Published: | Last Updated: 21 September, 2021

Research shows that enriching students’ vocabulary improves their reading comprehension.

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This is especially the case when:

  • You teach challenging words contained in a text
  • Students then read the text with those targeted words

I surveyed 300 teachers about how they help students to improve their vocabulary. 248 teachers responded with how they help students improve their vocabulary. Sadly, 94% of them said that they simply encouraged their students to read more. Don’t get me wrong – reading more is great.

But it is not an effective way to develop a richer vocabulary((Swanborn, M. S., & de Glopper, K. (1999). Incidental Word Learning When Reading: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(3), 261-285; Penno, J. F., Wilkinson, I. A., & Moore, D. W. (2002). Vocabulary Acquisition from Teacher Explanation & Repeated Listening to Stories. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 23-33.))  – and here’s why.

3 Reasons Why Reading More Is Not an Effective Way to Improve Students’ Vocabulary & Comprehension


Many students don’t work out unknown words – they simply keep reading. To learn words incidentally, students must be actively seeking to expand their vocabulary. They also need knowledge about how words work. This includes knowledge that ranges from simple phonics to etymology and morphology. Only then will they be both willing and able to use word attack strategies to work out unknown words.


Students who don’t just continue reading tend to guess the meaning of unknown words they come across. Guessing leads to many students coming up with vague or inaccurate understandings of words. This doesn’t improve your students’ vocabulary or comprehension. Students need a firm understanding of what words mean. They also need a deep understanding of words and the way that people use the word in different contexts.


Incidental exposure is unlikely to improve vocabulary. For students to internalize a new word, you need to expose them to it several times. Leaving this to chance reduces the probability that this will happen. With this in mind, it is not surprising research shows that students only pick up 15% of new words they encounter through incidental reading.

3 Simple Alternatives That Work Well

While not an exhaustive list, a review of research showed that 3 simple strategies are quite effective at boosting your students’ vocabulary and comprehension.

  1. Briefly explain challenging and important words before asking your students to read texts that have those words.
  2. Have your students actively engage with these words. For example, you could ask them to match words with their explanations or to write a sentence with each new word.
  3. Restate what the words mean if you come across them in later lessons.
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(MEd., MLead.)

Shaun Killian (me) is an experienced and passionate teacher, as well as a past school principal. After a heart transplant and having both my legs amputated, I am not yet capable of returning to work. Yet, my passion for helping students succeed has led me to use my time to research teaching and associated practices. I then share what I find in practical ways through this website. The greatest compliment I have ever received from a past student was I never left any student behind. That is mission of most teachers and I hope you find the information on this site useful.

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