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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
- 2

In order to better understand how these challenges which learners face can be met, a discussion outlining some of the pertinent issues related to implicit and explicit approaches to promoting vocabulary acquisition are explored below.

Vocabulary uptake is believed to occur in either one of two ways; through explicit learning by way of deliberate focus on the words to be learnt, for example, by working with word lists or close examination of words found within reading texts, or incidentally, through repeated exposure to words - from reading or listening - when attention is directed more towards attributing meaning to words, than to the conscious effort of 'learning' the words themselves (Schmitt, 2005: 116). Explicit or deliberate learning is normally considered to be the more effective of the two in terms of lasting acquisition gains and for building the core vocabulary needed in the initial stages of learning (Nation & Meara, 2010; Schmitt, 2008). It is, however, a time consuming process, and while believed to be most effective at early stages of learning, may prove less effective for fostering depth of knowledge of large amounts of lexis in a time efficient manner (Schmitt, ibid.: 333-334). An example in support of this might be in the case of learners who advance to a point where understanding of an increasingly large number of mid to low frequency words is required, often to meet specific goals, such as fluid comprehension of unsimplified texts for work or study.

Incidental learning, through learner engagement in extensive reading and listening, is recognized to occur in L2+ learners, and it is suggested that in the long term, this is the way in which the majority of their vocabulary will be acquired (Hunt and Belgar, 2002). While this may offer opportunities to direct one's own learning through interest or need, research has not been conclusive in how deep this type of learning goes in the absence of repeated and regular exposure. For this reason, among others, it is considered insufficient in itself as an approach to providing the core vocabulary needed for adequate communication, in most estimates to be 2,000-3,000 word families (Nation and Waring, 1997).

However, as in the example above, it may be the most appropriate method of gaining exposure to less frequent words and learning them via contextual clues in extensive (and narrow) reading (Schmitt, 2005: 151). Unfortunately, incidental vocabulary acquisition through reading is believed to occur rather slowly, due to the extent of exposure and repetition needed, and the time this would require (Nation, 2003: 155; Schmitt, ibid.).

Further complicating the issue is recent research (Nation, 2006), which asserts that more known vocabulary may be needed than previously estimated for an L2+ learner to function comfortably, unassisted, as a user of English. This appears to be particularly relevant for written discourse at the post intermediate to advanced level, with 8,000 - 9,000 word families estimated to be needed in order to engage with non-simplified texts, and participate reciprocally within areas demanding higher levels of fluency in reading comprehension, such as academic study, work related activities, or simply engaging with a good book. While the 2,000-3,000 most frequent words may be best dealt with through explicit learning at the early stages of a language learning programme (Nation and Meara, 2010), the sheer number of words to be learnt remaining suggests that a combined approach might be of benefit, in consideration of the time and practical limits inherent for explicit learning to be effective (Pellicer-Sánchez, Schmitt, 2010).

In pedagogical terms, with neither approach apparently the most appropriate for all given circumstances, an integration, one which combines the learner autonomous, incidental learning with the more deliberate, focused approach of explicit learning, may be considered one way forward, particularly for learners at the post-intermediate threshold. Providing a focus on learning strategies may also be of benefit, so that learners are equipped with the tools necessary to notice and focus on lexis as they meet it on their own within autonomous study, thus enabling a greater awareness to be put into practice at an individual level. These points will be further elaborated on in sections 4 and 5.

From a broader view, where one might place their focus on the explicit-incidental learning cline when working with a particular group of learners, would in most cases be dependent upon a variety of factors, including the present level of the learners, the level of frequency and immediate usefulness of the words to be learnt, or the purpose for which the vocabulary is thought to be needed. What is being questioned is not necessarily which is the best approach, but rather how different combinations of focus might be more effective for different learning tasks and situations, and if through a cycle of exposure combining both incidental and explicit learning, vocabulary can be learnt, sustained and integrated into the wider language use of the learner.

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