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Building vocabulary builds comprehension

Definition of the word "language" in a dictionary.
Definition of the word "language" in a dictionary.
D. Gill/Getty Images

Research on language learning has established that reading comprehension depends largely on vocabulary. Providing direct vocabulary instruction and activities that broaden students’ knowledge is the educators’ responsibility. However, this is only part of the vocabulary-building process. Adult learners pick up words by engaging in and overhearing real-world conversations.

It is common for adult learners to bring to class words or phrases that they overheard outside of the classroom. Although they may have used a dictionary, they still needed further explanation or definition in part because they lacked sufficient contextualized meaning or, according to E.D. Hirsh Jr., domain knowledge—the threshold level of knowledge about the topic being discussed.

Hirsch tells us in Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World, an American Educator article, that the “breadth of vocabulary is important” and “most vocabulary growth results incidentally from the massive immersion in the world of language and knowledge.” Consequently, building vocabulary and comprehension happens partly in the classroom and mostly in the real world.

English language learning depends ultimately on the adult learners, on their practice of the language. They can practice English and build their vocabulary in free, small conversation groups at selected branches of the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Brooklyn Public Library.