Designing reading tasks to maximise vocabulary learning


Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand


Most vocabulary learning should occur incidentally through listening and reading. This is one of
the  reasons  why  a  substantial  extensive  reading  program  is  an  important  part  of  an  English
course.  Extensive  reading  requires  the  learners  to  do  large quantities  of  reading  using  material
that  is  at  the  right  level  for  them.  Vocabulary  learning  occurs  through  the  conditions  of
repetition,  retrieval,  creative  use,  and  deliberate  attention.  These  conditions  can  be  maximized
when reading through the use of narrow reading, repeated reading, linked skills reading, reading
with  discussion,  and  deliberate  learning  through  reading  with  exercises.  Computer-based
activities can be effective in  providing opportunities for deliberate learning, but it is important
that deliberate learning does not take time away from extensive reading.


Main Subjects

A  well-balanced  language  course  has
opportunities  for  incidental  learning  and
deliberate  learning.  Incidental  learning
occurs  when  learners  are  reading,  writing,
listening,  or  speaking  with  their  attention
focused on the message. In spite of the focus
on  the  message,  they  manage  to  learn  some
new  words  and  phrases  or  become  familiar
with  some  unknown  or  partly  known
grammatical  constructions.  Incidental
learning can occur through meaning-focused
input  when  the  learners  are  listening  or
reading,  through  meaning-focused  output
when the learners are speaking or writing, or
through  fluency  development  activities  in
any of the four skills.
Most  vocabulary  learning  for  native
speakers  occurs  as  incidental  learning.
However,  learners  of  English  as  a  foreign
language  need  extra  support  in  order  for
incidental learning to occur. This is because
foreign language learners do not usually  get
enough  contact  with  the  language  and
enough  contact  with  language  which  is  at
the  right  level  for  them  for  incidental
learning to occur. The purpose of this article
is  to  look  at  how  teachers  can  provide  this
support  through  the  careful  design  of
Let us first look in detail at a very  effective
reading  activity  to  see  what  conditions  for
incidental learning it provides.
Vocabulary  learning  from  extensive
Extensive  reading  for  foreign  language
learners  involves  reading  large  quantities  of
material which has been specially written to
be  at  the  right  vocabulary  level  for  the
learners. The books which are most suitable
for  extensive  reading  are  called  graded
readers  and  every  major  ELT  publisher  has
at  least  one  and  often  several  series  of
graded  readers.  For  example,  Cambridge
University  Press  publishes  the  Cambridge
English  Readers  which  are  original  texts
specially written at several vocabulary levels
(see Table 1).

For  example,  in  level  2  of  the  Cambridge
English  Readers,  all  the  books  are  written
within  the  vocabulary  of  800  words,  so  that
if  you  know  these  words  you  can  read  the
books with no difficulty. Note that the books
are quite long, and this gives learners a lot of
reading  practice  at  a  level  which  is  easy
enough  for  them.  The  books  are  written  to
be  enjoyed  and  the  stories  are  interesting
and exciting.
Extensive  reading  can  be  carried  out  in  the
classroom  (and  it  is  best  introduced  by
scheduling  regular  classroom  time  for  it)  or
it  can  be  carried  out  outside  of  class  as  a
homework  activity.  The  learners  choose
books which are interesting for them to read
at a level which is just beyond their present
vocabulary  level  so  that  there  are  some
unknown  words  in  the  books  but  not  too
many. Ideally only around two words out of
every  100  running  words  should  be
unfamiliar to the learners. The learners then
read the books to enjoy  the stories and may
fill  in  a  brief  report  form  after  reading  each
book, but otherwise they are not required to
do any other assessment activities related to
the reading. The goal is to do a large amount
of enjoyable reading.
How does extensive reading help vocabulary
learning?  As  learners  read  they  will  meet
words  that  they  only  partly  know  or  that
they  have  not  met  before.  Each  meeting
provides  a  small  opportunity  to  learn  about
the  form,  meaning  and  use  of  the  word
within the contexts in which it occurs. After
the first meeting with the word, the learners
may  meet  the  word  again  in  the  book  and
when  they  do  they  have  a  chance  to  recall
what they learnt from the previous meeting.
This recall is probably done subconsciously.
Each time a learner meets a word and is able
to successfully recall some information from
previous  meetings,  this  is  called  a  retrieval.
Spaced retrievals help learning.  
Ideally,  learners  should  read  at  least  one
graded  reader  every  week  because  this
allows  newly  met  vocabulary  a  chance  to
occur  again  before  the  learners  have
forgotten  the  previous  meeting  with  it
(Nation  &  Wang,  1999).  Vocabulary
learning is  also helped if each meeting with
the  word  is  in  some  way  different  from  the
previous meetings (Joe, 1998). That is, if the
word  occurs  again  with  a  different
inflection, in a slightly different grammatical
context, in a different meaning context, or in
a  different  collocation.  Graded  readers
naturally  provide  these  conditions.  If  we
look  at  the  occurrences  of  new  words  at  a
particular  level  in  a  graded  reader  (this  can
be  done  by  running  a  computer  text  of  the
graded  reader  through  a  concordance
program like AntConc or MonoPro), we find
that  such  words  typically  occur  in  different
contexts each time they occur. The different
contexts help enrich knowledge of the words
and  make  later  retrievals  easier.  Sometimes
when a learner meets an unknown word in a
graded  reader  they  are  not  able  to  guess  its
meaning  from  the  context  clues,  and  so  the
learner  may  look  in  a  dictionary  to  find  the
meaning. Looking a word up in a dictionary
is a form of deliberate learning  and this can
make a strong  contribution to knowledge of
the word.
Graded  readers  are  texts  written  within  a
very  controlled  vocabulary.  The  main
advantage  of  vocabulary  control  is  that  it
excludes  the  many  words  that  are  well
beyond  the  learners’  present  vocabulary
level.  If  a  learner  tried  to  read  an
unsimplified text that was way beyond their
proficiency level, they would meet hundreds
of words that are unknown to them. Most of
these  words  would  only  occur  once  in  the
text  and  would  therefore  act  as  a  barrier  to
reading  without  having  much  chance  of
being learnt (Nation & Deweerdt, 2001).
So,  we  can  see  that  extensive  reading
naturally  provides  very  supportive
conditions  for  incidental  vocabulary
learning. By reading graded readers, learners
meet  a  manageable  number  of  unknown
words in comprehensible contexts. By doing
a  reasonable  amount  of  reading,  they  will
have  the  chance  to  meet  these  words  again
and  thus  will  have  many  opportunities  to
retrieve  knowledge  of  the  words  that  they
have  gained  from  previous  meetings  with
them.  They  will  also  meet  these  words  in  a
variety  of  contexts  which  will  help  enrich
their knowledge of these words and increase
their retention of them.
How  can  we  maximise  the  vocabulary
learning opportunities provided by extensive
reading?  The  major  way  to  maximise
vocabulary  learning  from  extensive  reading
is  by  getting  the  learners  to  do  a  lot  of
extensive  reading.  Ideally,  just  under  one
quarter  of  the  time  in  a  well-balanced
language  course  should  be  spent  doing
extensive reading for meaning-focused input
and  fluency  development  (Nation  &
Yamamoto,  2012).  Vocabulary  learning  can
also  be  maximized  by  making  sure  learners
are  reading  books  which  are  at  the  right
level  for  them.  In  addition,  vocabulary
learning  from  extensive  reading  will  be
helped  if  the  learners  combine  a  little
deliberate  learning  with  the  incidental
learning. That is, when they meet some new
words  in  their  extensive  reading,  they  can
put  them  on  word  cards  for  later
decontextualised  study.  Immediately  they
finish  reading  a  graded  reader,  learners
might  like  to  spend  a  small  amount  of  time
to reflect back on any of the new words that
they met during their reading.
Learning conditions
In  this  description  of  incidental  vocabulary
learning  from  extensive  reading  we  have
looked  at  several  conditions  which  support
learning.  Firstly,  we  have  the  condition  of
repetition.  It  is  clearly  easier  to  learn
something  that  is  met  several  times  than
something  that  is  just  met  once.  Although
there  is  no  clear  cut-off  point  for  the
minimum  amount  of  repetitions  needed  for
learning, there is plenty of evidence that the
greater  the  number  of  repetitions,  the  more
likely  learning  is  to  occur  (Waring  &
Takaki,  2003).  Nation  and  Wang  (1999)
found  that  it  was  necessary  to  read  several
graded  readers  at  the  same  level  in  order  to
meet  all  of  the  new  words  which  were
introduced  at  that  level  with  enough
repetitions  for  these  to  have  a  chance  of
being learnt.
Secondly, we have the condition of retrieval.
Having  an  opportunity  to  recall  something
that  has  been  met  before  strengthens
learning.  When  meeting  a  word  again  in  a
graded  reader,  retrieval  at  least  involves
recognising the form of the word as being at
least partly  familiar  and  being able to recall
the meaning or part of the meaning that was
gained on previous meetings.
Thirdly,  we  have  the  condition  of  creative
use  (Joe  (1998)  calls  it  "generative  use").
Creative use can be receptive or productive.
Receptive  creative  use  involves  meeting  a
word  through  listening  or  reading  in  new
contexts.  Productive  creative  use  occurs
when  a  learner  produces  the  word  in
speaking  or  writing  using  it  in  ways  in
which  the  learner  has  not  met  it  or  used  it
Fourthly,  we  have  the  condition  of
deliberate  attention.  Deliberate  attention
means consciously focusing on the language
item  in  order  to  understand  or  learn  it.
Deliberate attention occurs when we look up
the word in a dictionary  or in a  glossary, or
when we ask someone about the meaning of
the  word.  As  long  as  this  does  not  interrupt
the  message-focused  activity  too  much,
deliberate  attention  is  a  very  useful
contributor to vocabulary learning.
Let  us  now  look  at  a  range  of  message-focused  reading  activities  to  see  how  these
conditions  of  repetition,  retrieval,  creative
use,  and  deliberate  attention  can  be
maximised  so  that  such  reading  not  only
provides  pleasure  and  improvement  in
reading  skills,  but  also  contributes  to
vocabulary growth.
Learning  vocabulary  through  a  range  of
reading activities
We  saw  that  one  of  the  most  important
effects  of  writing  graded  readers  within  a
strictly  limited  vocabulary  is  to  greatly
reduce  the  vocabulary  burden  of  a  text.
Unsimplified  text  contains  vocabulary  from
a  very  wide  range  of  frequency  levels  from
the  first  1000  to  beyond  the  20
  1000.  One
way  to  reduce  the  vocabulary  load  without
simplification is to do what is called narrow
reading (Hwang & Nation, 1989; Schmitt &
Carter,  2000).  Narrow  reading  involves
reading texts that are closely related to each
other.  Reading  closely  related  texts  does
reduce  the  overall  vocabulary  load
(Sutarsyah, Kennedy & Nation, 1994), but it
does  this  to  only  a  small  degree  (see  Webb
&  Rodgers,  2009a  &  b,  for  the  effect  of
narrow  listening  on  vocabulary  load).  It  is
thus  an  activity  best  suited  to  high
intermediate  and  advanced  learners  who
have  a  large  enough  vocabulary  size  to  be
able to cope with unsimplified text without a
great  deal  of  outside  assistance.  Narrow
reading  is  especially  useful  for  the  learning
of  technical  vocabulary,  particularly  when
the  learner  can  draw  on  background
knowledge of the subject.
For  beginning  and  intermediate  learners,
repeated  reading  is  a  useful  activity.  In
repeated reading, the learner reads the same
text  three  times.  For  native  speakers  of
English,  repeated  reading  is  typically  done
orally with the learner reading a text of 150
or so words long to the teacher or to another
more  proficient  learner.  The  time  taken  to
read  the  text  is  written  down,  and
immediately  after  the  first  reading,  the  text
is  then  read  again,  and  then  finally  once
more. All three readings are within the same
reading  session.  Repeated  reading  is  aimed
at  developing  reading  fluency,  but  it  also
clearly  sets  out  conditions  which  are  useful
for  vocabulary  learning.  The  repeated
readings  of  the  text  mean  that  the
vocabulary  in  the  text  is  met  three  times.
The  readings  occur  one  after  the  other  and
this  means  that  retrievals  should  be
relatively  easy  to  make.  The  activity  does
not involve creative use. There is however a
deliberate  element  to  repeated  reading,
especially  on  the  first  reading  of  the  text.  It
is  during  this  first  reading  that  any  word
recognition  problems  or  problems  with
unknown  vocabulary  are  dealt  with.  For
more  proficient  learners,  repeated  reading
can  be  done  silently  with  the  intention  of
gaining deeper comprehension of the text on
each reading.
Reading can occur in a series of  linked skill
activities.  In  linked  skill  activities  the
learner  works  on  the  same  content  material
at  least  three  times,  but  each  time  using  a
different  one  of  the  listening,  speaking,
reading, and writing skills. For example, the
learners  might  read  the  text,  then  talk  about
it  to  each  other  in  small  groups  or  in  pairs,
and then write the main ideas from it. In this
example, the activity moves from reading to
speaking  to  writing.  There  are  clearly  many
combinations  possible  in  linked  skill
activities.  From  a  vocabulary  learning
perspective,  linked  skill  activities  provide
excellent  opportunities  for  repetition  (the
same  material  is  worked  on  three  times),
retrieval  (both  productive  and  receptive),
and creative use (the three tasks in the series
in  a  linked  skills  activity  are  different,  but
are  focused  on  the  same  content  and  make
use of the same language items). In a linked
skills activity, the last activity in the series is
the  one  that  is  typically  done  with  the
greatest  fluency  because  the  learners  now
bring  a  lot  of  background  knowledge  and
language  knowledge  to  the  task  from  the
first  two  parts  of  the  activity.  If  the  linked
skills  activity  involves  a  pair  or  group
speaking  phase,  then  there  could  be  the
opportunity  for  the  negotiation  of  unknown
vocabulary.  Linked  skills  activities  are  very
easy to prepare and provide the learners with
a lot of useful work. A reading text is often a
good  starting  point  when  designing  such
activities  even  though  reading  may  be  the
second or third activity in the series.
Reading  with  discussion  involves  at  least
two  learners  reading  the  same  text.  The
learners read to a predetermined point in the
text,  say  for  example  to  the  end  of  the  first
paragraph. They then discuss what they have
just  read  with  their  partner  to  clear  up  any
problems in the reading. They then read the
next part of the text silently and then discuss
that. In this way the text is read making sure
that  a  high  level  of  comprehension  is
achieved (see Palincsar  &  Brown, 1986,  for
a  similar  and  more  elaborate  reading
strategy).  This  activity  clearly  provides
useful  conditions  for  vocabulary  learning.
The  discussion  will  recycle  the  vocabulary
met  in  the  text  allowing  an  opportunity  for
retrieval,  and  because  the  discussion  is  not
simply  an  oral  repetition  of  the  text,  the
vocabulary  is  likely  to  occur  in  slightly
different  contexts  in  the  discussion.  The
discussion also has some deliberate elements
in that it may be necessary in the discussion
to directly discuss the meaning of words and
constructions  in  order  to  gain  clear
The reading with discussion activity is a bit
like  having  a  text  followed  by  exercises,
except  that  the  discussion  should  be  largely
comprehension  focused.  Reading  with
exercises  has  been  researched  as  a  way  of
encouraging  vocabulary  learning  (Paribahkt
&  Wesche,  1996).  The  exercises  provide
opportunities  for  repetition,  and,  if  they  are
thoughtfully  designed,  for  retrieval  and
creative  use.  They  are  however  usually
directed  towards  deliberate  learning,  and
with  this  activity  we  have  moved  to  a  large
degree away from incidental learning.
Tom Cobb’s website ( has
a  very  useful  Read  with  resources  program.
Text  can  be  pasted  into  the  website  and  the
following resources can be drawn on.  
1  Spoken  form.  Clicking  once  on
any  word  provides  the  spoken
form  of  the  word.  In  a  separate
program  under  the  Text-to-Speech heading on Cobb’s web
page, it is possible to link written
texts  to  their  spoken  form  where
this exists.  
2  Examples  in  context.  Clicking
twice on a word brings up several
instances  of  the  word  in  context
(a  concordance),  like  the  one  for
the word laugh (see appendix).
These  extra  contexts  can  be  used  to
help  guess  the  meaning  of  the  unknown
word,  to  gain  information  about  the  use  of
the  word  (grammar  and  collocates),  and  to
gain  information  about  the  range  of  senses
of the word.
3  Meaning.  Clicking  on  a  link
brings up a substantial dictionary
entry  for a word from  a  range of
possible  dictionaries  including
learner dictionaries.
4  Revision.  Holding  down  the  Alt-key and clicking puts the word in
a box at the top of the screen for
later  revision.  These  revision
activities  can  include  (a)  a
dictation  test  where  the  word  is
heard and the learner has to write
the  word,  (b)  a  meaning  test
where a concordance appears but
the  pivot  word  is  missing  and
must  be  chosen  from  the  list  in
the box (Nation, 2008).
Reading  with  resources  provides  a  range  of
deliberate  focuses  which  result  in  repeated
attention  to  the  words.  The  examples  in
context  provide  plenty  of  receptive  creative
We  have  looked  at  a  range  of  reading
activities  including  those  which  are
completely  message-focused  to  those  which
have strong deliberate learning features. It is
not  too  difficult  to  add  deliberate  learning
features  to  reading,  but  it  is  important  that
the  teacher's  skill  is  also  directed  towards
making sure that message-focused reading is
also  providing  useful  conditions  for
vocabulary  learning.  The  major  ways  in
which this can be done involve using graded
material  which  is  at  the  right  level  for  the
learners,  ensuring  that  the  learners  do  large
amounts  of  reading,  providing  recycling  of
the  vocabulary  through  repeated  meeting  of
the content as in repeated reading and linked
skills activities, and by providing occasional
deliberate  language  focuses  through  the  use
of  dictionaries,  glossaries,  hypertext,
concordances,  and  vocabulary  exercises.  It
is  important  that  the  deliberate  language
focus  is  not  overdone  at  the  expense  of
quantity of message-focused reading.

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