Usually, when we come across an unknown word, we can guess its meaning based on the text around it (assuming that all the words around are known). However, there are cases that the meaning of the word is crucial, and only guessing it is not enough. We have to look it up in a dictionary.

Do we have an advantage if we know the word beforehand? If we can understand the text by just looking up the unknown words, then I guess there is no reason to keep learning vocabulary, right? I feel that learning vocabulary ahead is important, but I don't have a solid reason to back it up. My main purpose in learning English is to "understand what the world says", and as long as I can understand it with the help of dictionaries when coming across a new word, then the reason to expand my vocabulary to reading is mitigated.

One possible advantage of learning vocabulary I can think of is that because we don't have to pause reading to check the dictionary for the definition of the word, the reading comprehension will be maintained. Getting interrupted reduces productivity. But the time taken to check the meaning can vary. In digital devices, you can check a word's meaning in only a couple of seconds, hence it doesn't take much time to understand the word before continuing your reading flow.

Note that I'm only interested in the reasons for expanding vocabulary from a reading point of view. I know that it will also improve my writing skills significantly, but that's another story. I'm also only interested in the looking up word action, not guessing its meaning.

  • 7
    This question sounds a lot to me like "Why bother learning a language when there are translators in the world?"
    – Flimzy
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 7:18
  • 2
    @Flimzy really interesting question
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 9:15
  • 1
    I think the question is clear enough and on topic, even if somewhat naive.
    – Tommi
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 8:03
  • 2
    @Hatchet 3 years have passed, and I now understand what phenomenon I'm talking about and can answer it myself. Does that warrant a reopening?
    – Ooker
    Commented May 12, 2019 at 14:44
  • 1
    @TommiBrander yes, I'm overload :(. The phenomenon is called contextual prerequisites for understanding
    – Ooker
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 12:02

1 Answer 1


Retaining vocabulary is great for those who are learning a new language and helps with writing and reading.

With retaining your vocabulary instead of forgetting vocabulary, you are also retaining fluency. You should always strive to be more fluent within a language, that includes knowing a lot of vocab, what they mean, and when/how to use them properly. If you rely on a dictionary all the time, you are really not learning anything at all. That's like relying on Google on homework rather than studying (and remembering) the notes you made. Reading should help enhance fluency as you slowly learn when and how the word is used in conversations, literature, etc.

Dictionaries should only be used when you clearly do not know the word. You have no clue or idea what in the world the word means and are forced to use a dictionary. Then you should remember that word to expand you vocabulary and fluency.

If you retain lots of vocabulary while reading, chances are that you are fluent in the language and will do well in other tasks like speaking and writing.


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