I just happened to stumble upon a very interesting article in a scientific journal called Language Learning. The article is about the ability of students to acquire vocabulary through reading, and about what can be done to enhance their acquisition. The article is called Learning L2 German Vocabulary Through Reading: The Effect of Three Enhancement Techniques Compared. Although most of the article is a rather dull explanation of their research methods that is mostly only relevant to other researchers, i’ll quote 3 separate juicy tidbits for you here, mostly from the results and conclusions.
Our findings, together with those of the studies reviewed, provide robust evidence that the low incidence of vocabulary acquisition through reading (“input only”) can be substantially boosted by techniques that make students look up unknown words, process their form-meaning relationship elaborately, and process them again after reading (“input plus”). The preceding paragraphs have dealt extensively with the grounds for this conclusion. We deem our conclusion relevant for L2 instruction. Simply telling students that they will be tested later apparently does not bring about the three forms of behavior required for word learning (finding out what the word means, elaborate processing of the word’s form together with its meaning, and repetition). If we want L2 learners to enlarge their vocabulary size through reading, we need techniques that require students to perform concrete word-directed actions. Asking text comprehension questions that force students, as it were, to look up an unfamiliar word, as well as assigning a repetition task that forces students, as it were, to reprocess the form-meaning link that was processed a while ago during reading were each shown to be more effective than announcing that unfamiliar words will be tested after reading because the former two techniques lead to concrete, word-specific action, whereas the latter does not or does so only among some students for some words. Furthermore, previous studies and the present one have shown that word learning is not a matter of either elaborate processing or repetition, but both. A one-time elaborate processing of a new form-meaning link runs the risk of falling into oblivion. We therefore recommend the assignment of a reprocessing task immediately after completion of a reading comprehension task.
The literature on learning and memory and the literature on L2 vocabulary learning, in particular, suggest that successful L2 vocabulary acquisition through reading is contingent on three factors. First, L2 learners should discover the meaning of unfamiliar words. Second, they should process the lexical information elaborately. Third, the form-meaning connections of these words should be reinforced by means of repetition. When L2 learners want to learn new words through reading, they first need to discover their meaning. They can try to infer the meaning on the basis of contextual clues, if possible, or they can consult its meaning in a dictionary. Although discovering a word’s meaning is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient one to learn words. L2 learners need to process (the lexical information of) new words thoroughly before acquisition can take place. The “depth-of-processing” hypothesis (Craik, 2002; Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975) states that retention of information is directly and strongly determined by the way the information is processed. Basing himself on the work by Craik and his associates, Hulstijn (2001) argued that processing new lexical information elaborately, by paying attention to various features (e.g., the word’s meaning[s], semantic relations to other words, the word’s grammatical category, pronunciation, and orthography) will enhance word retention.
In conclusion, successful L2 vocabulary acquisition is contingent on three factors: finding the meaning of an unfamiliar word (which may produce only a fleeting form of processing), subsequent elaborate processing, and repetition (Hulstijn, 2001). Both vocabulary test announcement and word relevance prompted students to look up words. The word-directing comprehension questions (word relevance) induced elaborate processing. The vocabulary task enforced the repetition of the form-meaning connections of the (plus-relevant) target words, and this turned out to be a successful reinforcement of the previous elaborate processing.
What i’d like to add to this, is that this matches my understanding of how human memory works. You have 2 main factors in memory: 1) connections to other concepts, and 2) spaced repetition. Connections can be associations of any form, such as sights, smells, some experience that was coincident with the remembered thing, a mnemonic you’ve used, etc. Spaced repetition means some kind of reminder at increasing intervals, just to keep that thing fresh in your mind, and to make your brain prioritize that piece of information because it keeps occurring on a regular basis.
What this article says is that if you just read lots, you may not be either a) connecting those new words well enough, or b) repeating them properly. Some words may be more obscure, so you won’t get enough incidental reps. Also, you may understand the story without figuring out that word, so you don’t really stop to think about the word enough to cement with further connections. Once we realize that “input only” can be sub-optimal, we can use our knowledge of the workings of memory to enhance this and get “input plus”.
In my case, i try to do this by finding other example sentences that use my target word, which give me more senses of it. I also sometimes try to come up with a mnemonic or some other association. I think i’ll try to do this more in the future. In the past i’ve also purposely gone and done something unique or different at the time, just to be able to associate that particular experience with the new word or phrase. For repetition, i put a few of the example sentences into Anki, and i list some synonyms of the new word in there too.
Reading this study also made me have second thoughts about pursuing a purely input-only program such as movie-watching (sorry Keith 😉 or reading. To get “depth-of-processing”, as they say in the article, i’d want to combine movie watching with things such as saying words out loud, writing them down, studying their written form, relating them to other words, thinking of weird mnemonics.
Surely you don’t want to do all this in a way that interrupts your reading or viewing too significantly. There’s definitely something to be said for smoothly reading through a few pages without picking up your pencil or dictionary. What i did for the last story i read was i scanned back through the whole thing a second time afterwards, and wrote down anything that caught my eye. Then i later went through this scan-list to see if anything caught my eye again and then put these doubly-catchy words or phrases into Anki. This enabled me to get interesting things into Anki, and then i usually looked up more example phrases that helped me understand those new words, or i looked up example phrases for synonyms of the words. This let me explore that general area of meaning in my target language, rather than just learning a single word for a part of the concept.
What do other people do to explore a language? What sorts of “depth-of-processing” habits do you have?