REAP Study on Focusing of Attention (Fall 2006)
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 information from context with explicit 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 information 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.).
Does focusing attention on target words by highlighting improve vocabulary learning in a reading task aimed at the intentional vocabulary acquisition?
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.
Highlighting of target vocabulary words in practice readings.
Not highlighting target words will cause students to spend longer on each text. The deeper processing of texts will not, however, outweigh the smaller number of practice opportunities available resulting from seeing fewer texts over the course of the study. Time on task is the same, so students spending longer will see fewer texts. Overall post-test scores will thus be higher for the control condition in which target words are highlighted.
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).
It seems from the results that the short term performance gains for students in the highlighting condition that were seen on post-reading practice exercises did not lead to robust learning of vocabulary, as measured on the post-test. However, further study is warranted because of the small sample of students and differences for time on task. One note on time on task: the post-test measurements given here are only for words seen in readings. While students who spend more time with the tutor likely saw more target words, it is less likely that they saw each individual word much more often than did the students in the control group.
All t-tests for significance were two-tailed and for independent samples.
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