REAP Study on Highlighting Target Vocabulary to Focus Learner Attention

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REAP Study on Personalization of Readings for Increased Interest

Logistical Information

Contributors Maxine Eskenazi, Alan Juffs, Michael Heilman, Le Zhao, Juan Pino, Jamie Callan
Study Start Date September 11, 2007
Study End Date November 16, 2007
Learnlab Courses English Language Institute Reading 4 & 5 (ESL LearnLab)
Number of Students 52
Total Participant Hours (est.) 350
Data in Datashop no



Highlighting: (in the context of REAP) altering visual characteristics of a target vocabulary word--such as color, font-weight, and underlining--in a way that makes that word more visually salient in order to draw the learner's focus attention to that word.

Research questions

Does highlighting target vocabulary words in practice readings improve second language vocabulary acquisition in a vocabulary tutoring system?

Does highlighting of target vocabulary words have any additional effects on reading behaviors? For example, do students spend less time reading a text when words are highlighted because they ignore anything that isn't highlighted?

Dependent variables

Normal post-test scores, corrected for guessing

Evidence of Transfer: sentence production tasks for target words.

Independent variables

Highlight of target vocabulary words in practice readings. In the control condition, students see a practice reading as is from the original source (the web). In the experimental condition, students see practice readings with target words highlighted in blue and underlined--that is, as hyperlinks commonly appear. Students in both groups have access to dictionary definitions for all words, and after each reading work through vocabulary practice exercises for target words.


Highlighting will improve acquisition of target vocabulary words.


We *expect* to find that students will learn more when target vocabulary words are highlighted. Students in the highlighting condition will pay more attention to the context around highlighted words and also be more encouraged to look up dictionary definitions for target words. In general, for students working with REAP, there are many unknown words that appear in the text. Students may be able to process all the new words in a shallow manner, but robust learning is unlikely. Students choose particular words to focus on and concentrate their efforts on those words. When target words are not highlighted, students may or may choose to focus on the target vocabulary words. Thus, highlighting target words may focus student attention on the specific goals of the instructional activity. The focused attention will lead to more robust learning of target vocabulary words.

We also expect to find that students without highlighting will look up more non-target vocabulary, and perhaps spend more time reading texts. Thus, highlighting may decrease learning of knowledge components that are not directly related to the specific goals of the instructional activity. However, we believe that more efficient learning will occur when the efforts of students are aligned with the purpose and goals of the instructional activity. Thus, highlighting should be considered beneficial.


Students in REAP must coordinate multiple sources of information about target vocabulary words, including dictionary definitions, feedback from practice exercises, and the particularly contexts in which target words appear during practice readings. This study examines the effect of attempting to focus student attention on the target words during the practice reading. This may encourage coordination of information from the definitions (conceptual meaning) and context (grammatical constraints, collocational information, word associations, stylistic constraints, meaning in particular contexts).

Further Information

There were two pilot versions of this study with small sample sizes and insufficient statistical power. These were conducted in Fall 2006 and Spring 2007 in Reading 5.

Also, this study allowed students to access dictionary definitions during practice exercises. This is similar to providing hints in a cognitive tutor. Previously, a student could only access the dictionary after answering an exercise and receiving feedback on the correctness of his or her response.

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

Knight, S. (1994). Dictionary use while reading: The effects on comprehension and vocabulary acquisition for students of different abilities. The Modern Language Journal, 78, 285–299.