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  • Writer's pictureMaria Korochkina & Kathy Rastle

What Words do Children Encounter When They Read for Pleasure?


The ability to read opens up worlds. Reading enables children to progress into post-primary education and provides the basis for lifelong learning and prosperity into adulthood. Importantly, the journey to becoming a skilled reader requires not only high-quality classroom instruction but also many years of practice through independent book reading.


We wanted to learn more about the vocabulary that children encounter when they read for pleasure. To do this, we analysed the words in 1,200 books popular with British children aged 7-16. The original research article is open access and free to download, and we summarise the key insights from this work below.


Books contain a vast number of words


Reading seems so fast and automatic that sometimes people think that to be able to read we just memorise printed words. This idea has led to strategies that try to teach children to memorise the shapes of words. However, this type of rote learning is effortful and takes a long time. For instance, children in China need to memorise 2,500 characters during primary school, and this takes around 9 hours per week for 6 years!


A working knowledge of 2,000-3,000 characters is enough to understand most modern texts in standard Chinese. Not so in English – the 1,200 children’s books that we analysed contain over 100,000 different words! There is no way that a child could memorise so many printed words. That’s why phonics is so powerful: without understanding the connections between letters and sounds, children won’t be able to break down the wide variety of words that they will encounter during independent reading.






Books contain many words that children may not know


We found that around 40% of words used in children’s books do not appear on BBC television programmes aimed at children of the same age. Similarly, one fifth of words used in books for young people aged 13-16 are not encountered on BBC channels targeting adult audiences. The most common of these words include rare and sophisticated vocabulary – often of foreign origin – related to science (e.g., ‘meridian’, ‘homunculus’), arts (e.g., ‘aria’), history (e.g., ‘marquis’, ‘inquisitor’), politics (e.g., ‘communists’, ‘suffragists’, ‘abolitionist’, ‘legislature’), and religion (e.g., ‘quaker’, ‘missionary’). Typically, if a word is not in our spoken vocabulary, we can use context to infer meaning. However, if a book includes too many words that a child does not know, reading it will be a struggle.


The large numbers of unfamiliar words mean that books present a unique opportunity for enhancing children’s vocabulary. However, the other side of the coin is that, for many children, reading is likely to pose a challenge from the earliest years of independent reading.


Few words are used repeatedly in books


We found that the most common 100 words make up around 54% of the 1,200 books that we analysed. Most of these words belong to a class of words called function words: these are words like ‘do’, ‘and’, ‘not’, ‘but’, or ‘is’, which are used to express relationships between other words. Every second word encountered in children’s books is a function word, and children will quickly learn to recognise these words by sight. This form of sight-word recognition increases the speed of reading, but these words carry little meaning, and being able to read them quickly will not be enough to understand what a text is about.


To illustrate, consider a sentence from one of the books we analysed where all but the function words have been removed: “Then . . . a . . . her . . . , and she . . . her . . . and . . . her”. Can you guess what this is about? Now consider the original sentence: “Then a mischievous thought flashed across her eyes, and she pursed her lips together and pushed her tongue forward”. This example shows why being able to read the top-100 words effortlessly is not sufficient to read for meaning.




Above: 100 most common words in the 1,200 children’s books we analysed.


New words are encountered in every book


It turns out that the vast majority of words in children’s books are only encountered a few times and in a small subset of books. One consequence of this is that books written for children of the same age tend to vary greatly in the words they use. This is particularly so for books aimed at younger primary school children – these books are less similar to one another than those for older children are to one another. Likewise, books for older children include many words that are not encountered in books for younger children. For instance, more than a third of words in books for children aged 10–12 are never used in books for younger children, and more than a third of words in books for young people aged 13-16 do not occur in books targeting older primary school children. This means that reading is likely to continue to pose a challenge as children grow older.


With book vocabulary being so intense, it is crucial to develop reading skills and motivation early on. And because different books use different words, it is important that children read widely.


Most new words have complex structure


We have said that the vocabulary in books is more sophisticated than the vocabulary on television, and tends to get richer as children age. One way that we see this richness is through morphological complexity. Morphologically complex words are words that consist of several elements that are themselves meaningful: for example, the word ‘mistrustfulness’ consists of four elements, ‘mis-’, ‘-trust-’, ‘-ful’, and ‘-ness’. To understand the meanings of these words, a child needs to know what each individual component means and how it contributes to the overall meaning of the complex word. This body of knowledge is referred to as morphological knowledge.


The 1,200 children’s books that we analysed use thousands of morphologically complex words. Examples include words like ‘inexpensively’, ‘unwinnable’, ‘unlawfulness’, ‘speechlessness’, or ‘outlandishly’ – these words appear in books for children aged 10-12, but not in books for younger children. As skilled readers, we can easily understand these words even if we haven’t encountered them before because each of these words is created by combining elements we already know (e.g., ‘speech’ + ‘-less’ + ‘-ness’). However, these words will be very challenging to those who have not yet learned that ‘in’ and ‘un-’ mean ‘not’, or that ‘-ness’ denotes a noun and ‘-ly’ an adverb. For this reason, strong morphological knowledge is key to being able to read well.


Conclusions


It is widely accepted that reading ability is a strong predictor of how much children choose to read. Our work suggests that a failure to acquire good phonic and morphological knowledge early in reading acquisition is likely to have a negative snowball effect on a child’s reading habits. On the other hand, our analyses show that the books popular with British children today offer a wonderful opportunity to build vocabulary, particularly if children read widely.



Korochkina, M., Marelli, M., Brysbaert, M., & Rastle, K. (2024). The Children and Young People’s Books Lexicon (CYP-LEX): A large-scale lexical database of books read by children and young people in the United Kingdom. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Published online ahead of print, March 2024. https://doi.org/10.1177/17470218241229694


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