Visible words: Second language vocabulary learning during reading
- Download the full report Visible words: Second language vocabulary learning during reading by Dr Irina Elgort, Victoria University of Wellington (63KB PDF)
About the project
Attracting more international students into New Zealand tertiary education programmes is a part of the Growing International Linkage priority of the New Zealand Tertiary Education Strategy; it is also a goal articulated in strategic plans of most of the New Zealand universities.
A significant proportion of international students in New Zealand are from East and South East Asia, of whom a high percentage are from China. Accepting these students, who speak English as a second language (L2), into English-medium education programmes means that they are expected to achieve academically at a comparable level with native English speakers.
However, for students who come from non-English speaking backgrounds, in particular, those whose native language (L1) orthography and writing system are dramatically different from English (e.g., Chinese speakers), the heavily text-based tertiary education presents language-related challenges that go over and above issues experienced by New Zealand English-speaking school leavers starting their university tertiary degree programmes.
Reading is a key source of knowledge and learning in tertiary studies, and a robust vocabulary is a prerequisite for effective and efficient reading.
Fluent and accurate word recognition and seamless retrieval of context-appropriate meanings during reading create conditions necessary for ideational processes to occur, including higher-level understanding of new concepts and propositions, linking ideas and evaluating claims.
English as a second language (ESL) students often come across unknown words in their course readings in English.
Although a common approach to dealing with these situations is to guess word meanings from context, focus on the spelling of a new word may be equally or even more beneficial, in particular, for students whose native language is non-alphabetic.
The original study, supported by funding from the Central Hub of Ako Aotearoa grant and Victoria University of Wellington, set out to investigate whether word-writing can significantly improve contextual word learning (i.e., ability to ‘pick up’ new vocabulary from reading) for Chinese speakers.
This research was later replicated with a group of Dutch-speaking university participants, to ascertain to what degree word-writing is useful for non-native English speakers whose native language is alphabetic.
The second study was supported by the Victoria University of Wellington Research and Study Leave grant and additional funding provided by Ghent University in Belgium.
The study compares two approaches to increasing readers’ engagement with novel words during reading: the traditional approach of guessing word meanings from context and the less common approach of writing down (copying) unfamiliar words from the text.
A statistically significant advantage was found for the word-writing condition over the meaning-focused elaboration. Supplementing contextual word learning with word-writing was also the preferred way of learning for 89% of the Chinese-speaking participants, as shown in the post-study interviews. One common theme in the participants’ comments was that writing makes it easier to “remember the word”.
Implications of the study findings
The study underscores the importance of learning the form of new words encountered in reading.
This technique is efficient, effective and easy to use both in- and out-of-class. Educators working in the tertiary and secondary sectors should actively encourage ESL students to copy unfamiliar words into a vocabulary notebook while reading.
This approach is likely to work best in conjunction with using electronic dictionaries that allow students to check the pronunciation of the novel words and verify their meanings, when needed.
TESOL programmes that prepare L2 students for academic study in New Zealand and other English speaking countries will do well to introduce and promote this approach to vocabulary building as part of their academic study skill set.
This is because increasing efficiency of contextual word learning will contribute to ESL students’ reading comprehension and, consequently, their academic success.
Dr Irina Elgort, Senior Lecturer, Higher Education, Victoria University of Wellington.
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