In this post I want to make one extremely obvious point: languages are made up of words! In order to read with comprehension, it is absolutely necessary to learn words. In order to read with comprehension, it is necessary to aim at building high-quality lexical entries.

“High-quality lexical entries”: your mental lexicon and reading comprehension

Reading comprehension is connected to our vocabulary knowledge. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever tried to read a text where they didn’t know all the words. In order to read our Greek texts with comprehension, we need to know a lot of words. Let’s back up. What does it mean to know a word? Hammering this out will help clarify our vision. Knowing a word well so that it facilitates reading comprehension involves at least nine components (this list is from Grabe, Reading in a Second Language, 267):

  • Orthography (spelling)
  • Morphology (word-family relations)
  • Parts of speech
  • Pronunciation
  • Meanings (referential range, variant meanings, homophones)
  • Collocations (what words very commonly go with a word)
  • Meaning associations (topical links, synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms)
  • Specific uses (technical, common)
  • Register (power, politeness, disciplinary domain, formality, slang, dialect form)

Over time I will be addressing all these various components with respect to Ancient Greek (the New Testament and related literature, mostly), but in this post two of them will suffice: orthography (spelling) and pronunciation. In a series on vocabulary learning for reading comprehension, a focus on spelling is probably self-evident, but maybe you didn’t expect to see pronunciation make the list of key things to know about a word. How do these two factors come into play in populating our mental lexicon’s with high-quality lexical representations (aka., knowing what words mean)?

Learning the Sounds and Spellings of the Language

Oddly enough, but intuitively when it comes down to it, reading, even silent reading, is an inherently aural process. This is especially true for languages like Greek where the word spellings are alphabetic. That is, the spelling of a word is meant to depict the sound the spoken word makes (to a greater or lesser degree). Our minds recognize written letters by reading them “out-loud” in our head. In fact, research suggests that in these sort of alphabetic languages we actually store the most recently read text in what researchers call our “phonological loop.” This is the part of the brain that is used for “recording” what someone just said in spoken conversation. Reading, it turns out, is inherently aural.

Why does this matter? Well, if we don’t have a solid or consistent phonetic representation of the Greek words we are reading stashed away in our long-term memory (from repeated, consistent exposure), then our ability to remember what we just read is immensely compromised. It is difficult to build robust comprehension of what you read when each piece placed in the mental structure is wobbly and uncertain. The end result is trouble with comprehension.

The take away: part of growing in our reading comprehension of Greek requires beefing up phonetic familiarity with the words we are reading because our minds seem to treat the Greek we are reading as if it is actually spoken language. Part of good vocab learning is to take seriously what words sound like when you learn them; your brain will thank you latter (take a look over here for an effective method to learn the sounds of Koine Greek that will get you off to a great start on mastering words).

Learn to read words as words

In the early stages of learning to read an alphabetic language (whether for the first time or learning a new one), we rely mostly on what researchers call “decoding.” Decoding is not reading (at least, not in the sense that we are aiming at, where comprehension is the end goal). Decoding is the “sound-it-out” phase of reading. Decoding is the act of figuring out what a word is (we call it parsing or decline in Greek classes). It is a necessary pre-step for reading with comprehension, but it is not the same thing. To read with comprehension, we must reach the stage where decoding becomes completely automatic. Think about it. As you read the last sentence you probably did not stop to think at all that “completely” has an “-ly” which signals that it is an adverb and that signals a certain relationship to words around it. No. Your decoding of English is probably automatic. Your decoding of Greek, on the other hand, is probably painful and slow. One way to help this is to focus on growing vocabulary and thinking about learning words as words.

Once we become proficient decoders (which is especially where the sound/letter connection from above is relevant), we graduate to reading words rather than the parts of words. This makes sense of why it is so hard to spell-check. Misspelled words rarely hinder our reading because we read words, not letters, and because when we understand what we are reading we know the word that ought to be there. For the purpose of learning Greek vocab for reading comprehension, a skill to work on is reading words as words rather than analyzing the different parts. That is a valuable skill for its own purposes. But, to read fast enough to actually comprehend what you are reading, you need to see the word on the page and read it, not work through it. Doing exercises that force you to read faster can be a big help in this area (things like looking at a word as it is pronounce quickly, reading while running your finger at a constant pace under the text, etc.).

The take away? Reading comprehension requires a step beyond decoding words. Part of what is necessary to make this step is to improve vocabulary knowledge so that you are not running into so many words in a text that require decoding.

Learning words flows into reading more…

L2 research finds a clear and unsurprising correlation between vocab knowledge and reading comprehension: people with a big vocab have big comprehension; people with small vocab have small comprehension. In this post I addressed two practical realities in vocab learning: getting the sounds down and learning words as words. But word learning also requires massive amounts of exposure to words in real communicative contexts. In the next post we will consider the role of “massive reading” in learning vocabulary. After all, reading is, at its most basic, assembling words together.