REAP Study on Focusing of Attention (Fall 2006)

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REAP Pilot Study on Focusing of Attention


This study examines the effect of highlighting target vocabulary words in practice readings for vocabulary practice. Previous research has examined the highlighting of words to facilitate incidental acquisition (incidental because the main task was reading comprehension). Knight (1994) showed positive results for both incidental vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension when words were marked to focus student attention on them. Students were thus encouraged to access definitions for those words. However, time on task was not controlled, and students in that study for whom vocabulary was marked spent much longer because they were looking up more definitions. Other studies of highlighting vocabulary report weaker effects of marking vocabulary words to focus attention.

The task of students using the REAP tutor is slightly different in that their primary goal is to learn vocabulary. Authentic texts are made available as well so that students can coordinate implicit instruction information from context with explicit instruction information from dictionary definitions. In previous studies with REAP, target vocabulary words have been highlighted. As for all words in this study, the highlighted words could be clicked on to bring up a dictionary definition. Many students in these studies do not read the entire text given to them, but instead focus entirely on the highlighted target vocabulary words. Thus, these students may be ignoring valuable implicit instruction about those words available from context. Therefore, focusing of attention on vocabulary words may in fact hurt the learning of those words when the student's task is to learn vocabulary.

A pilot study showed evidence of shallow learning of highlighted vocabulary words. Students with highlighting accessed more definitions for target vocabulary words and performed better on immediate post-reading vocabulary practice exercises. However, normal post-test measures showed no differences in learning. Therefore, students in the highlighting condition seemed particular prone to forgetting.

This study examines the issue of highlighting with a larger sample size and longer period of instruction. The goal of the study is to determine whether or not highlighting of target vocabulary words promotes robust learning of those words. The effects of highlighting on learner behavior will also be measured (dictionary accesses for target and non-target words, time spent per reading, etc.).


Research question

Does focusing attention on target words by highlighting improve vocabulary learning in a reading task aimed at the intentional vocabulary acquisition?

Dependent variables

Normal post-test : performance on cloze questions for words identified as unknown on a pre-test

Transfer test measures : Sentence production, use of target words in writing for other classes.

Independent variables

Highlighting of target vocabulary words in practice readings.


Attention focusing through the highlighting of target vocabulary words will result in large improvements on post-reading practice exercises but only minimal gains in normal post-test scores. Highlighting will also reduce students' likelihood of deeply processing implicit instruction contextual information, as measured by reading-check questions and time spent per reading. Long-term retention and transfer measures will show negative effects for highlighting vocabulary.


These preliminary findings are from a PILOT study with a small sample over a short period of time. The current study is with a larger sample and over a longer period of time.

Students were randomly assigned to control and treatment groups. In the control group, as defined here, the target vocabulary words were not highlighted (or linked to definitions) in the readings. In the treatment group, target words were highlighted and linked to dictionary definitions of the words.

There were 27 students who participated in the study. Only 18 came to class on the day of the post-test. Unfortunately, due to absences, there was a significant difference in the time on task between the control and experimental groups (Control Group: N=10, M=163.95 minutes SD=98.7 min; Treatment Group:N=8, M=82.9 min, SD=46.2 min; p=0.49).

The number of target words looked up in an online dictionary (either by clicking or by typing them into an HTML form element) was statistically significantly different between groups (p<0.001). Students for whom the target words were highlighted looked up 2.26 words per reading, while those students without highlighting only looked up 0.42 target words per reading. In contrast, the mean number of non-target words looked up (none of which were highlighted) was essentially equal (3.75 for control, 3.69 for treatment).

Students with highlighting of target words also performed significantly (p=0.001) better on post-reading vocabulary exercises (M=95% correct) than did students without highlighting (M=56%). However, students in both groups performed approximately equally well on the post-test (M=52.9% correct for control, 59.1% for treatment with highlighting), and the difference between groups was non-significant (p=0.22).



Annotated bibliography

De Ridder, I. (2002). Visible or Invisible Links: Does the Highlighting of Hyperlinks Affect Incidental Vocabulary Learning, Text Comprehension, and the Reading Process? Language, Learning & Technology, Vol. 6, 2002