Sunday, November 25, 2012

At what rate do learners learn and retain new vocabulary

At what rate do learners learn and retain new vocabularyfrom reading a graded reader?

Rob Waring, Misako Takaki


"This study examined the rate at which vocabulary was learned from reading the 400 headword graded reader A Little Princess. To ascertain whether words of different frequency of occurrence rates were more likely to be learned and retained or forgotten, 25 words within five bands of differing frequency of occurrence (15 to 18 times to those appearing only once) were selected. The spelling of each word was changed to ensure that each test item was unknown to the 15 intermediate level (or above) female Japanese subjects. Three tests (word-form recognition, prompted meaning recognition and unprompted meaning recognition) were administered immediately after reading, after one week and after a three month delay. The results show that words can be learned incidentally but that most of the words were not learned. More frequent words were more likely to be learned and were more resistant to decay. The data suggest that, on average, the meaning of only one of the 25 items will be remembered after three months, and the meaning of none of the items that were met fewer than eight times will be remembered three months later. The data thus suggest that very little new vocabulary is retained from reading one graded reader, and that a massive amount of graded reading is needed to build new vocabulary. It is suggested that the benefits of reading a graded reader should not only be assessed by researching vocabulary gains and retention, but by looking at how graded readers help develop and enrich already known vocabulary."

keywords: guessing vocabulary from context, vocabulary acquisition, graded readers, occurrence rate, vocabulary decay, vocabulary attrition, extensive reading
"The results of this study point to several things. Firstly, the data support the notion that words can be learned incidentally from context. However, these data suggest that few new words appear to be learned from this type of reading, and half of those that are learned are soon lost. Secondly, the test type affects the gain scores that are shown from the reading. Therefore, researchers should be particularly cautious about selecting multiple-choice tests to validate the learning of vocabulary. Thirdly, previous research that used a multiple-choice test format rather than a translation test most probably has overstated learning gains. Fourthly, those studies that did not have vocabulary retention data almost certainly will have overstated natural learning too. Thus, the results here suggest that studies that had both these elements in their design, appear to have substantially overstated their natural vocabulary gains. This should be borne in mind when interpreting their results.
However, we have to be cautious when saying that very little vocabulary can be learned from the reading. This study only looked at the learning of new words from the reading. This study did not attempt to study a myriad of other forms of word knowledge which include lexical access speed gains; the noticing of collocations, colligations or patterns within text; the recognition of new word forms yet to be learned; an increase in the ability to guess from context; a confirmation that a previously guessed word's meaning is probably correct; recognition of new word associations; the raising of the ability to recognize discourse and text structure; an increase in the ability to 'chunk' text; the development of saccadic eye movements and so on, and so on. The jury is still out on these. Research into what effect reading in a foreign language has on these elements of the reading puzzle is welcomed. However, it is our contention that ultimately learners do not learn a lot of new words from graded reading, but in fact graded reading helps to deepen and consolidate already known language. The data presented here should not be interpreted as a case against the need for graded reading.
Also it must not be forgotten that the data have been gathered from the reading of only one graded reader. Clearly, graded readers are not supposed to be used as a one-off learning experience with the vague hope that some new words or language will be learned. Unfortunately, all too often this is the case as graded readers are subjected to the 'supplementary' shelf of the teacher's armory. This research points ever more clearly to the need for repeated and consistent exposure to graded readers if words are going to be acquired and especially if the aim is to learn new words.

While this study has given us a few more insights into what kinds of vocabulary are learned from reading, and the rate at which words need to be met in order to learn them, there are still several unanswered questions. Firstly, we are still not clear whether increasing the number of occurrences of target items will lead to higher acquisition rates. If the subjects had met the target items say 25 or 30 times we can presume that more of them would have been learned, but this is not clear. Another unanswered question concerns whether it is due to the nature of graded reading itself (where the focus is on understanding the message rather than on the learning of new vocabulary) that certain words cannot be learned easily in this way. It may be that the type of cognitive effort expended depending on whether the subject is focused on word learning or on the message may be part of the explanation. This fruitful research area may also investigate whether certain types of words are best learned from reading than others, or whether they are best learned out of context. Other questions relate to how much vocabulary is learned by reading, say, all the titles of one level of a graded reader series, in order to determine just how many titles need to be read to master the vocabulary at that level.

In conclusion, the results of this study seem to support Nation and Wang's (1999) research that recommends a high volume of reading (a book a week at the learner's reading level), or more. If this amount of reading were done, the rather disappointing forgetting rate evident from reading only one book would be reduced to some degree. The data also support Nation and Wang's contention that graded readers might be best used for recycling already known vocabulary than for introducing new words. This is because the results of this and other studies suggest that few new words seem to be learned from graded reading. As has been mentioned elsewhere, vocabulary growth is not the main aim of graded or extensive reading (e.g., Day and Bamford, 1998, 2002; Waring, 1997; Waring and Takahashi, 2000; Prowse, 2002). Teachers and learners alike would be best advised to be aware of this and not to expect too many new words to be learned from their graded readers. However, learners should be encouraged to read them for the other informational and enjoyable aspects of reading in a foreign language, as well as the many language learning and affective benefits they offer."


No comments: