Image courtesy of Taryn

A few days ago, I posted this ‘challenge’ on Twitter:

Project #444ELT: Helping ELT professionals connect with ELT research

  • Read 4 journal articles every week for 4 weeks (a total of 16 articles)
  • Each week, write a blog post that has:
    • a reference to each article
    • a short summary of each one
    • your remarks or thoughts on the content
    • a list of questions raised after reading each article.
  • Share your post on Twitter using the hashtag #444ELT
To be totally honest, I thought it might catch a few people, but instead the response via retweets and favourites has been really surprising. I mostly did this to keep myself accountable, but I was secretly hoping a few people might join in as well. It is a little different than a blog carnival in that the person joining in can do it at any time instead of setting a deadline. This is meant to be ongoing as a means to promote the use of ELT research in the classroom. By forcing yourself to participate in this short challenge, it is hoped that this will create a routine of sorts that will carry on throughout your career.

I decided to choose a theme for each week. This week’s theme revolves around vocabulary learning/acquisition and the use of intentional and incidental means. Each study is different in many ways, but the common thread shows amazing continuity in the results with some solid applications for the language classroom.

So, without further delay, here is my first entry: Week one of #444ELT

Article: Hatami, S. and Tavakoli, M. (2012). The role of depth versus breadth of vocabulary knowledge in success and ease in L2 lexical inferencing. TESL Canada Journal, 30(1). 1-21. Retrieved from

Summary: In this article, Hatami and Tavokoli (2012) examine the influence that both the breadth and depth of vocabulary has on L2 readers’ ability to infer new vocabulary meaning from context. The study involves 50 advanced level ESL students, 8 men and 42 women, aged 21-30 whose first language is Persian studying at a university in Iran. The writers used four different data collection methods including a Vocabulary Levels Test (VLT), a Word-Associates Test (WAT), a short text which included a set of target words, and a Likert-scale Questionnaire. The VLT measured the students’ lexical breadth, the WAT measured the depth of their vocabulary, the text assessed their ability to infer meaning from context, and the questionnaire was used to record the students’ perceptions of how easy it was to infer meaning from context. The data was collected over two sessions where the target word list was created and a benchmark for breadth and depth were determined in the first session and the inference assessment along with the questionnaire were completed in the second session.

Results from the data analysis show a larger vocabulary (breadth) is far more likely to help students make correct inferences regarding new words in texts than having a deeper lexical understanding. Also, students with a broader lexicon also find it easier than those who do not. Hatami and Tavokoli conclude their findings with some recommendations for teachers and other ELT educators. They suggest that provide more options in both intentional and incidental vocabulary learning for students, first providing direct instruction (intentional) and then exposing students to various uses of the words in context (incidental). All the while, their belief is the focus should be on breadth as opposed to the depth of the newly acquired words.

Remarks: Vocabulary acquisition (or learning if you prefer) is one of those areas that every teachers seems to have an opinion on. It could be on how to teach it, what best to teach, how much is required, and so on. Also, it is an area that teachers are more likely to gravitate to early on in their teaching career as there is this perception that it is easier to teach than more complex structures such as grammar or writing. Some instructors feel quite strongly that students should be learning a good deal of vocabulary each week and others feel that time is better spent on furthering the depth of that knowledge.

When I first read this article, I was a little surprised that depth had such little affect on inference, although after further thought, I realized that breadth should be more affective due to the ability to understand more of the text, thus filling in more of the blanks. While depth may make up for misunderstandings, especially in more nuanced language, the breadth of vocabulary should provide more lexical clues. I like to think of it as a jigsaw puzzle; the more pieces you are able to fill in, the clearer the image will become. While the details in the image may be fuzzy, the broader picture gives us more clues. Just pick up a single piece and ask yourself what it is. Can you guess? Sometimes yes, but many times you only can figure it out once it is placed in context with all of the surrounding pieces also in place.

When I was learning Lithuanian, I attempted to read the free newspaper each day. There were a few things that helped me in my understanding of the text: images, the headline (if I could read it), and my previous knowledge of the information within the text. All of these things worked together to help me ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ regarding my vocabulary ‘missing pieces’. As my vocabulary grew, so did my ability to make inferences regarding missing words. I wasn’t always correct, but my chances of being right grew with my lexicon.

Questions: While I thought the outcome of the study was basically correct, I was left with a few questions regarding this study and possible further research on this topic:

  • Why was the same text used to both collect target words and to measure inference? Couldn’t that have influenced the outcome since students already knew the words that were coming up and could have looked them up beforehand?
  • How much did previous knowledge of the subject matter play in being able to infer meaning?
  • How much influence do cognates play in inference? In other words, does first language influence a student’s ability, either negatively such as in ‘false friends’ or positively, to infer a word from context?
  • How well are students able to retain this new knowledge after reading the text versus learning it intentionally? (This was also raised in the article)


Article: Li, J. and Schmitt, N. (2009). The acquisition of lexical phrases in academic writing: A longitudinal case study. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18. 85-102. Retrieved from

Summary: For this case study, Li and Schmitt (2009) analyzed the written work of one Chinese MA student enrolled in the English Language Teaching program. Entering the program, she had scored an overall IELTS 6.5 with a score of 6.0 in writing. Over the course of the one-year program, Li and Schmitt  collected all of her assessed writing work which consisted of eight essays and her final dissertation, a total count of just over 29,000 words. The authors also completed a series of one-on-one interview after each paper was assessed to ascertain her writing process and general feelings about the assignment. Using a corpus, the researchers were able to isolate and identify each of the lexical phrases. This was verified and added to by a panel of judges who reviewed all of the work as well.

Once the lexical phrases were identified, each phrase was judged for its appropriateness by another panel of judges using a rating system. If the phrase was rated at anything less then Very Appropriate, judges were asked to supply a better phrase. Also, judges were asked to give an overall rating for each writing assignment on the appropriateness of lexical phrases. Once that was completed, the student was interviewed in her first language to find out how she learned the phrases and the process she took in choosing each one.

Li and Schmitt then compared her use of lexical phrases to both the norm for native speakers (NS) and non-native speakers (NNS). As predicted, the students used noticeably less lexical phrases than NS students and about the same as other NNS students. Over the course of the year, Amy learned 166 phrases, more than doubling those that she used upon entering the program. A large amount of those phrases (over 40%) she acquired through the extensive amount of academic reading she did for the course. An additional 31% came from her time spent in writing support available through the university. The remainder she learned through the feedback and interacting with fellow students. It was a combination of both explicit and implicit instruction that lead to her learning the new lexical phrases. The student did comment that she found it easier to learn the phrases through the use of detailed contextual examples, something missing from the comments of the judges, but readily available from EAP tutors.

Finally, the researchers examined the changes in the appropriateness of the lexical phrases over that time period. It showed a remarkable improvement, from less than 40% to almost 90% at the end of the program. She also gained a great deal of confidence, something that came out through the interview process.

Remarks: After reading this study, I can’t help think about another recent study that I was able to hear about in a session at BC TEAL this year. The debate regarding explicit versus implicit correction on writing assignments. It appears that a balance is required to allow the feedback to take root. In this study, while some of the explicit correction by the judges was able to help, it was seeing the phrases in use in her academic writing that helped her the most. While this isn’t indicative of all students, it does show that a balance is required no matter the student. The fact she was a former English teacher probably also helped her make connections where other students may struggle. That is where the EAP writing support centre in this case helped bridge the gap. In our institution, I have noticed a dramatic difference in the writing from students who make use of the learning support centre versus those who don’t. I am sure that some cultural issues may be at play here, but I also believe it is the unknown factor, not knowing how to use the centre that causes most students to shy away.

Questions: I really appreciated the detailed steps these researchers took in this study, but as with any study, there are a few questions still left over to ponder:

  • How much did her previous work as an English teacher play in her ability to pick up some of the phrases in her academic reading?
  • Since this would be virtually impossible to be able to do this with all students, how could this be adapted to the writing classroom?
  • With her increase in confidence and ability, did her writing time end up decreasing?
  • Since she had already completed her undergraduate degree, she would have already gained some academic writing skills. How much did that influence here ability to adapt? Would this be different for students entering tertiary education for the first time?
  • How much did her educational background from China influence her ability to change? Would it be different for students from other countries and educational approaches?


Article: Brown, R., Waring, R. and Donkaewbua, S. (2008). Incidental vocabulary acquisition from reading, reading-while-listening, and listening to stories. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20(2). 136-163. Retrieved from

Summary: In this study, Brown, Waring, and Donkaewbua (2008) studied the effectiveness of incidental vocabulary acquisition through the use of graded readers. For the sake of the study, three graded readers at the 400 headword level were used. Each story was approximately 5,500 words in length and 28 words were adapted to create new words in each story for students to learn. Thirty-five university English language students were divided into three groups. Each group would read and listen to one story, simply read another, and only listen to a third story. This would happen over a 6 week period, each story separated by a two week gap. Directly following either listening to, reading, or listening while reading to a story, students would be tested on their understanding of the new vocabulary. This was done with both a multiple choice test and also a translation test. This was repeated one week later and then a further 3 months later to test how well students were able to retain the newly acquired vocabulary. After the six-week period was over, students were also asked on their preferences regarding the story delivery type.

Directly following the reading, reading while listening, or listening alone, the level of vocabulary showed a remarkable difference. For the reading and the reading while listening options, students were able to retain almost half of the vocabulary according to the multiple choice test. The translation test reflected showed a substantially lower number of about one-sixth of the words learned. For the listening only option, students were much lower only able to retain just under one-third of the new words according to the multiple choice test and only a 2% increase according to the translation test.

Over time, the retention rate expectantly dropped, but this was only determined using the translation test as the multiple choice test showed a less dramatic drop. This was aided with the use of repetition. Students who heard the word more than 7-9 times over the three month period were able to retain more of the vocabulary, but not enough to show that incidental vocabulary learning can be used an effective tool for language learning on its own.

Remarks: It doesn’t surprise me at all, but I did expect more of a difference between reading while listening and simply reading on its own. In my classroom, students have always shown a preference to hearing the words while reading. I also have found to help students to understand the material better since they don’t stop as often to look up words in their dictionaries. I don’t use it all the time, but I feel it can be a fairly effective tool when used sparingly. Extensive reading is a tool I use all of the time, but I should start persuading my students to choose material that is more for ‘pleasure’ since my students tend to use their academic reading in this time.

This study does reinforce my belief that there needs to be a combination of explicit and implicit vocabulary learning along with guided repetition and use in various situation (ie. writing, listening, contexts, and so forth). It also shows me that testing vocabulary using a multiple choice test is fairly ineffective since it only sight recognition as opposed to deeper acquisition. The amount of repetition was interesting to me as I didn’t think it needed to be as high as this study showed.

Questions: This isn’t as detailed as study as the previous two, but I still believe that the results are fairly indicative of what would transpire in a larger, more detailed study. However, there are a few questions that came to mind as I read it:

  • Were there any other advantages to listening while reading such as improved pronunciation or an increase in collocate identification?
  • Could this study be connected with the previous one on lexical chunks in some way? Does hearing and seeing the words help in phrases as well?
  • What about the depth of the vocabulary knowledge? Did it increase or was it about the same between simply reading versus listening and reading together?
  • Were students able to read at a faster rate while listening or was there no noticeable change? If there was an increase, were students able to become faster readers without the listening after prolonged exposure to listening while reading?


Article: Sydorenko, T. (2010). Modality of input and vocabulary acquisition. Language Learning & Technology, 14(2). 50-73. Retrieved from

Summary: Sydorenko (2010) examined the use of subtitles in movies as a form of vocabulary acquisition versus audio and video alone. She broke the research into three test areas: video with audio and caption (VAC), video with captions only (VC), and video and audio only (VA). In total, 26 students took part in the study in a university level Russian language class. Each student watch three video clips of approximately 2-3 minutes long, one for each mode of delivery. This was followed by a true/false test on some of the vocabulary used in the video clip. Also, a recognition test was used with some words added that were not from the video and a translation test given both in written and aural forms. Students were then asked about their previous knowledge of the words and were given a questionnaire on which delivery system they preferred.

The conclusion of the study showed that the effectiveness of the delivery method depended on the desired outcome. Since students tended to focus on different modalities due to the delivery method, this had an effect on what outcome was achieved. For instance, videos with captions focused on written forms and thus helped students in sight recognition of new words while audio without captions focused the learned on auditory learning and thus helped them with their recognize words though hearing. Also, more words were learned overall through the use of both audio and captions while watching videos. It is noted that some students had a difficult time focusing on all three modes (audio, video, and captions) and tended to focus on just two types. It is interesting to note that none of the modes had much of an effect on the translation ability of students with the new vocabulary. No matter the method, only recognition of the word improved and not the usage. Lastly, words that were supported by visual cues were much more likely to be learned than those without (36% to 6% respectively).

Remarks: I have used captioned videos in my class before, but mostly for content learning, not vocabulary building. I know for myself in my Lithuanian language learning that watching videos did help with certain words, but only those that I had been exposed to previously. It reinforced what I was learning and didn’t really help with new words. It may have helped if I had more exposure over a longer period of time, but not in such a short time as was done in this study. I remember watching Sesame Street as a kid and seeing the words on the screen as they were being said and shown in a demonstration. This helped, but likely it was that I was willing to use the language almost immediately since many of the words were for daily use. As in the previous study, the long term retention of these words is likely fairly low. After saying all of that, I do think there is a good place in language learning for the use of captions.

Questions: There are a number of questions that came up as I read this article, but I will only mention a few here:

  • What would happen if the audio and the captions were reversed (ie. English audio with Russian subtitles)?
  • Is this any more effective than just using still images with audio and words such as in an online picture dictionary?
  • What would have changed if some of those words had been explicitly pre-taught beforehand?
  • What happens when the captions are interpreted instead of translated? Does that cause confusion or help students adapt to the social construct of the language?
  • Some of the students in the study complained about the speed and quantity of the new words. What if the video is more ‘graded’? Would students retain more of the new vocabulary?
  • What happens with students with auditory or visual learning difficulties? Does this help or hinder their learning?

6 thoughts on “Building

  1. What a brilliant idea and way of summarising academic resources for teachers. This is definitely a series I will revisit to in the future and would be great to join in with once I’ve finished my MA and need some motivation to read academic journals again!

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