It is, of course, necessary to know a lot of words to read a lot of text in any language. But does this work the other way around? Does reading a lot result in knowing a lot of words? In Part 4 of this series we will explore the connection between reading a lot (or, massive reading, as I will be calling it) and vocabulary growth and acquisition.
The why and how of massive reading
Massive reading is exactly what it sounds like: reading a lot of text in the language you are working on learning. This sort of massive reading is intuitively obvious for learning words. The logic goes something like this. 1) To know what word “X” means you have to encounter it in actual usage at some point in time (that is obviously how we learn any word that we know; if you never encounter it, you never even know it exists!). 2) Pragmatically, the only way you will ever encounter an Ancient Greek word is by reading. Therefore, 3) to learn words you need to read a lot. We will touch on the usage of aides like flashcards in a later post. For now, it is enough to simply grasp the cold logic: to learn a lot of Greek words requires reading a lot of Greek.
Let’s use the New Testament as an example. The word ἐπισιτισμός (which means “provisions, food”, by the way) occurs once in the entire New Testament. So if you read the New Testament once a year, you will see it one time each year. Not likely to learn a word you only encounter once a year in one text. So you read more.
It turns out, reading massive amounts of text is actually an integral part of vocabulary learning. We tend to learn words in stages, or along a continuum. Over a variety of exposures over time our mental lexicon entry of the word becomes more and more robust. Each exposure nudges our knowledge of the word further up the continuum. The majority of these exposures in Ancient Greek happen through reading.
There once was an influential study on vocabulary acquisition which set out to answer the question: Where do people in literate societies get their massive vocabularies from? One of the findings of their study was that reading plays a huge role in this learning. They calculated that the probability of learning a word from one exposure in context is about 10% (when “knowing a word” is defined as having an adequate, but incomplete knowledge). Spread that 10% chance of learning a word from one exposure over huge amounts of words per year and voila, you quickly have a massive vocabulary fit for reading extensively. Problem solved. Massive reading of Greek will rapidly build up your vocabulary over time.
Frustrations of massive reading
Waiting for the other shoe to drop? Well, here it is. That study I just referred to? It is a study of native English speaking school-age kids who live in communities using their native language reading texts in their native language and these texts are written to be read by people with their level of language-knowledge. In other words, there is little obvious point of comparison to L2 reading for us, especially of Ancient Greek. We do not already fluently know the language. When we begin to learn how to read we don’t already have a storehouse of thousands of vocabulary items and an intimate knowledge of all the principle grammar and morphology of the language. Further, all of the texts we are reading were written not for the purpose of learning how to read and learning vocabulary, but to be read by people who already knew the language intimately and new how to read it. So what value do these studies have for us? Should we pursue massive reading?
Well, yes we should, but it will require some other steps to be taken at the same time. Truth be told, it is hard to massive read when most texts available to be read have a vocabulary demand that puts them outside of the range of a text that can be read with comprehension (remember the 98% threshold), to say nothing of grammatical difficulties.
(For some encouragement and thoughts on how to do massive reading in Greek texts, check out this presentation I gave on just that topic)
Everyone is agreed that reading in the language is crucial for developing vocabulary skills, along with knowledge of all the other components of Greek. One study on vocab learning helpfully found out that L2 learners are more likely to remember the form and meaning of a word when they figured out the meaning of the word themselves based on context. (Folse, 76). Reading is important for vocab growth. No doubt about it.
Where do we go from here: the necessity of system and method
The point of this post is twofold: massive reading is absolutely essential for growth in vocabulary. It is in massive reading that you will, consciously and sub-consiously, start seeing patterns of word formation, the networks of words that tend to go together, get used to the way words change shape, and so forth. You can’t grow a good vocabulary without extensive reading. However, massive reading has a lot of problems for us by nature of the texts which we actually have access to. They are not user friendly, as a rule, so any attempt to read a lot of text will tend to feel like an exercise in futility. How do we get around this futility? We need massive reading, and we need something more: disciplined, methodological, systematic study and memorization of lots of vocabulary. It is to this topic that we turn in the next post.
Nagy, William E., Patricia A. Herman, Richard C. Anderson, and P. David Pearson. “Learning Words from Context.” Reading Education Reports. Champaign (IL): University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, July 1984. Page 34.