A Tale of Three Writing Activities and Their Effect on Vocabulary Learning

“I Hear and I Forget, I See and I Remember, I Do and I Understand” is a famous Chinese proverb that was probably not said by Confucius (as is often claimed) but is still an applicable maxim nonetheless. Applied specifically to vocabulary learning, replace the word “do” with “use” and you start teetering between two well-known language learning hypothesis: Krashen’s input hypothesis and Swain’s output hypothesis. Which one is more effective for language learning? That’s a tough question. There is evidence for both, but the output hypothesis seems to be garnering more support recently. In terms of language learning, it has been shown that input alone is not as effective as providing a means for output – mainly sentence writing. Rassei (2017) sheds further light on this subject, looking at what types of writing output is best for the long-term retention of vocabulary, and explaining their findings through a number of theoretical approaches.

Rassaei compared three writing-after-reading activities: summarization, question-and-answer, and prediction. Students were distributed into these task groups, as well as a control group which did reading only. All groups read a story that contained previously unknown vocabulary (as established by a pre-test). This vocabulary came with Farsi translations. Then, participants were given a writing task that corresponded to their group. The tasks asked them to use target vocabulary provided to produce a summary, write questions and answers for the story, or write predictions for the story. Post- and delayed-post tests revealed that all output groups had higher vocabulary retention scores than the control. In addition, the results also showed that the prediction group was significantly higher at both the post- and delayed-post test, followed by the question-and-answer group. There are several ways to explain these findings.

Output Hypothesis: The findings support the underlying principles of this theory – language acquisition requires some deliberate output opportunities.

Depth of Processing: This theory holds that the more “semantic involvement” something undergoes in the working memory, the better is it retained in long-term memory. In other words, the more difficult something is, the more cognitive processing is involved, and therefore, the better it is learned. All three output activities required deep processing – thinking not only about the text but the proper use of the target language in the output. The prediction activity perhaps required the most processing. Whereas the other groups required event reconstruction and applying target vocab to familiar linguistic and semantic (narrative) contexts, prediction involved evaluation of the events and applying the target vocab to new and unfamiliar contexts. The fact that the prediction group spent more time on task and produced shorter written output when compared to the other groups indicates great mental complexity.

Word Retrieval Frequency: Depth of processing is powerful but some research has shown that simply more use of target words in output activities may be stronger. Rassaei posits that the difficulty of the prediction task when compared to the other two tasks indicates that students had more mental rehearsal with the target vocabulary, thus increasing the number of times they interacted with the words. As the author states: “they struggled more to feed the target words into appropriate contexts” (p. 90).

Questions and Implications

After reading this research, the question of whether genre affects deep processing comes to mind. Rassaei used narratives. Summarizing a narrative is mainly about putting events in their proper order. Had Rassaei used a non-fiction text, summarization may have required different levels of processing and critical thinking. Had they given a task that required application of ideas in a text to a novel situation (such as evaluation some concept based on what students had read), different levels of processing may have been required. Perhaps, with these changes, the results would have been different. A need to investigate output activities through different discourse modes motivated this research (p. 80), and I think further research will shed better light on both vocabulary learning and levels of processing.

Still, this research was quite interesting and there are two clear implications from this research. One is that giving students opportunities to use vocabulary in written form is undoubtedly important. It is supported by a number of empirical studies, including this one. Second, involving students in deep cognitive processing of target vocabulary (through evaluation, predicition, application) is imperative.


Rassaei, E. (2017). Effects of three forms of reading-based output activity on L2 vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 21(1), 76-95. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1362168815606160.

Featured photo by wilhei

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Anthony Schmidt
English language Instructor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Anthony Schmidt is editor of ELT Research Bites. He also has his own blog at anthonyteacher.com. Offline, he is a full-time English language instructor in a university IEP program. He is interested in all aspects of applied linguistics, in particular English for Academic Purposes.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Writing Activities and Their Effect on Vocabulary Learning”

  1. Thank you for this fruitful insight. I feel my students are doing well especially with those interested ones when you give them some useful and related vocabulary. But it seems that they only use them in a smart way with little contribution from their own.

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about “higher order thinking skills” and how they may make langauge learning more effective, so this piece was really intersting, thank you!

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