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A rationale for an integration of explicit and
incidental learning approaches to vocabulary
acquisition at a post-intermediate level.
by Scott J. Shelton-Strong
- 3

3. Assessing approaches to vocabulary learning

3.1 Explicit learning

It has been suggested that explicit learning is the most effective way for learners to construct an initial meaning-form link, and which also enables learners to retain that knowledge (Laufer, 2005 in Schmitt 2008; Nation, 2003; 2,34). A strong version of explicit learning of vocabulary would normally entail directing attention to the words to be learnt (Schmitt, 2005), not through focusing on the language in an act of communication or to convey meaning, but primarily to establish recognition of form, and connecting it to a general meaning either through translation or other forms of direct teaching. Words can be explicitly learnt through memorising bilingual word lists, the use of word cards, or interactive software used to learn and later use new words (Schmitt, 2008: 342). Teacher intervention, in the form of deliberate awareness raising, and corrective and negative feedback can also be effective (Nation, 1990; Nation, 2002; Long, 1996 in Gass and Mackey, 2007).

Recent research (Nation and Meara, 2010: 40; Schmitt, 2008: 341) has suggested that direct, or explicit teaching is far more effective, particularly within the process of attaining the first several thousand word families needed for basic communication. While this may be the case, it should be reiterated that this initial learning of the word form + meaning will be limited. This, again, emphasizes the importance of viewing vocabulary learning as an incremental process, which grows through reinforcement and expansion, as additional contact with words in different contexts allows a learner's interlanguage to develop (Schmitt 2005). It is contended that perhaps the most important factor is a willingness on the learner's part to remain active in study over an extended period of time, without which, any real progress in achieving a measurable increase in vocabulary size is unlikely, the quality of instruction notwithstanding (Schmitt, 2008: 333).

That explicit learning has been suggested to be the most efficient manner in which vocabulary knowledge can be acquired must be tempered with the idea that it is also unlikely for anyone to learn the thousands of words needed, with their multiple meanings, through this approach alone, particularly considering the time and practicalities involved (Schmitt, 2005; Nation, 2003). This is where incidental learning is thought to play a significant role, particularly once a learner has a solid working base of vocabulary to build upon (Schmitt, 2008: 334).

In effect, we are urged to consider that 'explicit and implicit learning be seen as complementary and not opposites to one another', and that 'a well designed learning programme should strike a balance between the two, with opportunities for incidental learning taking up the majority of the balance' (Schmitt, 2005: 11; Nation, 2003: 232). This, I believe, is especially poignant for those learners who are at the threshold of becoming more advanced users of English. That these basic views of promoting acquisition can be alternated and combined to our learners' advantage (Carter, 1998: 213), is a point of view which deserves a great deal of attention given the many variables involved which learners themselves bring to the process.

3.2 Incidental learning and extensive reading
Incidental learning is thought to take place when a learner's attention is focused on meaning or message, rather than focusing directly on the form(s) used (Nation, 2003: 232), and has been described a 'by-product of any language learning activity' (Sonbul and Schmitt, 2009). Incidental learning primarily occurs through reading and listening and is sometimes referred to as 'learning from context' (Nation, ibid.), although it is also thought to occur as a (by) product of output and interaction, while involved in, or attempting, fluent conversation or the negotiation of meaning (Gass and Mackey, 2007).

Incidental learning of vocabulary through reading extensively for learners of English has been an area of interest for researchers and teachers alike for several decades (reviewed in Brown, et al., 2008; Pellicer-Sánchez and Schmitt, 2010). In past studies, many of which were influenced by relevant L1 research (for example, Nagy and Herman, 1985, 1987), incidental learning through extensive reading was hypothesized to occur as a natural consequence to being exposed to comprehensible input (Krashen, 1989; Wilkens, 1972: 132 in Hafiz and Tudor, 1989). While this notion appealed to the intuitive sense, 'early research showed a relatively low rate of vocabulary acquisition through extensive reading' (Schmitt, 2008: 347; Pellicer-Sánchez and Schmitt, 2010: 31; Waring and Nation, 2004). However, in recent studies, it has been suggested that the modest gains reported may have been due to weaknesses inherent to the research methodology itself (Meara, 1994 in Read, 2000), and there is now a sense that extensive reading can lead to higher rates of acquisition, especially in regards to meaning recognition, although levels of production and recall have reportedly shown somewhat lower gains from exposure alone. (Pellicer-Sánchez and Schmitt, ibid.: 34; Brown, et al., 2008; Horst, 2005 in Lightbown and Spada, 2006; Webb, 2005).

What does appear to emerge from the many studies which have investigated vocabulary acquisition through reading extensively, is that a general consensus exists that given the motivation to read widely, coupled with a sufficiently high rate of exposure to new words (approximately 8-10 encounters) within a text which is largely comprehensible, that substantial lexical gains can be made through extensive reading, and equally as important, depth of processing of previously familiar words can be enhanced (Carrell and Grabe, 2010; Schmitt, 2008; Brown, et. al., 2008; Webb, 2007; Nation, 2003).

Incidental learning through extensive reading does then appear to occur through reading for pleasure, despite its limitations. However, an interesting point raised by Pellicer-Sánchez and Schmitt (ibid.), and one which is at the centre of a rationale for an informed application of a synergy of both explicit and implicit approaches to lexical acquisition, is that at post intermediate and advanced levels, when mid to low frequency words need to be encountered for potential uptake to be initiated, these words are found to be fewer and farther between in the reading material normally within easy reach of an L2+ learner. This would include many graded readers and texts found within course books used for classroom study.

The implications of this may be that there is a real need for extensive reading of authentic, non-simplified texts, if we recall the amount of reading and number of word encounters thought to be needed for incidental learning to take place. It may also suggest that that to be more effective, 'incidental' learning might benefit from further enhancement by incorporating a shade of explicitness. This conscious noticing, or explicit focus, can be developed and explored through scaffolding learner intervention, or in other words, providing appropriate support or direction, integrating skills in class through collaborative interaction, and in-class instruction related to the reading, for example. Additionally, this focus can be personalised within a learner's own individual study.

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