Friday, May 29, 2009

Laufer & Hulstijn (2001) Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in a Second Language: The Construct of Task-Induced Involvement

So this paper proposes one of the key concepts that we are using as part of our meta-analytical review of intentional vocabulary learning; that of task-induced involvement (see figure for breakdown of different tasks in terms of 'need', 'search', and 'evaluation'). The concept is based on Craik & Lockhart's (1972) psychological 'depth of processing' hypothesis, even trying to address the main criticism of the hypothesis; that of how one specifies whether a particular level of processing is deeper than another.

It is not clear the extent to which their approach can be applied to intentional learning.  They contrast incidental/intentional learning with implicit/explicit learning.  They point out the explicit learning can occur both incidentally and intentionally.  The key difference appears to be that the implicit/explicit distinction is based on whether the learner can introspect the details of something they have previously learnt, whereas the incidental/intentional distinction concerns whether the learner was paying explicit attention to the learning process as it happened.

They focus on incidental learning, saying:
A researcher or a teacher may, for example, suggest the use of the keyword method, yet the learner will choose another memorization strategy with which s/he may feel more comfortable. Incidental learning, on the other hand, can be manipulated and therefore empirically investigated.
Which seems to imply that intentional learning cannot be empirically investigated.  However I would have thought that the same criticism can be applied to incidental learning in that the experimenters still cannot control what aspects of a task a learner actually pays attention to.  It seems like the studies that they are referring to, which were not conceived in terms of task-induced involvement, are not necessarily all incidental learning studies, although I am not 100% sure about that.

As an example of the difficulty in trying to determine the depth of processing of an instructional task they present the following simple tasks learners could perform related to the word 'skinny':
1) looking up its meaning in a dictionary and writing a sentence with the word
2) looking up its meaning and explaining the difference between 'skinny', 'thin' and 'slim'
3) receiving a sentence with the word and trying to infer its meaning from four alternatives presented by the teacher
It seems to me that the operations required to complete each of the above tasks are as follows
  1. Alphabetical sort to perform dictionary lookup; reading dictionary definition to attempt form-meaning mapping, which may require lookup of other words; given comprehension of meaning, generation of possible sentence (in L1?) followed by filling in sentence based on L2 grammar and lexis
  2. Alphabetical sort to perform dictionary lookup; reading dictionary definition to attempt form-meaning mapping, which may require lookup of other words; further alphabetical sort to lookup unknown synonyms; further reading of definitions; process of synonym meaning comparison (involving mapping back to L1?)
  3. Assuming no dictionary access, attempt to parse sentence; consideration of alternatives based on grammatical match, semantical match, collocative match.
Of course there are various unknowns here related to the extent to which the word in question is known to the learner, and the level of knowledge they have of the grammar and lexis used in the example sentences and dictionary definitions.  There is further ambiguity based on the extent to which the learner is operating cognitively in L2 versus L1.  Thus it seems to me that each of these tasks will require highly variable amounts of processing time.  The authors present their own assessment heuristic of the extent to which a task aids long term retention in terms of the degree of 'need', 'search' and 'evaluation' that each task requires.  However it seems to me that the critical question is what do we mean by long term retention.  It seems to me that each of the tasks above prepares the learner for success in similar tasks in the future.  Measured retention will likely be higher for whichever future retention tests most closely match the task originally performed.

I get the feeling from the rest of the paper that retention is to be measured by the learner being able to describe the meaning of the word, but this is not explored in detail.  Seems like the important things to determine are the degree of transfer that different tasks provide in terms of supporting other tasks, and the identification of what tasks the learner wants to succeed at in future - i.e. what are there language learning objectives.  For me I would like to be able to choose an appropriate L2 word as I am constructing a sentence in my head, as well as be able to infer the meaning from an L2 word as I am parsing a sentence.  The key question is not the extent to which I retain the definitions of individual words, but how successful I can be in these tasks in future.  Which takes me back to the idea about trying to get the practice task as close as possible to the objective task.  Makes me think that all language learning tasks should be built around things that learners want to express, not words they should be retaining.  The authors mention the Newton (1995) study where those observing negotiation also get retention benefits, and I wonder if the same transfer would be found for learners observing another learner working on a 'personal expressive task'.

The paper also includes an interesting section on motivation with some references I was not yet aware of; and motivation is part of their construct in terms of the 'need' variable, which is none if there is no need for a learner to understand a word to complete a task, is 'moderate' if a teacher is asking the learner to perform a task specific to a certain word, and 'strong' if the learner is trying to comprehend a word of their choice to help them complete a larger task.  Interesting that even in this 'strong' case that the overall task may have been set by a teacher, e.g. perform this comprehension task.  I would advocate for an even stronger category of need when the top level task itself is actually generated from the learners interests and/or personal needs, e.g. I need to negotiate with my landlord over my rent, how can I say X, Y and Z persuasively?

The 'search' component of task-induced involvement is binary and appears to be designed to distinguish between those cases when learners are provided with glosses (definitions) and when they are not.  The 'evaluation' component is 'moderate' if there is some comparison between word alternatives, e.g. multiple choice cloze test, and 'strong' when the learner is actively constructing a novel sentence or text.  Interestingly there is no particular mention of receptive versus productive tasks or recall versus recognition, although evaluation seems related to both of these.

I think I need to read a number of other papers before I can work out whether these concepts make sense for intentional learning - they certainly appear to.  I guess the authors would just argue that intentional learning studies contain a greater degree of ambiguity, but there is nothing a priori preventing us from classifying intentional studies in terms of task-induced involvement load.

Cited by 150 [ATGSATOP]


[I would try and put all their references here, but the PDF from Applied Linguistics won't let me copy parts of the text - argh.]

Craik F.I.M. & Lockhart R.S. (1972) Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.
Newton J. (1995) Task-based interaction and incidental vocabulary learning: A case study. Second Language Research, 11, 159-177.

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