Monday, June 15, 2009

Hulstijn (2001) Intentional and Incidental Second Language Vocabulary Learning: A Reappraisal of Elaboration, Rehearsal and Automaticity

So this is the paper that I should have been reading last week.  Hulstijn's (2003), which I read last week, reviewed more broadly the use of the incidental/intentional distinction across the fields of psychology and second language learning, considering grammar as well as vocabulary.  This earlier 2001 book chapter is focused specifically on vocabulary acquisition and amongst other things has a detailed summary of the empirical results related to rehearsal. Early on Hulstijn reviews the traditional and connectionist perspectives on what it means to "know a word" and I found the following particularly interesting:
The acquisition of an entry’s features in L1 is generally believed to take place in an incremental way (Nagy & Herman, 1987), consisting of the filling of various `slots' of entries in the mental lexicon (De Bot, Paribakht & Wesche, 1997) but to date no specific claims have been made concerning the order in which L2 lexical features must or may be acquired
The emphasis on the statement about order of feature acquisition is mine.  I'm thinking this refers to the order in which spelling, meaning, pronunciation and other aspects of entries in the presumed "mental lexicon" are acquired.  I wonder what kind of experiments would explore this?  I guess presenting the text or audio of a word without L2 definition of L1 translation might offer some degree of control, but seems to me that the lexical entry itself would not emerge until a number of presentations of each aspect, and it would take time for each to become fixed.

My speculation aside, Hulstijin emphasizes two factors of the many that affect the difficulty of learning new words: codability (related to learner's prior phonotactic knowledge), and arbitrariness of the form-meaning link (related to decomposability of the word, e.g. stoplight).  After the familiar reprisal of the large numbers of words required by learners to achieve the 95% threshold generally agreed as a prerequisite for text comprehension there is a fascinating dissection of the automatic skills required for fluent speech, listening and reading, which I summarize below:
  • Normal, fluent speech proceeds at a speed of two to three words per second
  • Humans have a capacity for consciously focusing their attention on only a very limited amount of information
  • It follows that the speech production process must largely take place automatically, i.e. conscious focus on message while articulation handled unconsciously
  • Similarly for listening, word recognition processes have to take place automatically in order for listener attention to be focused exclusively on message
  • Normal fluent reading proceeds is around three to six words per second and by the same argument word recognition must be automatic
As I have mentioned previously I think evaluation of teaching methods and software really should be in terms of the language goals of the learner, and I think the above neatly summarizes the set into which most language learners goals will fall.  Here is another tidbit that caught my attention:
Phonological representations emerge during the process of lexical access, and are either utilized (the so-called indirect route to lexical access) or not (Taft, 1993: 91).
Which appears to refer to the possibility of reading without hearing the words in your head, and I suddenly find myself wondering whether there is always an audio track in my head when I am reading.  As soon as I think about it there is, but perhaps when I am not forcing the reading process into conscious awareness, it is not.  So that Taft reference would be an interesting one to pursue.  Makes me think of angles for investigation of consciousness.

In a subsequent section I was surprised to read the assertion that:
Only less skilled readers use contextual information in word recognition (Stanovich, 1980) ... , in normal listening and reading, lexical access is not subject to top-down influence from syntactic and semantic processing; the processing of a word is largely driven by the input code itself rather than by contextual information (Cutler, 1995: 114; Seidenberg, 1995: 165).
Whereas I would have thought, particularly from a connectionist perspective, that contextual information in the form of collocation awareness would be pre-activating sets of words that one would expect to find next; thus the slight surprise every time one hears the All American Rejects lyrics "I wake up every evening ...".  However Hulstijn goes on to describe the threshold hypothesis:
according to which knowledge of reading goals, text characteristics and reading strategies (such as inferring the meaning of unknown words from context), cannot compensate for a lack of language knowledge if the latter remains below a certain threshold level.
and I wonder if this is the same as the 95% vocabulary requirement for text comprehension?  All of this is reinforcing the argument that learning to apply reading strategies should not take precedence over learning a core vocabulary.

Specifically on incidental versus intentional learning, Hulstijn says that while theoretically the distinction between them is difficult to maintain, methodologically the distinction is important.  There is a review of the distinction in both the psychological and SLA literature similar to the 2003 book chapter, and the important point for our meta-analysis is this:
in the applied domains of L1 and L2 pedagogy, incidental vocabulary learning refers to the learning of vocabulary as the by-product of any activity not explicitly geared to vocabulary learning, with intentional vocabulary learning referring to any activity aiming at committing lexical information to memory.
However as Hulstijn points out it is possible to construct incidental learning tasks where subjects process new vocabulary only superficially and intentional tasks where they will process it deeply.  Hulstijn also cites multiple studies that indicate that vocabulary acquisition is enhanced when learner's attention is oriented towards unfamiliar words, but I still have misgivings about time on task.  Hulstijn reasons that:
From an educational point of view, simply encouraging learners to spend much time on reading and listening, although leading to some incidental vocabulary learning, will not be enough in itself
Although I don't know that I am convinced that this is what the evidence presented indicates.  In a subsequent section on pedagogic consequences, rehearsal is one of a number of areas explored in some detail.  I was particularly fascinated by the following:
In a name-learning experiment using college students, Landauer & Bjork (1978) found that uniform spacing was better (for presentation) and a pattern of increasing intervals (for testing). The educational implication of this finding would be that incidental vocabulary learning benefits from regular and frequent exposure whereas intentional vocabulary learning benefits from self tests with increasing intervals.
Which makes me think that I should re-read that paper. I had certainly assumed that an expanding rehearsal series (ERS) would be the optimal way to present vocabulary whether for intentional study, or incidental learning through text presentation.  Hulstijn also has many interesting suggestions for exercises to achieve automaticity, but overall I don't quite get the conclusion that L2 study based purely on extensive reading is necessarily insufficient.  I mean it's odd because I'm all for explicit study of vocabulary, and I am certainly open to there being a potential benefit, but the various arguments made in this chapter don't convince me that we have evidence to demonstrate that one couldn't be as effective studying an L2 purely through incidental learning.  I mean the main argument for using intentional learning is that vocabulary acquisition improves if learner's attention is oriented towards unfamiliar words, but this comes back to how vocabulary acquisition is being measured.  If orienting attention towards unfamiliar words improves scores on simple vocabulary recall tests, it doesn't mean that the learners' key goals are being met.

It is possible the studies Hulstijn refers to are already taking this into consideration, but it seems to me that the question to be answered is not whether vocabulary acquisition improves through intentional study, but whether progress towards fluent speech, listening, reading and writing are advanced.  That is more difficult to test, but not impossible.  Seems to me like the experiment to assess this sort of thing would be a reading comprehension exercise with and without glosses (or with and without dictionary lookup or whatever) for the two conditions, where the post-test is another reading comprehension exercise that involves similar vocabulary.  That would seem to get at the real question as to whether the focus on vocabulary is benefiting the learner's long term goals.  Perhaps that kind of study has already been done.  We are going to be reading some of the paper's referenced by Hulstijn as part of our meta-analysis, so I will come back to this point once I have read some more.

Hulstijn also emphasizes the importance of achieving automaticity to allow fluent vocabulary use.  There is the suggestion that Krashen's comprehensible input hypothesis has lead L2 specialists and materials writers to encourage L2 learners to move quickly through course materials and not to reprocess old materials extensively.  Hulstijn indicates this may have an adverse effect on achieving automaticity, and suggests a number of tasks designed to promote automaticity that are likely to be more interesting for learners than simple re-reading of old texts.

Cited by 128 [ATGSATOP]

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kami said...

Is there any possibility that you could email me this article?
I plan to read it for my dissertation and the university where I attend in Chile is occupied by students, so there is no access to the library system :(
Thanks in advance,

kami said...

Could you please email me the article?
I am planning to read it for my dissertation.
I currently don't have access to the library system of my university because there is a biiig strike.
Well, thanks in advance.

Sam Joseph said...

Hi Kami,

If you don't have access to the article you should mail the author:

I'm pretty sure he'll help you out.