Chapter 4 of The Reading Mind, “Words, Words, Words”: Summary, Implications, and Discussion Questions


  • The meaning of a word is very sensitive to the context in which it appears.
  • Researchers model the organization of word knowledge with simple features of meaning that are densely interconnected.
  • If you don’t know the meaning of a word, sometimes (but not always) you can deduce it from the context. But people are not eager to do a lot of this work, because it’s difficult and it interrupts the flow of reading.
  • Words defining other words sound circular. This problem may be partially solved through the use of grounded representations.
  • It’s not only important to know a lot of words (breadth) but for the words you know to have many connections, and for those connections to be strong (depth).
  • New words are used bit by bit, through exposure.


  • Looking words up in a dictionary will be of limited use—not useless, but, but we must acknowledge that it will be just one context in which to understand the word’s meaning, and it’s possible that the student will misunderstand the definition. Explicit instruction of new words is more likely to be successful the way teachers usually implement it, with multiple examples and with the requirement that students use each word in different contexts. There is a good evidence that students do learn vocabulary this way.
  • In addition to consistent vocabulary instruction, teachers can make it more likely that students will learn words they encounter in context. They can give students pointers that will help them use context for figure out an unfamiliar word. For example, students can learn to use the clues in the sentence about the unknown word’s part of speech, to use the setting described in the text to constrain the word’s meaning, and to use the tone of the text to help constrain meaning.
  • Students are also better able to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words if they have had some instruction in morphology. The definition of a morpheme is a unit of language that is meaningful on its own, and that cannot be further divided. Thus “dog” is a morpheme. The really interesting morphemes are the all-purpose ones that can be added to words—usually as prefixes of suffixes—to change their tense or inflection, or meaning. For example, the prefix “super” means over, the suffix “like” means having the characteristics of, and so on.
  • Though important, direct instruction cannot account for all of children’s vocabulary learning. That’s because someone who stays in school up to age 18 may know as many as 20,000 word families. (Word families meaning that “talk, talks, talked,” and other obvious derivatives count just once.) If children are learning about a thousand words each year and there are about 36 weeks in a typical American school year, students would need to get instruction in about 28 words each week. That seems high, especially given that children in early elementary grades often don’t get explicit vocabulary instruction.
  • Much of the vocabulary that we know is not the product of explicit study, but was learned incidentally, either through conversation or reading. We would expect, however, that reading will be more useful for learning new words than conversation will be, because writers more frequently use unusual words than speakers do.
  • The difference between writing and speaking in terms of the richness of vocabulary it offers becomes really important as vocabulary grows. For the newborn, adult speech offers plenty of novelty, but they will obviously be most likely to learn the words that people around them most frequently use. So one way to boost student vocabulary is to prompt teachers and parents to use more unusual vocabulary words, and some research indicates that helps. But that may be hard to implement for older children who already know quite a few words. For them, moderately challenging reading material will be the main way they will encounter new words. And because a single instance of exposure is not enough to learn a word—learning is, after all, gradual—it would seem that the injunction to students must not just be “Read!” but “Read a lot.”

Discussion Questions

  • I cited studies showing that people are reluctant to read texts that use unfamiliar words. How much do you think it helps to read and electronic text with a feature whereby touching a word brings up a dictionary definition?
  • For older children, what is the responsibility of teachers of subjects other than English Language Arts to provide exposure to new vocabulary? Should it just be vocabulary particular to their subject, or broader? It sounds as though it would be useful for teachers in different subjects to coordinate to be sure that students practice the same words in different subjects, but is that really practical?
  • Teachers can provide varied contexts in which students can encounter the same word, so that the meaning representation will be precise. How can someone trying to improve their vocabulary do that on their own?
  • We might propose that teachers use richer vocabulary with their students. How should this be implemented? Should teachers derive a list of words that they try to use over some period of time (say, a month) to ensure students hear repetition of these words? Or should teachers just make a mental note to use words they know will challenge students, and to provide on-the-fly definitions?
  • Do you think most children have good morphological knowledge? How about adults? How about teachers? If a school or district were to set the goal of improving students’ morphological knowledge, what would be required?

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.