Envisioning Vocabulary Enhancement vis-à-vis Reading Pedagogy in ESL Context
*Dr. Binod Luitel
This paper attempts to depict my engagement in the areas of vocabulary and reading comprehension in the context of teaching English as a second language – discussing the major theoretical insights that led me towards innovation, the tangible works done so far after those influences, and the future course of action intended for continuation of the mission. This ‘manifesto’ particularly stresses the need for conducting vocabulary survey of the course materials used in language teaching-learning, analysing the depth level of the reading exercises incorporated therein, and undertaking some interventions as well as experimental studies on effectiveness of the newly developed innovative modalities of teaching vocabulary and reading comprehension.
Vocabulary instruction being an essential part of second/foreign language pedagogy, I had initiated empirical research-study on the teaching and learning of word-meaning in English from 2001 – with the conviction that exploration in this area would be of immense significance in second language (L2) education. Consequently, I also began similar endeavour in reading comprehension – seeing the close relationship between the two. Now, after one and half decades of my engagement in this field, I feel the need for conceptualizing some sort of roadmap for future course in the context of English as a second language (ESL). Hence a glance of the same is presented towards the end of this article – in the light of some major theoretical influences that directed me during my journey in the past as well as the ideas and insights I developed in the course of empirical works till now.
Some of the theoretical and conceptual influences that guided my inquiry into L2 vocabulary and reading till now are briefly introduced below.
1) Depth of processing theory: With the assumption that mere occurrence of vocabulary items in learning materials does not necessarily result in effective learning, ‘depth of processing’ theory introduced by Craik and Lockhart in the early 1970s (as referred to by Cornu, 1979) has recognized the importance of the quality of learner’s mental involvement instigated by learning task/exercise in mastering word-meaning. As this theory stresses, ‘the deeper the mental processing involved in learning a word, the more likely that learners can remember it.’ From this perspective, learning tasks are assessed considering the extent to which they have the potential for arousing ‘deep level’ mental engagement in the word-meanings being learned. Accordingly, it would be desirable that exercises having deeper level of processing are designed for more effective learning of vocabulary in L2.
2) ‘Reading plus’ approach: Following this approach, there is a strong theoretical conviction that mere reading does not succeed in learning unless it is supplemented by a series of tasks. Somehow in consonance with ‘depth of processing theory’; this approach provides a bit more concrete modality for categorization of the tasks used for ‘intentional’ (explicitly planned and focused) vocabulary instruction – whereby exercises are categorized hierarchically along the receptive-productive continuum. The tasks in the continuum are distinguished from one another in terms of complexity. Presented and piloted by Paribakht and Wesche (1996), the task categories include: (a) Selective attention – which draws the learner’s attention to the target word, aiming to enable the learner “notice” the existence of the word; (b) Recognition – in which learners are required to recognize the association between the target word and its meaning; (c) Manipulation – in which the learner has to rearrange or organize the given linguistic elements and build up new words or phrases; (d) Interpretation – in which the learner works to identify the relationship between the target word and other words/phrases in the given context; and (e) Production – whereby the learner is required to “retrieve and produce the target words” in context (ibid., p. 165). After studying this framework and piloting it in Nepalese context (Luitel, 2005a), I concluded that vocabulary learning can be progressively tracked towards productive competence if learners are guided through such tasks.
3) Translation and translanguaging: While translation is the process of converting the message from first language (L1) into L2 or vice-versa, ‘translanguaging’ is conceptualized to refer to the learner’s tendency of using language with alteration receptively or productively as they wish during L2 learning (García, 2013). In any of these ways, L1 is employed with the assumption that it can play role to facilitate the understanding and accumulation of L2 vocabulary items. It has been experienced that, though the tendency of using L1 gradually reduces (even disappears) in the course of learning career, it occurs again whenever new items or meanings appear in learner’s L2 exposure. Particularly in early stages of L2 instruction, use of mother tongue has been defended as a “learner preferred strategy” (Harbord, 1992) while correlating the L2 structures and lexical items with L1 equivalents, so calculation of “translation bridge” (Politzer, referred to by Wilss 1983, p. 249) has been suggested in order to facilitate learners for L2 acquisition.
Realizing the fact that L1 lexicon (with activation) does exist during one’s L2 learning and the process of translating back and forth (from and to L1) is unavoidable until the learner sufficiently develops the required command and confidence in L2; translation and translanguaging have been the concerns of my inquiry into vocabulary pedagogy.
4) Literature-language pedagogy interface: It is pointed out that, among other things, ‘cognitive’ and ‘emotional’ dimensions (suggested by Andringa, 1991; referred to by Hall, 2005, p. 127) come in operation during the readers’ engagement while understanding aesthetic literature – thus, making sense from texts is possible with these involvements. I have considered the relevance of linguistic richness in instigating cognitive engagement – with the assumption that a learner should be linguistically competent enough for grasping the message from reading any text including literary ones. Thus, developing language competence is an important requirement for understanding literature; and the need for vocabulary enhancement (for facilitating comprehension) requires no further explanation in this connection – since this is a core component of language.
On the other hand, learner’s ‘emotional’ engagement is equally fundamental for arousing sustained motivation in reading – which contributes to the comprehension of texts. Appropriate literary material definitely arouses readers’ interest; and the engagement created through it, in turn, appeals learner’s focused attention towards the linguistic expressions (including lexis) embodied in the text. In this way, the relevance of aesthetic literature in language learning should be considered with importance. So, I strongly felt the need for integrating the teaching of word-meaning with story reading, and realized the importance of constructing fictitious pedagogic stories by embedding the abstract word-meanings targeted for students’ learning (Luitel, 2016a).
I was also inspired from the finding of an experimental study undertaken by İnal and Cakir (2014) – which suggested that ‘story-based vocabulary teaching’ was superior to the traditional technique of instruction that used bilingual dictionary. As they remarked, “…Stories having unusual characters, interesting subject matter, and an effective style of narration attract learners’ attention and motivate them ……positively towards the lesson and help them learn new vocabulary items in a memorable way.” (p. 678-79)
5) Bloom’s taxonomy: Regarding the various levels of cognitive development, Benjamin Bloom had conceptualized 6 different hierarchical layers of knowledge in the 1950s – which was revisited by Lorin Anderson in the 1990s (Pohl, 2000[i]). These ‘levels’ are collectively recognized as “Bloom’s taxonomy”, which include: (a) Remembering, (b) Understanding, (c) Applying, (d) Analyzing, (e) Evaluating, and (f) Creating. Following this taxonomy, information is processed at the lowest level through ‘Remembering’ tasks; and the level of complexity increases gradually at the next higher levels – so the level of ‘Creating’ involves the most complex processing.
This idea has lots of relevance in language pedagogy. Development of reading comprehension involves the acts beyond the level of recognizing the facts explicitly stated in the text; and it includes inferencial understanding, analyzing and evaluating the facts mentioned therein. Likewise, development of polished and aesthetic forms of expression becomes possible only after having language competence at higher levels. Development of high-level skills, thus, should be an important consideration in language teaching-learning.
Ideas generated and works undertaken
Introduced below are the ideas generated and works done with my efforts – that are particularly concerned with vocabulary and reading comprehension in the context of EFL/ESL pedagogy. The sources of influence described above can be noticed in these endeavours.
1) Translingual Definition Resource Cloze (TDRC) for vocabulary learning: A novel model was developed for designing vocabulary exercises in L2 (Luitel, 2015a) – which recognizes the learner’s tendency of reliance on L1 while attempting to grasp the word-meaning in L2, and gives space to making linkage between the two. In addition, this modality has the room for practicing word-meaning in context. TDRC model was crafted after reviewing the practices of using cloze for vocabulary teaching and assessment, and after examining the role of translation for bridging L1 and L2 in the course of L2 learning. As several learners have responded after participation in it, TDRC has been proved a good learning mechanism for sustained development of vocabulary in L2.
2) Creative writing of stories for pedagogic purpose: I initiated the work of constructing fictitious stories and imbedding the targeted words (that were intended to be taught to the learners) within the plot and events created therein. One of them looks like a folk legend (entitled The King and the Prince,) (Luitel, 2016a) – which has around 650 running words; and the next (The Priest and his Son) is of about 1700 running tokens (Luitel, 2016b) – which gives the message that there can be way-outs for settlement of inter-generational conflicts if the new generation can demonstrate intelligent and praiseworthy works in society. In these writings, targeted word-meanings are carefully inter-woven within the contexts that are created by designing the events of the story in such a way that the events seem natural as the plot progresses. The events created as such naturally arouse the contexts required for the occurrence of the words targeted for teaching. Students have enjoyed a lot by reading the stories and participating in learning word-meanings through the exercises that were designed separately for treatment of the targeted items occurred in the stories.
3) Some research studies: The following research studies demonstrate some of the most relevant quests regarding my inquiry into vocabulary learning and reading comprehension.
(a) An experiment was conducted – whereby some English word-meanings were taught to Nepalese school students through translation (using L1), while others were taught employing the teaching techniques other than translation – which included: (i) crossword puzzle, (ii) open cloze exercise, (iii) answering questions that require the target word, and (iv) writing the word after reading the given definition or synonym (Luitel, 2005b). Overall, translation tasks were found bringing about higher achievement compared to the other tasks in learners’ productive vocabulary knowledge. The study concluded that the attempt of re-labeling the concepts already acquired in L1 (through translation) was more successful in L2 vocabulary learning than that of constructing the meanings and concepts in L2 itself (without translation), particularly among the students with poor and average level of competence – implying the genuine need for using translation for these learners. However, use of translation or non-translation did not matter much among the learners having a comparatively higher level of competence.
(b) A task analysis was done (Luitel, 2013), in which the exercises incorporated in a vocabulary practice book (implemented at B.Ed. level under Tribhuvan University) entitled Academic Vocabulary in Use (by McCarthy and O’Dell, 2008) were analyzed from ‘depth of processing’ perspective. Considering the complexity involved in each of the tasks given in the book, they were categorized under the 5 broad types suggested by Paribakht and Wesche (1996). The book was found to have well addressed the importance of ‘deep level’ processing of word-meanings – as the tasks particularly focusing on ‘interpretation’ of meaning and ‘word production’ constitute about 95% of the total tasks included in the book.
(c) For testing the comparative effectiveness of TDRC model (introduced above) against the conventional puzzle task in vocabulary learning, a quasi-experiment was conducted (Luitel, 2015b) among the students of Bachelor’s level. Designed in ‘pre test-intervention-post test’ modality, the study employed receptive as well as productive vocabulary testing tool. About half of the items were taught using TDRC exercise in the intervention, and the others were taught through puzzle task. From pre- to post testing situation, TDRC-treated items demonstrated 37.28% progress in the learners’ achievement, while those treated through puzzle task demonstrated the progress by 19.55%. This indicated that a TDRC can bring about considerably higher level of effectiveness compared to the use of puzzle.
(d) In an intervention study, students’ progress in reading comprehension was examined at 4 depth levels (Luitel, 2016c) – (i) Recognition of stated facts, (ii) Understanding implied reality, (iii) Understanding gist/summary, and (iv) Making judgment. Data were collected from 85 students of B.Ed. level, adopting ‘pre test-intervention-post test’ design. The main interventions included: teaching the selected original passages (on which the students were assessed in pre- and post tests) using textbook, word-meaning lists, puzzle tasks, simplified versions of original passages, question-answers, and L1-translated versions of the original texts. Data demonstrated the highest achievement profile in recognizing the ‘stated facts’, followed by understanding the ‘implied realities’. Throughout the study, ‘summary’ and ‘judgmental’ types of responses were in lower profile compared to the former two. This depicted the trend of “the deeper the level of comprehension required by the response, the poorer the learners’ understanding” (ibid., p. 6). From this study, it was realized that perhaps longer period of time with greater learning effort would be required for learners in order to develop deeper level understanding.
Reflecting on the works just referred, I find myself much concerned about vocabulary-reading interface in ESL pedagogy, particularly in the Nepalese context. Practically speaking, learners’ lower level of competence in English caused by the difficulties in word-meanings and poor reading skill keeps me worried most of the times – which, in turn, has led to the contemplations mentioned in the sub-heading that follows.
The way forward
Before concluding, I would like to point out some of the potential agendas for my future course towards the enhancement of learner’s vocabulary vis-à-vis reading pedagogy in the Nepalese ESL context – as hinted below.
1) A vocabulary survey is required for creating a profile of the items occurred in the course materials used in Nepalese schools. This can include the English language teaching (ELT) textbooks as well as the books of other subjects written in English medium. Study of the occurrence of English vocabulary items (single word entities as well as multi-word lexical items such as phrasal and idiomatic expressions) in these materials is required for determining which items need a more focused attention for preparation of supplementary materials and exercises. Moreover, analytical study of the existing vocabulary exercises included in the ELT materials will be highly relevant in assessing the ‘depth of processing’ that they can potentially instigate during the learners’ engagement therein – which can be a source of feedback for preparation of additional vocabulary learning materials.
2) Regarding the ‘levels’ of comprehension addressed by the existing curricula and materials, analytical study of the reading texts and exercises incorporated therein is vitally important – which will depict the depth levels of reading comprehension that the materials intend to promote in learners. Doing so, the lacuna – if existing anyway – can be identified and addressed in preparation of supplementary materials.
3) Considering the importance of learning academic, formal and specialized vocabulary, efforts are to be made for linking the learning of such items with the reading of aesthetic literature produced in the local socio-cultural context. Additional efforts of writing stories for pedagogic purpose by embedding such items within the plot and events therein will be a creative and innovative strategy towards this direction. This will not only expand the horizon of English pedagogic literature, but also promote the motivation of a larger mass of learner audience towards self-reading. Ultimately, this will contribute to strengthen their competence in the word-meanings of ‘high profile’ – which will be required for enriching their linguistic command applicable across disciplines. The pedagogic literary products of this kind can be designed on the basis of the findings of survey mentioned above as well as the standardized ‘academic’ word lists (e.g. Coxhead, 2000) and more specialized vocabulary.
4) Classroom-based experimental studies on the usefulness and effectiveness of TDRC can be conducted among different groups of learners – who are learning English in different circumstances, having different L1 backgrounds, with different lengths of exposure to English, different academic/linguistic levels of competence, and with different purposes of learning English. In this connection, several other methodological procedures employed for focused vocabulary teaching (including puzzle, translation technique, story based approach, ‘reading plus’ treatment, etc.) can be experimented and their effectiveness vis-à-vis TDRC method can be examined – so that suggestions can be made for making pedagogical decisions as to which way/s of teaching word-meanings can work more effectively in which context and for what kind of learners, etc.
5) For studying the linkage between the ‘deeper level’ processing of word-meaning and reading comprehension, it would be essential to carry out research into how far the strength of vocabulary knowledge brought after ‘deep processing’ can contribute to the development of reading comprehension at the levels of ‘understanding implied reality’, ‘understanding summary’ and ‘making judgments’. In this regard, the comparative effectiveness of the various methods/techniques of vocabulary instruction (e.g. those indicated above) in the development of in-depth reading comprehension can be studied. Or, the effectiveness of vocabulary treatment through locally created pedagogic stories alone in developing the deeper-level comprehension of authentic texts can also be studied in the same connection.
6) Studies are essential on the factors affecting the development of reading comprehension at deeper levels (i.e. ‘understanding implied reality’, ‘understanding summary’, and ‘making judgments’). The factors related to linguistic complexity, cultural relevance, learner’s exposure or experience in the content of the text, textual structure, etc. can be taken into account for such studies. In the same way, usefulness and effectiveness of translation in developing L2 reading comprehension and writing skill will also be a highly relevant avenue for exploration.
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Luitel, B. (2016b). The priest and his son. From: https://binodluitelblog.wordpress.com
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(*Dr. Binod Luitel is an Associate Professor of English Education at Tribhuvan University. He has got PhD in language curriculum, undertaken several researches in the field of language education, published papers in scholarly journals, and delivered presentations in many national-international academic events. His areas of interest include: course designing, material development, teacher training/development, vocabulary, reading comprehension, learner hierarchy, cooperative learning, action research and classroom-based pedagogic innovations. Having more than two decades of teaching experience, he is now working as a researcher at Research Centre for Educational Innovation and Development (CERID) under Tribhuvan University.)
[i] cited (anonymously) in: http://www.kurwongbss.qld.edu.au/thinking/Bloom/blooms.htm
[ii] The authors’ initial (and middle) names are abbreviated here as per the style followed by this e-zine. Their (full) names as appeared in the respective sources will be given in: http://www.binodluitelblog.wordpress.com. Also read Salute to author identity in academic writing and research (by Binod Luitel, published in Review Nepal on 15 October 2015 – see: http://reviewnepal.com/articles/salute-to-author-identity-in-academic-writing-and-research.html) to be aware of the rationale for respecting the identity of authors while referring to their works in academic writings.