New and Unknown Words in Understanding Expository Text

Subject: Education
Pages: 20
Words: 5940
Reading time:
20 min
Study level: PhD


Expository text is used in a lot of ways with the end aim to provide a clear picture, idea or piece of information called knowledge to the end-user who is the reader. Whether short as a sentence or long as a series of encyclopedias, expository text informs.

Definitions of words from acceptable sources such as the good old dictionaries, encyclopedias, and presently online sources, have by far served as the authoritative end-all for most reader-learners. This is supplicated and complemented in part by learning figures in schools and institutions where instructional teaching occurs. However, it should be highly considered that in an ever revolving world and fast accelerating bodies of knowledge, both formal and informal processes of learning words and their meanings expand.

Since written words proved its worth to the continuing evolution and development of man, it has also grown continuously, without halt as new components, sources, origins and mergers resulted to new words added to a universally or even locally accepted and adopted database. And as individuals are empowered in a fast-phased platform of communication and information exchange such as the internet, the introduction of new words has grown exponentially.

This paper in consideration of the above premise shall try to define the role of new or unknown words in understanding expository text. This is with the understanding that learning or reading is a process that encompasses the reader, the word, the entire written material, and its practical purpose for the reader-learner.


New or unknown words may be defined as previously unknown or un-encountered word by the learner. It has not been earlier used or understood, thereby provides a strange effect, a halt on the reading process. It could have been existing for a while or for an indefinite period of time, accepted and widely used by a group of people yet still to be known by a learner. A new or an unknown word may also be called a “neologism” which is defined as a new or just created word.

New words are used everyday both written and spoken manners and likewise already made public, therefore shared, between an individual and the receiver of information, or between the new word source to a bigger public. Through their use, relevance is already exhibited, thereby, a need for understanding then acceptance, wider use, and general approval. Fast changing cultures are seen as one of the stronger factors in the coinage of new words. While neologism, or the use of new words, was previously viewed in the negative, its propagation today is uncontained and widely acceptable, especially with the growing influence of open publishing brought about by the internet.

Already, mass media (that includes the traditional print, broadcast, and now the streaming internet media) is the admissible culprit behind popularization of new words, followed in with word of mouth that may encompass academic discourse and use of distinctive jargon.

In English, new words become staple discussion prior to the publication of commercial and widely acceptable dictionaries. These new words appear in internationally circulated newspapers or magazines to add hype to words which may have also found its birth or coinage through internationally circulated newspapers or other forms of publications such as now the internet’s bloggers. As Sibley (2003) wrote, “The influx of neologisms in the 21st century was just a matter of time – although we should be used to them – they have been coming and going for the last 11 centuries. Soon, new words will not be discriminated against as being esoteric and will be integrated into common usage. This is why they have been included in dictionaries… have been developed to provide information quickly and efficiently. The mobile phone is here to stay and so are the words it has brought along. It’s a sign of the times. New words are critical in developing the way we all use the English language…For the English language not to become stagnant and archaic…”

It is therefore probable that new words provide an evolving and more current if not updated approach to elucidating and understanding expository text.

Vocabulary Processes and Acquisition

Nagy and Scott (2000) acknowledge the continuing interest in vocabulary among reading researchers and echoed Davis’ 1994 proposition that interest in vocabulary stems in part from the recognition that vocabulary knowledge strongly influences reading comprehension. They countered the understanding of the decreasing interest in “vocabulary” which, “may suggest a reductionist perspective in which words are learned by memorizing short definitions and sentences are understood in a strictly bottom-up fashion by putting together the meanings of individual words – a picture inconsistent with our current understanding of the reading process,” (p 269).

Nagy and Scott (2000) enumerated the five aspects of word knowledge as:

  1. Incrementality – learning of words in degrees and not all-or-nothing so that it may take several steps to learn a word, such as those of children learning from an incomplete to a gradually increasing with age and experience. It may also be described in a linear scale with five stages as: “never saw it before; heard it but doesn’t know what it means; recognizes it in context as having something to do with…; and know it well,” (p 270) and added with, “can use this word in a sentence,” (p 270.) This, however, may be an early stage view and additional stages and processes were still added on to it such as word distinction, differentiation, among others. Knowledge may occur on the learner or reader gained through context even in non-informative encounters, in incremental fashion.
  2. Multidimensionality – knowledge consists of several qualitatively different types. While learning may be seen in a single dimension “none” to “complete” process, Nagy and Scott (2000) also pointed out earlier propositions on eight aspects of word knowledge as: knowledge on spoken word, written form, grammatical behavior, collocational behavior, frequency, stylistic register, conceptual meanings and associations with other words. These were also seen as morphological relationships through use of suffix and prefix, semantic relationships specifically antonyms and synonyms, referential or denotative, and affective or connotative. Likewise, words may be learned through new concepts, new labels for known concepts, and introduction to existing productive vocabularies. Observations showed that different facets of word knowledge are relatively independent such as knowledge on its definition without actually being able to use it in a sentence, to improper usage and misunderstanding of its meaning.
  3. Polysemy – multiple meanings of words; It was observed that the more frequent a word is in one given language, the more meanings it may have adding cognitive complexity. In addition, “multiple meanings of words range from being completely unrelated to being so close that the shade of meaning separating the two may exist only in the mind of an impulsive lexicographer,” (Nagy and Scott, 2000, p 271). Word meaning are also inherently flexible and most of time affected with the content of the entire sentence or paragraph where it appears so that it must be inferred from context even if the word is already very familiar. While inferences may be easy or natural, use of figurative language serve as a challenge. This presents a careful need to address the complexity of words so that students can choose effectively and expect to encounter words with a variety of meanings, no matter how insignificant the differences may appear or hide.
  4. Interrelatedness – knowledge of a given word is dependent on one’s knowledge of other words. The constructivist understanding of knowledge proposes that words should be taught and tested as an essential part of units where it is linked to familiar words and concepts. Interconnectedness in vocabulary is seen in one’s exposure to a new text contributing to an already existing knowledge of words. Here, even un-encountered words may already be partly introduced to one’s knowledge assuming that there is some quality or aspects of an unseen or un-encountered word to an already experienced word by a reader. This had Nagy and Scott (2000) propose that “the interconnectedness among words in human memory may be far greater than is commonly assumed, and certainly far greater than is represented in dictionary definitions,” p 272).
  5. Heterogeneity – the kind of word affects what it means to know a word. Knowledge of word depends on the kind of word being talked about and may require different types of learning dependent on previous knowledge of a reader or learner. Incidentally, knowledge on words rely primarily on what is given or how it is defined in existing sources such as dictionaries and as may be pointed out and discussed in a learning setting.

Multi-dimensional Nature of Reading

According to Stine-Morrow, Miller and Hertzog (2006) stated that readers engage in three different levels of text processing, i.e. word, textbase and discourse levels. Under the word-level processing, orthographic decoding and lexical analysis takes place to access the meaning of words. The text-base processing involves identification of relationships among concepts to construct idea or propositions as well as “integrating them into the semantic representation of text,” (Noh, Shake, Parisi, Joncich, Morrow, and Stine-Morrow, 2007, p 133). The discourse level processing builds a situation model and elaborates representation to integrate information form the reader’s prior knowledge (Kintsch, 1998). The readers build situation models by monitoring multiple dimensions of temporal, spatial, and causal continuity (Noh et a, 2007). The readers monitor the introduction of new characters or discourse entities that revolves around it, build mental structures of the text and detect coherence of incoming information with the previous ones to establish a new structure (Noh et al, 2007). Readers also create expository structure by identifying expansion created by the author from one topic as it moves to another and integrating them all. It results to contextual facilitation of related concepts that accelerate while the reading progresses.

The situation model also suggests the production of elaborative inferences and the ability to use the information to solve novel problems making “the reading process consists of multiple levels of processing to create a coherent multilevel representation of the text. Readers must continually derive meaning from text and integrate this new information with what they already know,” (Noh et al, 2007, p 134).

Rereading is also another way to enhance learning from text called the rereading benefit (Millis, King and Kim, 2000). In reencountering the information, the memory representations help facilitate the process. The reader also tends to gravitate more towards what the situation requires than in the first reading. Stine-Morrow, Gagne, Morrow and Herman (2004) found that resource allocation across two readings of a series of scientific texts to assess comprehension among younger adults, textbase processing decreased during the second reading. However, the allocation to situation-model processing increased concluding that facilitating the textbase process frees resources for a more focused construction of a situation model in the successive encounters with text among younger readers.

Importance of Pre-exposure

Encounter of new or unfamiliar words serve as challenge for many readers but most specifically in expository text where focus may be different from those that are immediately defined within the paper. Further research would be required in order for the reader to fully comprehend the point of the author in a given topic or even sentence alone aggravating the discussion or learning process.

It is important to focus in order to learn from expository text which requires attentional allocation and multiple levels of analysis dependent on the use of prior knowledge (Kintsch, 1998). Kirkorian and Conroy (2004) further confirmed that readers rely on discourse-level structures and knowledge-based processes to understand language. Likewise, Rawson and Kintsch (2002) suggested for providing content pre-exposure to effectively direct readers to attend to relevant aspects of the text. For many older adults, re-reading and pre-exposure is also helpful to attain equal levels of text comprehension as with younger adults (Thompson, 1998).

Learning from Text

Through use of words that seem to connive if not carefully thought out prior to publication, a formal and continuing learning process has evolved. The essence of inducing readers to engage in active processing such as mentioned earlier has been proven in earlier studies (McNamara, 2001). It is therefore necessary that an optimized condition for such processing is important in learning from text. In a study conducted by Schmalhofer and Glavanov in 1986 found that varied instructions given to their readers that either emphasized summary of the text of knowledge acquisition concluded that readers working towards knowledge acquisition outperformed on recognition probes that required inferences while readers instructed with the summarization performed better on the recognition probes that required explicit text-based information. The study further suggested that summarization instruction focused the attention to the text-base while subjects that focused on knowledge acquisition were enabled a more flexible mental structure (Noh et al, 2007).

In a study conducted by Noh et al (2007), they were able to further establish that older adults are relatively more oriented towards situation-model construction as earlier suggested by Radvansky et al (2001). The study found that older adults showed an exaggerated resource allocation to the establishment of new discourse entities as well as an exaggerated serial position effect interpreted as situation construction. The older readers produce more elaborate inferences at retrieval relying on general knowledge. The younger readers spent less time in analysis of the situation-model features and produced more textbase information and textbase specific solutions to problem solving. Younger readers showed serial-position and new-discourse entity effects comparable with when encountering material for the first time showing that mismatch encouraged more situation-model processing relative to simple repetition. “Desired difficulty” effect was not also observed.

Advantage of Challenges in Processing

“Desired difficulties” had been earlier acknowledged to enhance long-time retention and transfer while easier learning speed up short-term-learning not necessarily resulting to active and optimized cognitive learning (Schmidt and Bjork, 1992). Introducing processing difficulty in reading improves the conceptual integration such as in the embedding of predictable or unpredictable target word from previous context in their passages. There is longer reading time using unpredictable target word but better recognition and recall advantage has been reported. Processing and more retained information are facilitated when knowledge provides a readily available schema in extreme cases. However, novel information requires more effort in an attempt to connect the new information to the established knowledge base where “strenuous inference generation” or SIG occurs (Graesser, Haberlandt, and Koizumi, 1987). It was argued, however that reading more about something previously known could require additional processing to sift through one’s vast knowledge system for the most relevant information to comprehend text.

It has also been suggested that another way to introduce desired comprehension difficulty is through a strategic use of mismatched prior knowledge of a reader against the structure of the target text. In one study conducted in 1987, Mannes and Kitch manipulated the structure of the advanced organizer to the target text although the information content was constant. The participants were asked to read a target text preceded by an outline that was either consistent with the organization of the target text or inconsistent with it. Those who were provided a consistent outline were better at producing text-base information than those who had read the inconsistent outline but performed better at situation-model tasks such as inferencing, problem-solving, producing more elaborative responses, and more able in connecting text content to ideas from the outline (Noh et al, 2007).

Working Out Unknown Words

The Integrated Processing was introduced in 1997 as a strategy for students who have some phonic skills integration failure. This strategy helps readers integrate phonetics and content to pronounce unknown words and improve their comprehension to become independent and accurate readers (Downing and Pemberton, 2003). This process is achieved through adequate listening vocabulary, basic sight vocabulary, knowledge in reading consonants, and knowledge on at least one way to pronounce each vowel.

Reading with Integrated Processing begins through oral expository text. The student draws a line beneath for every new or unknown word encountered pronouncing it per syllable as it is being underlined. The word is or parts of the unknown word is repeated more rapidly afterwards. The next step has the learner return to the beginning of the sentence and read the sentence again before checking for the unknown word for sense within the sentence. When the word is sounded out with meaning in the sentence, the learner proceeds to the next sentence. Regular reading materials from the library, social studies and science textbooks are considered appropriate for the Integrated Processing strategy as long as about 90% correct word is recognized. The selected texts may add confidence of the reader and may be used individually or in groups (Downing and Pemberton, 2003).

When in a classroom setting where a teacher deals with a group of students, the reading material may be projected on the screen with an overhead projector. The students are asked to take turns reading and demonstrating the processing of new or unknown words. However, it is highly recommended that individual practice is included in the program. Downing and Pemberton (2003) enumerated the following procedure for Integrated Processing:

  1. Teach the strategy for working out new or unknown words to the learner; first, by providing the learner sentences that support or provide a clue to the meaning of the target word (new word) such as “To be a good secretary, you must fully understand what you are instructed to write.”; second, demonstrate to the reader how to draw a line below the successive parts of the word silently and then say each part of the word as it is being underlined (se cre ta ry), then repeat in a more rapid manner; third, let the learner imitate the second procedure then let the learner read the sentence to find out if the syllables said made a meaningful word that fits; fourth, the teacher repeats the second step with emphasis on the syllabication of the word “se-cre-ta-ry” all in long vowels, allowing the students to imitate and provide guidance to the correct adjustment. The reader once again is instructed to read the whole sentence to determine if the adjusted word makes sense in the sentence; fifth, provide several other sentences with target words treated as shown earlier.
  2. The next procedure is to provide a daily practice using the strategy outlined; first by locating a reading material in which the reader may have about 90% correct word recognition and having the student read aloud from the material; second, instruct the student to use a pencil to underline all segments of any new or unknown word and let the reader verbalize the decoding; third, keep a record of the learner’s performance on a separate sheet; fourth, let the student continue reading for about 10 to 15 minutes per session; fifth, continue from where the last session ended; sixth, an evaluation for the need to drop the pencil should be undertaken if the learner has demonstrated capable and accurate reading and pronunciation (Downing and Pemberton, 2003).

In 1998, it has been suggested that verbal short-term memory capacity constrains individuals’ new word learning skills (Baddeley, Gathercole, & Papagno). The study argued that a dedicated verbal short-term memory system has evolved in humans to support new word learning. This is so because to create a long-term representation of a novel word, there is a need to maintain it in short-term memory (Gathercole, 2006). This has been earlier supported by other computational models that suggested formation of stable, long-term phonological representations depends on the quality of the short-term phonological representations of words created after first encounter (Burgess & Hitch, 2005).

Gathercole (2006) further suggested an association between verbal short-term memory performance and new word learning indicating that individuals with strong verbal short-term memory skills tend to have a more extensive receptive vocabulary. This finding was both indicated in children learning their native vocabulary and those learning second languages in earlier studies (Baddeley et al, 1998). Experimental new word learning in children have also shown a relationship between measures of individual’s verbal short-term memory performance and their ability to learn the new names of novel objects and characters (Gupta, 2003). Nevertheless, as individuals’ receptive vocabulary increases, their phonological awareness defined as the understanding of and the ability to process and manipulate component speech sounds, develops through a process of “lexical restructuring” (Bowey, 2001). Phonological representations are more precisely specified and distinct as a direct consequence of increased receptive vocabulary knowledge. This is apparently because lexical entries represented in terms of a limited set of common phonemes is more efficient than representing the phonological structure of each word separately (Metsala and Walley, 1998). Proponents further argued that phonological awareness plays a role in determining performance on experimental tests of both verbal short-term memory and new word learning because of the need to accurately encode and maintain phonological information in such tasks (Bowey, 2001). Development of phonological awareness mediates an apparent relationship between verbal short-term memory and new word leaning.

Other factors in new word learning include employment of existing receptive vocabulary knowledge to support their new word learning performance although individuals’ knowledge of the language constrain memory performance (Gathercole, 2006) applicable even in employment of nonword stimuli to recall less wordlike ones. There are advantages of the “wordlikeness” of new or unknown words in both children and adults with wordlikeness defined at lexical level as sharing phonemes with “near neighbors” within the reader’s existing lexicon, and at sublexical level as consisting of phoneme combinations that are more or less common in the native language. Learning the phonological form of new words requires the maintenance of an accurate phonological representation of these novel items (Baddeley et al, 1998).

In another note, Nelson (2008) summarized the Wittgenstein principles of word learning as follows:

  1. Meaning depends on context of use (not on correct concepts, facts or truth conditions). Different contexts imply variable rules of use in different language games.
  2. Rule following is determined not by the individual but by the community. No private rules can determine how words are appropriately used.
  3. The community attributes a concept to an individual so long as sufficient conformity to the behavior of the community is evidenced, which depends on the uniformity or community practices and a shared form of life.
  4. Criteria for use are inferred by individuals. A person who claims to be following a rule can be checked by others.
  5. Meaning is not a mental entity. This follows the previous principles.”

Already, we may assume that learning of words new or unknown takes varied ways and forms, and will continue being defined or presented with variation as more studies and developments occur. As Procter (2005) suggested ways to deal with new words when in the process of reading, there is no need to interrupt the reading process in order to look up for every new word encountered, and it is always safe to guess first.

Pointers include skimming through the material rapidly prior to sitting down. Check on the few words that crop up repeatedly from title or headings, and then check it out in the glossary or in the dictionary. Write down a definition which may be changed as the reader moves on. I is also suggested to sound out new words using simple phonics at pronunciation. Recognition of the word may occur upon hearing its sound. The reader is then advised to examine the structure and look for familiar root or word parts aside from the suffixes or prefixes. In case where the word cannot be guessed or related with, the reader may proceed to check the dictionary for a quick definition as the new word may pose significant meaning and may be essential to the argument. However, leaving the dictionary until the reader has finished reading for a wild guess may also be important to reinforce a guessed definition (Procter, 2005).

Presentation of Words

Conflicting theories in the presentation of new words either in semantic sets or in semantically unrelated sets was a recent subject of study which argued that similar words sharing common elements and super-ordinate concept introduced at the same time interfere in the learning process and have a negative effect on their retention.

Those who argue for presenting vocabulary in semantic sets relate to using word associations as adopted by some course books commonly used in English lessons such as Oxenden et al’s 2004 New English File (Erten and Tekin, 2008). This was linked to the pervasive belief among course book writers that semantically related groups facilitate vocabulary building founded on methodology and convenience (Waring, 1997). This has also been adopted by second language acquisition (SLA) theorists claiming compliance with various brain theories suggesting that there is a good organization of semantic fields in the human brain (Erten and Tekin, 2008). Words are also viewed to be semantically organized in the human brain and individuals are believed to recall words based on the semantic field in which they are conceptually mapped. This leads an individual to form a pattern of interrelated words in his mind and learning is reinforced in sets and will endure longer.

The Interference Theory, however, opposes this view as there is an interfering effect on learning similar words at the same time (Baddeley et al, 1998). In one study, it was found that learning new words grouped in semantic sets required more learning trials in order to learn completely, in another that recall of words learnt in semantically related ones in slower in both directions of translation. Another study mentioned that semantically related words with similar forms confused learners as it takes longer to differentiate and assign new labels for new words and have a deleterious effect on learning aside from impeding learning of new vocabulary (Erten and Tekin, 2008). Thematic sets has been advised instead as the words may be related but do not form a proper semantic set with super-ordinate terms and co-hyponyms. Erten and Tekin (2008) also concluded in their study that presenting new words in semantic sets rather than in semantically unrelated word groups interfere with learning. It further suggested that synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms and other relations among words caused confusion and required more time and effort to learn and suggested that words are learned individually in natural language development. As Nation (2001) suggested, new strategies are needed to be developed to present and recycle new vocabulary items to minimize semantic relations confusion further discouraging learning of words through semantic sets.

In a very recent study (Nelson, 2008) emphasized that children learn the meaning of new words on the basis of their reference through ostensive learning with the expectation that the children posses concepts that incorporate meanings in use and then mapped on the meanings represented in a linguistic lexicon. Nelson derived her views from L. Wittgenstein 1953 book Philosophical Investigations that proposed “language was a social system of conventions, incorporating conventional rules for speaking about matters of interest in different contexts” or different “language games” (Nelson, 2008, p 2).

Wittgenstein viewed language and their related concepts and meanings as neither true nor false, nor mirror nature and that people’s feelings, concepts or theories about the nature of reality. These are expressed in words with the mental entities separate from the meanings of the words used. In connection to learning of words by both children and adults, constellation of uses of the word implies conventional rules for use emerging from its uses by a community of users. Thus, meaning may not be isolated with any particular concept, public or private. Using the word “game”, Wittgenstein pointed out that the many uses of the word reflect no set of features in common among its designated referents but overlapping features as may be viewed from family members coined as “family resemblance category” (quoted from Rosch, 1975 by Nelson, 2008).

It is therefore contradictory with the idea that an individual’s concepts, ideas, or feelings determine the meaning of a word in use. Private meanings cannot be checked and counterbalanced by virtue of inaccessibility and that a “private language” is not acceptable. While the idea does not altogether deny the existence of ideas, feeling, concepts and other mental states, their causal relation to the uses of language is. Individuals, therefore, cannot determine what a given term means and that clarification of word meaning is dependent of its uses in specific contexts but on the uses of the community (Nelson, 2008).

Language is evaluated in terms of assertability and justifications but not through truth conditions stating that, “someone means something when the circumstances are such that they are legitimately assertable and that the game of asserting them under such condition has a role in our lives. No supposition that ‘facts correspond’ to those assertions in needed,” (quoted from Kripke, 1982 by Nelson, 2008).

Wittgenstein further argued against the generally accepted view that there is a unique way of understanding the relation between a word and its meaning, or that an ostensive definition has a special correct way of being understood. The reader associates a concept to individuals when a “non-deviant” use of an appropriate word is observed in the right context. As such, researchers have attributed concepts to learning on the basis of “appropriate” use of words (Nelson, 2008). In addition, theories of word learning rest on the assumption that children posses concepts to which they map words and that use of a word is evidence on the existence of a concept.

The word learning process is a social practice and definitely not an individual private cognition on its own assumed by cognitive theorists. This depends on the community practices with an agreement on appropriate uses of the language within a particular “game” or language context requiring a “shared form of life” (Nelson, 2008, p 4) as checked by others for conformity.

In this manner, we may establish that learning of new words is influenced by outside factor such as the community and generally by the people in it who agree on ways to accept what are appropriate and which are not for use and introduction to new learners.


In the context of neologism, the role of new or unknown words in expository text provide a current, more fitting and updated presentation of an idea or proposition. It reaches out to a defined audience or reader which may or may not easily grasp the meaning of the idea or proposition as a whole. Such may be the case for the words “google” or “blog”. Through the wide and universal knowledge, use and acceptance of “blog” and “google” which were spawned out from the internet, these became nouns and verbs in their own right.

Blog came from the combination of web and log acknowledged to be first used in 1997 (Wikipedia, 2008) while “google” is a search engine and a registered company which became so popular with the word “search” to become in itself mean “search.”

As for learning new or unknown words in expository text, there are various necessary reasons that the reader have to know the words. New words in expository text always provide a deeper understanding and a more accurate presentation of facts, ideas or proposition that the reader may need to know immediately or even on a later period.

New or unknown words, while may halt or be a stumbling block in an ideally smooth reading and learning, may actually hasten and expand the learner’s view on the topic or situation being called for. New words are used most appropriately to widen and add depth to an already existing vault of knowledge by the learner/reader so that it’s use is deemed important by the author with the end aim to share idea and knowledge and not to intimidate nor cause misery or abuse to the end user.

In both cases, neologism or not, the role of new or unknown words in expository texts is important to warrant a clearer understanding as well as a continuing progression of a proposition or an argument. It is a necessary tool for the proverbial growth of both author and reader-learner that is acceptable and encouraged.


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