Di Zou (The Education University of Hong Kong) investigates the effectiveness of three different vocabulary tasks and comes up with interesting conclusions. But things may not be as straightforward as they seem.
L2 vocabulary researchers generally agree that there is a correlation between the level of engagement with the vocabulary learning task and vocabulary retention. In other words, the more mental effort is required to complete the task, the higher are the chances that the new words will be remembered. In order to conceptualise mental effort, two well-known L2 vocabulary researchers Batia Laufer and Jan Hulstijn proposed the Involvement Load Hypothesis (2001), according to which the amount of involvement in vocabulary tasks can be measured according to three factors: need, search, evaluation. A number of studies have tried to test the hypothesis by comparing the effectiveness of vocabulary tasks, for example: writing sentences with new words vs. a cloze exercise (Keating, 2008) or sentence writing vs. sentence completion combined with dictionary consultation (Laufer, 2003). These studies have yielded somewhat contradicting results. Keating’s study carried out with Spanish beginner learners of English found that a sentence writing task was more involving (i.e. it induced a higher involvement load) than a cloze exercise, but also took longer to complete. Conversely, the 2006 study conducted by Keith Folse (famous for his book Vocabulary Myths) found that completing a series of cloze tasks (3 times) was more effective than writing sentences with new words.
In a recent special issue of Language Teaching Research (guest-edited by Batia Laufer herself), Di Zou puts the Involvement Load Hypothesis to the test again comparing the effectiveness of:
- Cloze exercise
- Sentence writing
- Composition writing
About 30-40 participants – students at a university in Hong Kong, all non-English majors – were assigned to one of the three groups according to the task type above. All three groups were provided with a list of 10 target words and their glosses based on dictionary definitions. Group 1 was given a text on the topic of procrastination with target words gapped out. Group 2 had to to write sentences with new words. Similarly, Group 3 was asked to use new words in writing but produce a coherent composition containing all target words. Note that Groups 2 and 3 were not given any text.
An unexpected test was administered to all the participants at the end of the experiment and another one (‘delayed post-test’) a week later in order to measure how many words were learned by the participants. These quantitative measures were supplemented by self-reporting – both during the tasks (‘think-aloud’ protocols) and after completion of the task (interviews) – in order to probe deeper into the strategies used by the students while completing the tasks.
Participants in the composition writing group got the highest scores on the test (15.9), followed by the sentence writing group (12.3) and the cloze exercise group with the lowest score (8.3). Predictably, the delayed post-test yielded slightly lower scores in all three groups but the order remained the same with the composition writing group in the lead.
The researcher discusses the results in light of cognitive processes involved in encoding information such as chunking (not chunking of the Michael Lewis kind, i.e. multi-word units) and hierarchical organisation. She shows how the participants doing the composition task had to structure new information in a meaningful way in order to produce coherent piece of writing. To that effect they had to relate the new words to each other as well as the chosen macro-context. Thus, in this group the involvement load was the highest. Conversely, students writing sentences with new words didn’t have to associate words with each other because they had to write isolated sentences – they only had to create micro-contexts for the individual target words. Finally, the gap-fill group wasn’t involved in systematic organisation of information; in fact, some of them didn’t even try to make sense of the text focusing only on the sentences with blanks.
Despite the optimistic reporting of the results I have some reservations about the author’s claim that gap-fills are a less effective form of learning new words. Many of the sentences produced by the participants – especially in the composition group with (seemingly) superior results – are full of miscollocations and inappropriacies:
When a disaster happens, life is indispensable rather than money or power.
Jack got seriously drunk and divulged Linda’s privacy to others
(target words are underlined)
Vocabulary learning involves not only learning the meaning and form (spelling & pronunciation) of a new word, but the ability to use the word and knowing restrictions on its use. Admittedly, remembering the meaning and form is the first step in the word learning process whereas the ability to use it develops gradually over time (and it was not the aim of the study). However, getting students to write original sentences or a composition with new words without first focusing on how the words should be used is nothing short of setting them up for failure. This not only may lead to students forming unhelpful primings, it is also demanding on the teacher who will then need to give students feedback on their writing, specifically with regard to usage and collocation. If almost every student-produced sentence with a new word is a mangled mess, individual feedback will be time consuming for the teacher and potentially frustrating for students.
This time would be better spent on producing a simple fill-in-the-blank exercise by taking examples from a good learners’ dictionary (see here) and deleting the target words. Such exercises are easier to check and, as Folse (2006) points out, “students will always end up with a correct English example sentence to study”. In sum, I wouldn’t ditch gap-fill exercises and rush into more productive activities such as writing sentences with new words in the initial stages of learning, especially with ‘difficult’ higher-level words such as those in this study.
Folse, K. S. (2006). The effect of type of written exercise on L2 vocabulary retention. TESOL Quarterly, 40(2), 273-293.
Keating, G. D. (2008). Task effectiveness and word learning in a second language: The involvement load hypothesis on trial. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 365-386.
Laufer, B. (2003). Vocabulary acquisition in a second language: Do learners really acquire most vocabulary by reading? Some empirical evidence. Canadian modern language review, 59(4), 567-587.
Laufer, B., & Hulstijn, J. (2001). Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language: The construct of task-induced involvement. Applied linguistics, 22(1), 1-26.
Zou, D. (2017). Vocabulary acquisition through cloze exercises, sentence-writing and composition-writing: Extending the evaluation component of the involvement load hypothesis. Language Teaching Research, 21(1), 54-75.