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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
- 4

4. A rationale for integration
Narrowing our focus to examine the extensive number of words, and the necessary depth of association required to engage with non-simplified texts and productive areas of elocution for the post-intermediate language learner, it appears relatively clear that while several thousands of words and multi-word expressions may have been acquired, still more are needed. And more in this case is likely to mean not only adding new, less frequent words to their current stockpile, but also creating new associations, reinforcing previous ones, and more opportunities (or desire) to move receptive knowledge to the level of production as they become more advanced users of English (Carter, 1998: 209-213).

At post-intermediate and advanced levels, learners may also become more individual in their needs and interests, and in a typical classroom of from 10 to 25 or more students, explicit learning of word sets within the course of study may not meet their present, or projected plans for their use of English in the future. While much lexis at this level, in particular a steady diet of phrasal verbs, lexical chunks, colourful idioms, and specialized vocabulary is likely to be of benefit as new connections and awareness of collocates, register and genre become increasingly noticeable and necessary; only so much can be expected to find its way into programmed lessons, and as a result, incidental learning becomes an increasingly important window to the English language world.

Reading might be considered one of the most available routes to the complex world of L1 wordplay and usage, and for those who are motivated to move forward towards advancing and consolidating their vocabulary, it can provide an enriching way to do so (Nuttall, 2000). Extensive reading at advanced levels remains one of the most direct routes to opportunities for learning new lexis incidentally (Carter, 1998: 204). However, previous discussion indicated possible limitations of lasting vocabulary uptake from reading for pleasure, and taking into account the immediate effectiveness of explicit focus, we are at a crossroads of sorts when faced with how to best create appropriate learning opportunities for our post-intermediate learners.

In a revealing study (Pellicer-Sánchez and Schmitt, 2010) testing the validity and effectiveness of vocabulary uptake through the reading of an English language novel with learners at this threshold level, it was shown that lexical acquisition did occur at differing levels of recognition of form, meaning, and recall. This study was engineered so that the lexis tested was previously unknown words of an African language imbedded within the story, the results of which showed that incidental learning did take place, at different levels, ranging from 14% to 43% of the target words. Interestingly, in the interviews used as a part of the study, the participant who attained the highest score on all word knowledge aspects explained that while no information had been given regarding the unannounced test on the African words once the novel had been completed, she had intuited that they might hold some importance in the study and had increased the attention she paid to them, through underlining and re-reading.

Sonbul and Schmitt (2010) also report on a somewhat related study in an ESP context involving reading only, and reading plus direct communication, and reported on lexical gains for two groups. One group read and received explicit instruction related to words in the text after reading, while the other group read only. It was found, perhaps not surprisingly, that 'the incidental learning plus explicit instruction was found to be more effective than the incidental learning alone approach for three levels of vocabulary knowledge tested' (Sonbul and Schmitt, ibid: 253). In this case, more than half of the participants incidentally re-read the text of their own accord in the time lapse between a preliminary test and a later one meant to test the retention of the target words. This additional attention to the text is thought to have had meaningful implications for the reported lack of attrition found in this study, but which is often found in delayed testing.

In another experimental study, in which post-intermediate students in Vietnam were involved in Literature Circles over a period of 24 weeks, reading L1 novels, essays and short stories autonomously, and later discussing relevant lexis and interpretations of what they had read in class; learners showed a marked increase in reading comprehension and self-reported gains in vocabulary acquisition (Shelton Strong, 2011). These learners were guided by reading and discussion roles leading them to deliberately notice not only self-selected vocabulary, but also whole passages, and made associations linked to cultural and other realities within the story and their experiences outside of it. This, and other studies (Huang and van Naerseen, 1987; Oxford, 1995; Gradman and Hanania, 1991; in Nation, 2003; Laufer and Girsai, 2008; File and Adams, 2010; Schmitt, 2008) have found that extensive reading, plus enhanced noticing, instruction and interaction allowed for increased gains in not only vocabulary, but in other areas of proficiency as well.

What these reported experiments all appear to hold in common, and which might act as a signpost at our previously mentioned crossroads, is that vocabulary gains can be effectively increased when the reading of non-simplified texts is combined with an element of focused noticing either initiated by the learners themselves, or in conjunction with a teacher led element. Meeting words in context and discussion, implies that they are no longer abstract items to be simply memorised, but words which carry meaning, and which are socially embedded within the construct of the text, particularly within the more elaborate design of a novel or short story.

This may have important implications for not only how vocabulary can be learnt, but for teaching and research as well. McCarthy (2001: 60-61) conceptualises this by asking:

'whether more is gained or lost by bringing to centre stage the user of the language, and how words "mean" in real contexts, rather than by looking at them in their citation forms out of context'... 'keeping the study of lexis penned within the world of semantics makes any proposal to develop a lexical model in harmony with a socially embedded view of language difficult.'

Within a rationale for creating pedagogical opportunities for vocabulary acquisition to take place by integrating elements of explicit and incidental learning approaches, in particular for the post-intermediate learner, the following points emerge:

1. Extensive reading of unsimplified texts followed by direct focus, manipulation, awareness raising or discussion may lead to more lasting vocabulary acquisition gains.
2. Noticing, and developing an awareness of how words are used within context, whether it be a focus on form and classification, or meaning and associations, can allow learners to process these words at a deeper level, thereby reinforcing them within their personal lexicons.
3. Reading, plus instruction, can play an important role in vocabulary uptake at different levels of recognition and recall.
4. Learner strategies, from dictionary use to in-class explicit attention to form and negotiation of meaning, can be an effective way to empower learners with an awareness of implicit - explicit combinations for autonomous learning.

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