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The REAP Project Root Node


The REAP project investigates the effects of implicit and explicit instruction on the learning of word meanings. The REAP tutor ( is in LearnLab studies at the English Language Institute at the Univ. of Pittsburgh.


Implicit Learning: The learning of meaning for a word from the context in which that word occurs.

Explicit Learning: The learning of meaning for a word from explicit instruction, either in the form of a dictionary definition or a practice exercise.

Intentional Learning: The learning of meanings for words that are focused on in instructional materials. Targeted words might be highlighted in a reading, or practiced in vocabulary exercises.

Incidental Learning: The learning of meanings for words that appear in instructional materials but are not explicitly taught. For example, a student may learn an unknown word that occurs in a practice reading but is not the focus of the reading.

Research question

The general question of the Coordinative Learning cluster that the REAP project is aimed at is the following: "When and how should explicit explanations be added or requested of students before, during, or after example study and problem solving practice?" In REAP's case, the verbal explication comes primarily in the form of dictionary definitions of vocabulary words. However, in contrast to other domains, explicit instruction is the first means of instruction for vocabulary rather than the secondary means of instruction. In the case of vocabulary for second language learners, explicit instruction may provide the most economical means of learning, but this learning may be shallow. The question for language learning is then, "How much and in what ways does adding or requesting coordinated implicit examples (of word usage in context) increase robust learning?"

Additional questions: What are the characteristics of instruction that lead to robust knowledge of vocabulary? Do students learn better from explicit instruction (e.g., dictionary definitions), or can they learn implicitly (e.g., from context)? To what extent does incidental learning of vocabulary occur (e.g., learning of words not targeted by a practice reading, but looked up by the student as he or she read the text.)?

Examples of REAP Issues in a table of Different Types of Instruction and Learning

Passive Active Interactive
Explicit (general) Dictionary definitions Multiple-choice definition questions (for practice or assessment)
Implicit (instance) Interpreting meaning in context while reading Novel sentence production (post-test measure of transfer) Cloze Vocabulary Practice Questions

Dependent variables

Normal post-test scores, on exercises similar to practice exercises. These test items are usually cloze/fill-in-the-blank questions on target vocabulary words.

Long-term retention test scores similar to post-test but administered at least one month later.

Transfer of knowledge: practice vocabulary questions of other types, sentence production tasks for target words, correct use of words in writing assignments for other courses.

Independent variables

e.g., availability of dictionary definitions, presentation of definitions, highlighting of target words in readings, personalization of readings by topics of interest, etc.


Students require both explicit and implicit instruction to effectively acquire vocabulary. Students do not efficiently learn vocabulary implicitly (e.g., from context alone). Similarly, learning solely from explicit dictionary definitions will lead to shallow acquisition. Students who only have definitions available will have difficulty generalizing their knowledge and producing sentences using new vocabulary. Therefore, words need to be seen in context with definitions available in order for robust learning to occur.



The words which the REAP tutor provides practice for are from the Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000).

Beginning with the Spring 2006 study, dictionary definitions were available for all words in a reading unless noted otherwise. Definitions came from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary ( unless noted otherwise.


  • REAP Summer 2005 Study
  • REAP Fall 2005 Study

Annotated bibliography

Coxhead, Averil (2000) A New Academic Word List. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213-238.

REAP Web Page

Heilman, M., Collins-Thompson, K., Callan, J. & Eskanazi, M. (2006). Classroom success of an Intelligent Tutoring System for lexical practice and reading comprehension. Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Spoken Language Processing. [PDF]

Heilman, M. & Eskenazi, M. (2006). Language Learning: Challenges for Intelligent Tutoring Systems. Proceedings of the Workshop of Intelligent Tutoring Systems for Ill-Defined Domains. 8th International Conference on Intelligent Tutoring Systems. [Heilman, M. & Eskenazi, M. (2006). Language Learning: Challenges for Intelligent Tutoring Systems. Proceedings of the Workshop of Intelligent Tutoring Systems for Ill-Defined Domains. 8th International Conference on Intelligent Tutoring Systems. [PDF]

J. Brown, G. Frishkoff, and M. Eskenazi. (2005). "Automatic question generation for vocabulary assessment." In Proceedings of HLT/EMNLP 2005. Vancouver, B.C. [PDF]

J. Brown and M. Eskenazi. (2005). "Student, text and curriculum modeling for reader-specific document retrieval." In Proceedings of the IASTED International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction 2005. Phoenix, AZ. [PDF]

J. Brown and M. Eskenazi. (2004.) "Retrieval of authentic documents for reader-specific lexical practice." In Proceedings of InSTIL/ICALL Symposium 2004. Venice, Italy. PDF]

A. Juffs, L. Wilson, M. Eskenazi, J. Callan, J. Brown, K. Collins-Thompson, M. Heilman, T. Pelletreau, and J. Sanders. (2006.) "Robust learning of vocabulary: investigating the relationship between learner behaviour and the acquisition of vocabulary" (poster). At The 40th Annual TESOL Convention and Exhibit (TESOL 2006). [PDF]

K. Collins-Thompson and J. Callan. (2004.) "A language modeling approach to predicting reading difficulty." In Proceedings of the HLT/NAACL 2004 Conference. Boston. [PDF]