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Should You Look Up Words You Don’t Know While Reading?

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

If you encounter an unfamiliar word while you’re reading, should you take a moment to look it up? I’m coming in hot with the least satisfying answer possible: it depends! Reading is an activity done for myriad reasons, and readers are unique individuals. A yes/no answer isn’t going to encompass all the complexities of this seemingly simple question.

Most of the research I found about the use of a dictionary while reading concerned specific populations, like children learning to read or people acquiring a new language. Rather than think about this question in the context of education, I’m going to be considering the everyday adult reader. The beauty of being a reader outside of schooling is reading what you want, how you want. So I’ve expounded on a few questions you can ask yourself about how to approach unfamiliar words when you encounter a wordsmith with a predilection for sesquipedalian verbiage. 

Ultimately, my advice is to think about these questions now. Then you’ll be prepared to act when the next unknown word crops up in a book. As the wise words go, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.

What’s the Purpose?

When you read, are you aiming to build vocabulary? Readers who have been studied regarding dictionary use are certainly reading with the intent to enhance their personal lexicon. As I mentioned, they’re typically students and language learners. The pressure is on. According to multiple academic studies, dictionaries help readers. Words are retained better when looked up rather than inferred from context. A study has also shown that reading digital text with an embedded electronic dictionary (similar to how an ereader’s dictionary works) had better long-term retention than reading paper text with definitions in the margin.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that if the population studied doesn’t include you, you can’t expect the same results. I listened to a podcast segment from A Way With Words about using a dictionary while reading. In that segment, lexicographer ​​Grant Barrett mentioned that studies he’d worked on while compiling dictionaries showed very different results than those stated above. He said people often couldn’t retain the definition of a word 30 seconds after looking it up. These contrasting findings suggest that even if you are curious about vocabulary, the low pressure situation of reading for fun may not really motivate vocabulary learning. 

As a writer and general word nerd, I do aim to build vocabulary as a side benefit of reading. I like to think I’m more motivated than the average bear. The morning I wrote this paragraph, for example, I looked up the word “samizdat” while reading an article. Luckily, I can see what my word looking up has meant for me, thanks to Kindle’s Vocabulary Builder. I did a little middle school reenactment and quizzed myself on words I’ve looked up. My Vocabulary Builder shows a mix of words I definitely know (perfidy, legerdemain) and ones I definitely do not (marmoreal, quirt). Obviously my findings are purely anecdotal. Still, I can see that looking up words while I read has not always resulted in learning them, not by a long shot.

So I turn the question over to you. Knowing the words might not stick, is it important to you to build vocabulary while reading?

What’s at Stake?

In addition to knowing whether it’s important to you to build vocabulary, it’s worth it to think about what looking words up means in the course of reading as an activity. There are essentially three choices when encountering an unfamiliar word. One is to stop and look it up. The second is to spend some time considering the context to guess a word’s meaning. The third is to fully ignore and sally forth. It’s fairly unlikely that missing one word is going to send the whole text collapsing into a meaningless pile of rubble, right?

And indeed, when I looked at some of the words I didn’t know from my own Vocabulary Builder, plenty of them make sense in context. Take, for example, “huckaback.” According to my kindle, I looked this word up while I was reading A Sitting in St. James. Huckaback is a rough cotton or linen cloth. The sentence in the book, “Thisbe poured water from the pitcher into the basin and wetted a small huckaback towel in it,” makes it clear it’s a kind of fabric. But I wanted the specifics, satisfied myself in the moment, only to forget again. Looking the word up did me no good in the long run. Now that I’ve written this, of course, huckaback is no doubt with me forever.

If I’d been reading a paper book and came across the word, I might have looked it up then as well. But if I set a book down to pick up my phone, how likely is it I’ll even look the word up? Especially if there’s some notification on my phone screen directing me elsewhere. The danger of breaking the flow of reading is real! Additionally, some books require a lot of focus to read, even if you’re enjoying them. Long sentences, florid language, heady ideas: you know what I mean. If the author is trying to cast a spell on you, and it’s working, is it really worth it to break the spell for an unfamiliar word?

What’s the Strategy?

Even if you accept you won’t always remember words, and even if you’re willing to break focus, you still need a strategy. If you’re reading on an ereader with a built-in dictionary, that’s probably the least disruptive way to look up words, especially if your ereader has a feature like Kindle’s that will track the words over time and display the usage in the text.

If you’re reading a paper book, you can decide to have a print dictionary handy or not. This isn’t always practical, naturally. You can also decide whether to look words up in the moment or keep a running list. That list can be on paper or a notes app, though that isolates the words from their context. Using something like post-it flags in the margin to mark the line where the word appears might be more effective. That allows you to look up words later and see how they were used in context. All of that also requires additional discipline to do the actual looking up. Knowing your own reading habits and level of conscientiousness, what’s your best strategy?

What Should Be Done With All Those Words?

Is looking up a word one time really going to solidify it for you? Trying to find the number of exposures it takes to learn a word was a silly exercise for me. I kept finding numbers backed by “studies” and “research” ranging between 10 and 40. Therefore I’m going to use the word huckaback 36 more times before this article is over so it really sinks in for all of us. Just kidding, of course. But the question of how to use all these new words you find is the last one to consider. I hope you find great places to drop them into writing or conversation. And I share Tai from Clueless’s sentiments when I add:

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