Rabu, 5 September 2012

Comparing Comprehension And Fill In The Blanks Tasks In Enhancing The Retention Of Vocabulary In Second Language Learning

IPG Kampus Kota Bharu

1.1  The context of the study
Students of higher institution of learning are usually required to take English Language Proficiency (ELP) as one of the elective subjects. This is essential since a large number of their reference books are written in English. The predicament is that these learners need to use English as their medium of study even though English is not used in any other areas of their lives. In the ELP classes, very little vocabulary building gets done and it is quite impossible to cover a wide range of lexis or discuss collocations and semantic relationships. It is always the assumption of instructors that if they teach grammar, reading and writing skills, students will build their vocabulary on their own. On the contrary, Huckin and Coady (1999) argued that reading for meaning does not automatically lead to the acquisition of vocabulary.
The importance of vocabulary is highlighted explicitly by Krashen (1983) when he maintains that: Vocabulary is basic to communication. If acquirers do not recognise the meaning of the key words used by those who address them they will be unable to participate in the conversation. If they wish to express some ideas or ask for information they must be able to produce lexical items to convey their meaning. Indeed, if our students know the morphology and syntax of an utterance addressed to them, but do not know the meaning of key lexical items, they will be unable to participate in the communication.
It is especially challenging for students who learn English for Academic Purposes when they begin reading in their specialised areas as they typically need words measured in the thousands, not hundreds. Besides, knowing a word implies knowing its orthographic form, pronunciation, collocations and appropriateness (Nation, 1990).It is recommended that a reader should have a basic vocabulary of at least 2000high frequency words to be able to understand nearly nine out of ten words in most written texts. Vocabulary developers have to consider both the breadth (explicit learning of words on lists) and depth (implicit learning of words through extensive reading) since list-learning only creates superficial knowledge while extensive reading is time-consuming.(Cobb, 1999).
The focus of numerous vocabulary researches is essentially on strategies adopted by successful second language learners. A number of strategies have been identified for vocabulary acquisition in a second language and their effects on retention were taken into consideration. Cohen and Aphek (1981) suggested the use of mnemonic devices that were related to meaning, sound and image. Generally it was noted that any attempt to form association involving the target words enhanced the retention. Another interesting finding of Cohen and Aphek (1981) was that certain task was also found to work better for learners of different levels of proficiency. Listing was best for beginners, while contextualization was more effective for intermediate learners.
O’Malley and Chamot (1990) established three types of strategies: metacognitive, cognitive and social/ affective strategies. Metacognitive deals with the learning process, planning, monitoring of comprehension or production and self-evaluation after completing the learning activities. Cognitive is connected to individual learning tasks and entail direct manipulation of learning materials including guessing, using a dictionary, note-taking, rehearsal, encoding and activating the appropriate schema. O’Malley and Chamot(1990) found that successful learners are thoughtful and aware of the learning process. These learners are capable of making conscious decisions pertaining to their learning style.
Sanaoui (1995) claimed that learners who had a structured learning approach were more successful in retaining the vocabulary taught in class than those who had an unstructured learning approach. The two approaches were examined specifically in relation to five aspects: (i) the extent to which learners engaged in independent study, (ii) the range of self-initiated learning activities, (iii) the extent to which learners recorded the lexical items they were learning, (iv) the extent to which learners reviewed the records, (v) the extent to which they practised using vocabulary items outside their L2 course.Generally, it is noted that learners must be encouraged to manage their own vocabulary learning as more frequent and elaborate strategy use was linked to higher achievement level in academic vocabulary test as well as overall English Proficiency. (Kojic-Sabo and Lightbrown, 1999).
It is also concluded that successful language learners use a variety of strategies and they are aware of the importance of vocabulary learning (Schmitt, 2000). Schmitt maintained that the high-frequency words should probably be taught while low-frequency words be learned incidentally through reading or listening.However, it is noticed that students tend to overlook unfamiliar vocabulary especially low-frequency words when they are reading. Therefore learners should not be left alone to pick up the low-frequency words that may be crucial to facilitate their comprehension of the text. Wesche and Paribakht (2000) did a research on reading-based exercises in second language vocabulary learning and the findings supported the positive implication of multiple exposures to words that would eventually lead to vocabulary acquisition. They proposed that vocabulary acquisition is cumulative where precise knowledge of the word’s meaning will gradually lead to automatic retrieval through practice using varied tasks. Varied tasks provide opportunity for the words to be recycled and attention be given to different lexical features and this strengthen the knowledge of particular lexical items. When learners are engaged in the tasks, their attention can be diverted to the target words in relation to the forms, meanings and collocation.If left to their own device, many important words will not be learned incidentally through extensive reading.
1.2  Statement of Problem
A survey was carried out on the level of vocabulary for preparatory programme learners at the Kota Bharu campus for Teacher Education and it was found that the mean score for Academic Vocabulary (Levels Test 5) was 23 out of 30 while the range was from the lowest of 12 to a high score of 29. When they were told to write expository essay, it was noted that a number of learners fail to use appropriate vocabulary for writing about topics they have chosen. They used limited number of low-frequency words which depicted lack of depth in their discussion especially on issues related to the chosen topics.
In addition, learners of higher learning institution are typically assigned reading texts or articles and expected to pick up the vocabulary incidentally to be used for the write-up later. However, they are unable to retrieve the keywords if attention is not drawn towards the specific words and at the same time it is uncertain which task is more effective in enhancing vocabulary retention. Some recent studies have claimed that output (speaking and writing) should complement input (listening and reading) in enhancing learner’s vocabulary proficiency.
1.3   The goals and objectives of the study
1.3.1  Goals
This is a study to determine whether comprehension task or fill in the blanks task is more effective in facilitating L2 learners in retaining the vocabulary after a specific time. A comparison of vocabulary test scores will be made after one week and  a month later. These two tasks are chosen since they are quite commonly used by instructors in the English Language learning classroom.
1.3.2  Research Questions
(i) Is fill-in-the-blank task or reading comprehension more effective in enhancing the retention of vocabulary within a week?
(ii) Which group (fill-in-the-blank or reading comprehension) retains more vocabulary after one month?
1.4  Significance of the study
This study is significant for several reasons. First, its main concern is lexical items which are central to language learning. Words are not simple entities though they may appear to be so. Thornby (2002) points out that a word is in fact a complex phenomenon.
Vocabulary knowledge is crucial as students will need vocabulary knowledge to understand lectures and course texts. Finding a workable strategy will provide significant implications for language learning. Pearson, Hiebert and Kamil (2007) in an overview of vocabulary assessment over the years stated that there are few studies of vocabulary that attend to the ability to reflect on and manipulate vocabulary or metalinguistic knowledge in a systematic way especially in choosing the words for instructional interventions or for assessments. Most of the time, vocabulary test is embedded in comprehension tests which tells us nothing about students’ knowledge of any identifiable domain or corpus of words.
Hence this study is focusing on words which appear in academic texts on specific topic.
This will provide a starting point for intervention to assist them in their learning process. At the same time the study will focus on what learners actually do when they are learning new words. The findings will not only have pedagogical implications but will also highlight the important roles of vocabulary learning in the development of language learning at large.

2.0  Theoretical framework for the study
2.1  Vocabulary knowledge
Knowing a word implies knowing more than its literal meaning and orthographic form. It also requires the knowledge of the various connotations, grammatical behaviour, association, collocation, frequency and register (Schmtt and McCarthy, 1996). Laufer (1997) has given a summary of the type of knowledge that is essential in order to know a word:
a.  Form – spoken and written, (pronunciation and spelling)
b. Word structure – the basic free morpheme (or bound root morpheme) and the common derivations of the words and its inflections.
c.  Syntactic pattern of word in a phrase and sentence.
d.  Meaning: referential (including multiplicity of meaning and metaphorical              extensions of meaning), affective (the connotation of the word), and pragmatic (the suitability of the word in a particular situation).
e.  Lexical relations of the word with other words, such as synonym, antonymy, hyponymy.
f.  Common collocations.
Another dimension of knowledge is the distinction between receptive knowledge(spoken) and productive knowledge(written) of a word. According to Lewis (1993) spoken English which consists primarily of discourse-management phrases has a high density of lexical phrases, used to indicate the speaker’s intention to develop personal relationships. Written language on the other hand  has a much higher density of  relatively fixed collocations which make high information content noun phrases (Lewis, 1993). In general, receptive vocabulary is larger than productive vocabulary which leads to the general psycholinguistic principle that comprehension normally precedes production.
Nagi and Scott (2000) identify five aspects of word knowledge used in reading:
(a) Incrementality : the knowledge of words becomes deeper if they are encountered repeatedly.
(b) multidimensionality: word knowledge involve understanding nuances of meaning.
(c) polysemy : many words have multiple meaning, especially the more common the word
(d) interrelatedness: learning or knowing a word often entails association with other related words,either in a linguistic context or in one’s semantic memory store
(e) heterogeneity: a word’s meaning differs depending on its function and structure.
Word learnability will have an implication on teachers’ decision regarding presentation, practice and testing (Laufer, 1997). According to Laufer (1997) there are several factors affecting word learnability including pronounceability, orthography, length, morphology, synformy (similarity of lexical forms), grammar  (part of speech) and semantic features of the word.  Hence, mnemonic method for memorisation may not be effective in cases where it is hard to find a link for a new word in form, sound or image to prior knowledge. Even guessing meaning from context will pose some difficulties as certain words may appear to be familiar (pseudofamiliar) but they are not. Therefore, learners have to be careful when drawing conclusions about sentence meaning based on individual words.
Nevertheless, attention to the target words is a prerequisite for successful learning of words (Schmitt, 1995). According to Nation (2001), learning of vocabulary could be intentional or incidental. While intentional learning requires learners to focus on linguistic form, incidental learning would need learners’ attention to be placed on meaning. To enhance the various aspects of word knowledge, Wesche and Paribakh (2000) proposed the use of text-based vocabulary exercises together with a reading text instead of the use of multiple texts for learning of particular words and their lexical features.
2.2  Retention of vocabulary
Before achieving the automatization level of word acquisition, learners need to commit the word to memory. Researchers have identified three systems for the storing of information: the short-term store, working memory, and long-term memory. Thornbury (2002) explains that ‘short-term store is the brain’s capacity to hold a limited number of items of information for periods of time up to a few seconds’. He describes working memory as the focus on words long enough for one to perform operation on them (about 20 seconds). Working memory is compared to a mental sketch pad which is essential for cognitive tasks such as reasoning, learning and understanding. Working memory has a limited capacity and no permanent content. Long-term memory on the other hand is a kind of filing system which has an enormous capacity and its contents are durable.  The greatest challenge for a language learner would be to commit what they have learnt into their long-term memory for retrieval at a later time.
2.3   Vocabulary Instruction and Learning
Testing has been commonly carried out to provide feedback for learners and teachers about learning. Besides, testing may have a useful backwash effect if learners begin to pay more attention to a particular area when they know they will be tested on. Hence it is not surprising to have teachers transferring the technique they see the test makers use in their classroom practices. Nilsen and Nilsen  (2003) suggest a shift from the counter-productive way of teaching for testing to a more conducive way of vocabulary instruction. They list a variety of good characteristics of classroom teaching and learning:
(a) Students and teachers engage in lots of talk
(b) Collaborative learning
(c) Students learn multiple meanings of words
(d) Multiple tasks including making individual notebooks, creative writing and extensive reading.
(e) Encourage conjecturing and intelligent guessing.
(f)  Learners are taught to work with similarities and differences among lexical extensions and metaphors.
Pearson et al (2007) maintain that assessing vocabulary knowledge is still inevitable if we are going to understand the implication of vocabulary teaching in reading comprehension but sadly as they subtly put it “vocabulary assessment is grossly undernourished, both in its theoretical and practical aspect”.  Pearson et al (2007) put forward three salient explanations for the weak empirical link between vocabulary instruction and reading comprehension:
(a) learning words does not cause comprehension
(b) vocabulary instruction is incapable of promoting conceptualization beyond the texts to which the word is tied.
(c) the conventional measures of vocabulary are inadequate to document the relationship between word learning and global measures of comprehension.
Michael McCarthy in an interview for Cambridge Connection (“Interview”, 2001) reiterated that vocabulary actually forms the biggest part of the meaning of  any language. He remarked that successful learners are those who develop techniques and discipline for learning vocabulary. There is a study related to how ESL and EFL students approach the complex task of vocabulary learning and it is found that no matter what learning environment one is in, initiative on the learner’s part, a willingness to put extra effort into the learning process, to take it outside the classroom and to build it by independent learning activities are crucial factors for higher levels of achievement. (Kojic-Sabo, I & Lightbown, P. M., 1999)
3.0  Design of the study
3.1 Participants and Setting
Two intact groups were used in this research as there were equal number of students in each group and they were in similar programme at the Teacher Education Institute. The students had just completed their SPM the previous year and they were in their first semester for the foundation course of the Bachelor of Education degree.
3.2 Target words
logistic ,enthusiastically,
myth, accomplishment,
pioneer, rapport,
integrity, ridicule,
implementation, ritual,
circumstances, credibility,
notion, barrier,
mediocrity, mnemonic,
assign, sufficient
This study used the twenty words listed in the box above and the selection was that they be unknown to the subjects. Other than that several aspects were also taken into consideration when selecting these words such as their relevance to the subject matter the students will encounter in the field of education and the difficulty in terms of spelling and pronunciation. A pilot test was conducted with a group of advanced ESL students (n=18) whose proficiency level was higher than that of the subjects chosen. Results reveal that only two words were known by two students. Thus the words were deemed appropriate for this study.
3.3  Procedures
The reading comprehension group (Rc) was given a section of a book (Chapter 8 of Super-teaching; master strategies for building student success by Eric P. Jensen, 1988) to read and a list of twenty unfamiliar vocabulary with the meanings for reference. They were divided into 5 groups and asked to prepare a presentation for the different sections of the text. Two days later they did the presentation in class with the words from the list being highlighted and explained by the instructor. A week later, they were given a test to match the twenty words with their appropriate meaning within an hour’s time.
     Fill in the blanks group (Fb) was given a passage with twenty blanks and the similar list of twenty words with Rc group. They were given time to read the passage before filling in the blanks with the words from the list provided. The meaning of the words was discussed in class and instructor made it a point to explain them before and after the activity. A week later, they sat for the same test to match the twenty words with their appropriate meaning.
After one month, both groups (Rc and Fb) were given another test on the retention of the twenty words. Students were asked to give the meaning of the words either in English or Bahasa Melayu and then construct a sentence using the words. Two marks will be awarded for the correct  meaning while 1 mark will be awarded for appropriate but not very accurate meaning. Correct sentence constructed is awarded two marks and 1 mark for a sentence which reflects the correct meaning and use of the words. This is actually a modified version of the vocabulary knowledge scale (VKS; Paribakht & Wesche, 1997) used by Folse (2006) in his study. The test requires both passive knowledge (L1 translation or L2 synonym) and active usage of a word ( a student-generated sentence). The time given for the test is one hour.
4.0  Results and Discussion
4.1  Data Analysis
Figure 1 : No of correct response based on the Rc and Fb group after one week
From figure 1 it is noted that the word ‘mnemonic’ recorded highest number of correct response for both groups even though it was predicted that shorter word with simpler spelling like ‘assign’ would obtain the highest score. The lowest for the Rc group is the word ‘notion’ while it was ‘barrier’ for the Fb group. Therefore educators would occasionally wrongly identify words that they think students would have difficulty in understanding and retaining for retrieval in future.
Figure 2 : Results for the Vocabulary Test Score of both Fb and Rc groups
Fb (1 week)
Rc(1 week)
Fb (1 month)
Rc(1 month)
As shown in Figure 2, the number of words retained by the Fb group is about 17 words out of 20 and the number retained by the Rc group is about 7. The mean score for the Fb group is about 9.89 higher than the mean score of the Rc group for the test carried out after one week. The result after a month shows that the mean score for the Fb group is still higher than the Rc group by about 3.28. However, the Fb group shows a drop of 6.5 in the mean score after a month while the Rc group does not show any significant change in the test score after a month.
Hence, it can be seen that the filling in the blanks activity is more effective in enhancing students’ retention of a higher number of vocabulary than incidental learning of vocabulary through reading comprehension. However, after a month the Fb group seems to forget more words while Rc group retain about the same number of words. Nevertheless, the number of words retained is still higher for the Fb group compare to Rc group.
4.2  Conclusion and classroom implications
We can conclude that filling in the blanks activity facilitate retention of vocabulary better than reading comprehension exercises. Educators sometimes overlook filling in the blanks activity and deem it a rather superficial exercise. With time constraint when it comes to learning vocabulary, it would be pedagogically sound to incorporate fill in the blanks tasks that involve relevant context with what students are currently majoring in their studies. In fact, Jourdenais, Ota, Stauffer, Boyson, & Doughty (1995) found that by using an enhanced version of learning material with L2 Spanish learner has resulted in more noticing of target item. the target items were underlined and printed in a different font while some were put in bold font and others were shadowed. It could be concluded that by drawing students’ attention to the target items could help in retention and probably filling in the blanks task also entails greater depth of processing or meaning negotiation than merely encountering the word through reading and comprehension.
At the same time educators need to be wary of the kinds of words students might have problems remembering. It is not always words which are longer or more complicated in spelling that pose a problem to students but it could be simpler words that need to be highlighted. At the same time there may be a limited number of words a learner is able to retain after one month because some words may be stored in the long term memory while others will just fade away or be forgotten.
4.3  Direction for future research
Where teaching of L2 is concerned there are numerous activities an educator can use to facilitate the learning of the target language. Studies can be carried out to determine why certain tasks are more effective than other tasks in enhancing vocabulary retention. For instance, de la Fuente (2002) compared different communicative tasks and found that the opportunity to partake in generative tasks facilitates more incidental vocbulary acquisition than simply expose learners to the target words. Follow-up interviews could be conducted to ascertain whether other variables played a role in the vocabulary retention of the students.


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