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As English has become the international language of almost all fields, especially in science and commerce. It has become increasingly unavoidable to start learning English earlier in pupils' lives. Developing strong reading skills in English will prepare children to meet the challenge of education and life and take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the Information Age. Reading comprehension, the capacity to comprehend meaning from written texts, is the “essence” of reading and therefore become a focal point in EFL teaching and learning.

Reading comprehension is influenced by the readers' background knowledge of the topic, the understanding of sentence structures, the proficiency of grammar rules, the usage of reading strategies, the quality of the reading material as well as their reasoning abilities, motivations, level of engagement, and vocabulary size. Among these factors, vocabulary size has drawn the attention of researchers. One of the most persistent findings concerning vocabulary size and reading is that the extent of students' vocabulary knowledge relates strongly to their reading comprehension and overall academic success (see Baumann, Kame‘enui, & Ash, 2003). This relationship seems logical; to get meaning from what they read, students need both a great many words in their vocabularies and the ability to use various strategies to establish the meanings of new words when they encounter them. Young students who don't have large vocabularies or effective word-learning strategies often struggle to achieve comprehension. Their bad experiences with reading set in motion a cycle of frustration and failure that continues throughout their schooling (Hart & Risley, 2003). Because these students don't have sufficient word knowledge to understand what they read, they typically avoid reading. Because they don't read very much, they don't have the opportunity to see and learn very many new words. In terms of vocabulary development, good readers read more, become better readers, and learn more words; poor readers read less, become poorer readers, and learn fewer words.

Although the English education has been conducted throughout the world for many years, poor readers can be easily identified in English classes. In order to get a clear picture of EFL learners' vocabulary size and their reading comprehension ability, this paper will pay attention to explore the relationship between vocabulary size and reading comprehension.

Research Findings

This section gives a review of the research results concerning threshold vocabulary for reading comprehension in ESL, reading comprehension, the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension.

Threshold vocabulary for reading comprehension in ESL

The threshold hypothesis in reading comprehension (Laufer, 1989, 1992, 1996, 1997; Nation, 1990) postulates that, in terms of vocabulary size, there is a threshold level below which the reader will be handicapped by a lack of comprehension and above which the reader will be able to apply his or her reading strategies to help comprehension and achieve better results. Laufer (1989, 1992, 1996) claims that a threshold of 95% lexical coverage of a text is needed for minimum comprehension. This 95% lexical coverage translates into around 3,000 word families, or about 5,000 individual word forms (Laufer, 1996, 1997; Nation, 1993). Research by Coady, Magoto, Hubbard, and Mokhtari (1993) confirms that explicit learning of 3,000 high frequency English words produces considerable positive effect on reading comprehension. Of course, this threshold merely indicates a minimum desirable level for effective comprehension of general academic texts; it by no means implies that 3,000 word families provide a sufficient proficiency for satisfactory comprehension, or that, once beyond this 3,000 word-family level, the importance of contribution that breadth of vocabulary knowledge makes to reading comprehension will diminish. In fact, recent text readability research (Sutarsyah, Nation, & Kennedy, 1994) points to the need for a minimum of 4,000-5,000 word families for comprehending a single university economics textbook in English, which contains 5,438 word families (Nation & Waring, 1997).

The studies by the breadth proponents have shown that a threshold level of vocabulary size was essential for sufficient reading comprehension. Then, what happens when readers' vocabulary size does not reach the threshold level? Laufer (1997) pointed out that readers without a threshold level of vocabulary size might suffer from “below-threshold syndrome”(p.22). There were two primarily symptoms. First, the sufferers might fail to apply effective reading strategies. The reason was that excessive unknown words in the text made it difficult for readers to gather enough information for activating appropriate strategies. Second, the sufferers might have little cognitive capacity left to deal with higher-level processing of the text, since they needed to focus much of their attention on recognizing or guessing the unknown words in the texts. Coady (1997) used the term “beginner's paradox” to refer to the effect of a below-threshold vocabulary size on incidental learning on vocabulary. He argued that, without knowing enough words to read well, beginners don't stand a chance of learning vocabulary incidentally through extensive reading.

Reading Comprehension

Reading can be defined as, “a complex system of deriving meaning from print” (Adams, 1990; Kame'enui et al., 2002). Within this system are a series of identified skills associated with the process of reading and comprehension. The plethora of reading-related skills makes it difficult to discuss reading comprehension without defining reading as a construct. The New York City Board of Education identified thirty-six reading-related skills (Lunzer & Gardner, 1979). Subsequent researchers (Alderson, 2000; Staskowski & Creaghead, 2001) narrowed the list to a more manageable set of 10 skills prevalent in good readers, including: recalling word meanings, drawing inferences, and following the structure of a passage.

Alderson (2000) says that reading ability is an “abstract notion” and that reading constructs come from a theory of reading. They are “realized through the texts we select, the tasks we require readers to perform, the understandings they exhibit, and the inferences we make from those understandings” (p. 117). Consequently, Alderson defines reading through the assessment of a desired construct or constructs, or, as Alderson states, “Constructs of reading are construct” (p. 120). Alderson further defines constructs as “Any variable that has an impact on either the reading process or its product, with regard to test design or validation” (p. 120). For example, prior knowledge, cultural context, knowledge of language, synthesis and evaluation skills, and purpose are all constructs of reading (pp. 120-122). Alderson concludes that although there are many variables that affect reading and, subsequently, comprehension, the reader's background knowledge should be recognized as influencing all comprehension (p. 121).

The Relationship between Vocabulary Knowledge and Reading Comprehension

In second language (L2) research, where there has been little recognition of the importance of depth of vocabulary knowledge in reading comprehension, let alone empirical investigations on the topic. The general lack of empirical research is especially evident with respect to the relationship between depth of vocabulary knowledge and academic reading comprehension. This is probably because the dimension of vocabulary depth is more difficult to measure than that of breadth and because, consequently, vocabulary size measures are relatively advanced in comparison with depth measures (Schmitt & McCarthy, 1997). Although L2 researchers (e.g., Paribakht & Wesche, 1993; Read, 1995; Wesche & Paribakht, 1996) have been developing instruments to measure depth of vocabulary knowledge, only one known study (de Bot et al., 1997) has in any way linked analyses about depth of vocabulary knowledge to reading comprehension processes. However, the purpose of the de Bot et al. study was to model lexical processing in reading, employing interview and think-aloud protocols. The study neither attempted to conceptualize nor focused on depth of vocabulary knowledge, even though some factors investigated, for example, word morphology, word association, and homonymy, did reflect aspects of depth of vocabulary knowledge proposed in the present study. Questions on how and to what extent depth of vocabulary knowledge contributes to reading comprehension still remain unanswered.

As mentioned earlier, in L2 research, a small number of studies (e.g., Laufer, 1989, 1992, 1996) have investigated the relationship between vocabulary size and academic reading comprehension. Laufer (1996, 1997) found good correlations between the vocabulary size tests and reading comprehension tests she used. In one study (Laufer, 1992) with 92 first-year university students whose native language was either Hebrew or Arabic, the correlation between the scores on the Vocabulary Levels Test (Nation, 1983) and reading comprehension was fairly strong (.50), and that between the scores on a Eurocentres Vocabulary Test (Meara & Jones, 1989), which requires the test taker to say “yes” or “no” to indicate whether he or she knows the meaning of a target word, and on reading comprehension was even more stronger (.75). Reading comprehension in this study was measured by two standardized reading tests: the reading comprehension section of Examen Hoger Algemeen Vortgezet Onderwijs, consisting of two texts with 20 multiple-choice comprehension items, and an English sub-test of the Israeli university psychometric entrance test, comprising 40 multiple-choice questions. In another study involving 80 first-year university students of similar L1 backgrounds in Israel (Laufer, 1996), a strong correlation (.71) was reported between students' scores on reading comprehension and on the Vocabulary Levels Test.

Koda's (1989) study of 24 college students learning Japanese as a foreign language found equally strong correlations between a self-made vocabulary test and two reading tests, one of them a fixed-ratio deletion cloze, an integrative procedure mainly tapping the test taker's reading ability (Hale et al., 1988), and the other paragraph comprehension. The latter contained four passages with five short-answer questions attached to each. Koda reported a correlation of .69 between the learners' scores on the vocabulary test and their scores on the cloze test, and a correlation of .74 between their scores on the vocabulary test and their paragraph comprehension test scores.

In Taiwan, Lin (1995) compared comprehensive university freshmen's and technological university freshmen's English proficiency. The results showed that technological university freshmen's vocabulary size, grammar knowledge, and reading comprehension are inferior to those of comprehensive university freshmen. He worried that technological university freshmen's vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension were so poor that they could not effectively gain information by reading passages. Ou (1997) analyzed the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores of 514 seniors selected at two comprehensive universities and two technological universities in Taiwan. The results revealed that technological university seniors' vocabulary scores (M = 13.68) and reading comprehension scores (M = 11.35) were much lower than those (M = 17.72; M = 15.63) of comprehensive university seniors and the difference was statistically significant. Using the same data, Ou (1998) also found that comprehensive and technological university students applied different reading skills to comprehend the texts they read. He concluded that technological university students' limited vocabulary hindered their learning of English. Lin's and Ou's research focused on the deficiency in technological university students' vocabulary.

Another research done by Huang (1999) showed that Taiwanese senior high school students remember only around 1900 high-frequency words after five years of studying in three- to four-hour English classes per week. Huang (2001) also found that Taiwanese technological university/college students who majored in applied science and technology could identify only 1690 frequent word families and about 140 general academic words. Their lack of vocabulary causes technological university/college students' difficulty in effectively comprehending textbooks printed in English and in acquiring knowledge in their special area of study.


Research results show the strong relationship between vocabulary size and reading comprehension. The results of this present paper will provide EFL teachers with a better understanding of the role of vocabulary size to reading comprehension. EFL teachers then can come up with an effective instruction to help students build up their vocabulary as well as facilitate their reading comprehension.


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