Dr. Holly Joseph

Learning new words through reading in children who speak English as an additional language

Children who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL) generally have poorer vocabularies and poorer reading comprehension skill in English than their monolingual peers, yet they also make faster progress in literacy at school (Strand et al., 2015), suggesting that they may employ particular skills or strategies that enable their rapid improvement. We also know that the primary source for vocabulary development in later childhood is through reading and most new words are learned simply through repeated exposure in this way. While a number of previous studies have examined word learning in bilingual children using explicit learning tasks, incidental learning of novel words through reading has not been studied in EAL children. It is therefore important to examine incidental learning during reading in EAL children to see if their fast progress at school is partly due to efficient learning of novel words they encounter as they read.

In this talk I will present two studies in which EAL and monolingual children (age 10—11 years) read a series of sentences containing unfamiliar words over repeated training sessions while their eye movements were monitored. The contexts, number of exposures and distribution of exposures was varied. Children were also given offline post-tests to measure their orthographic and semantic learning of the novel words.

Results showed that EAL children demonstrated evidence of better learning (a larger difference between pre- and post-test reading times), earlier learning (a more rapid reduction in reading times during exposure), and greater sensitivity to context (a larger difference in reading times on words encountered in neutral versus informative contexts)  than their monolingual peers. However, they did not differ in their performance in the post-tests.

EAL children’s relatively rapid incidental vocabulary learning under tightly controlled conditions may be due to their experience in learning new words with fewer encounters (by virtue of using each language only part of the time) and their experience encountering words in more diverse contexts (i.e. language environments). The results are encouraging for educators working with EAL children seeking to improve their vocabulary knowledge.


Strand, S., Malmberg, L., & Hall, J. (2015). English as an Additional Language (EAL) and educational achievement in England: An analysis of the National Pupil Database. London: EEF [online].


Joseph is an Associate Professor of Language Education and Literacy Development at the Institute of Education, University of Reading.  Her research interests lie in reading development, in particular how children’s reading difficulties manifest themselves in their eye movements. She completed her doctorate in children’s eye movements during reading at the University of Durham in 2008. She then worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford for five years, investigating reading behaviour in children with comprehension difficulties. Since then she has looked at reading in children with dyslexia and autism, as well as children who speak English as an Additional Language.

Further information about her research and publications can be found at http://www.reading.ac.uk/education/about/staff/h-joseph.aspx