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

1. Introduction
2. Background
3. Assessing approaches to vocabulary learning
3.1 Explicit learning
3.2 Incidental learning and extensive reading
4. A rationale for integration
5. Learner strategies
6. Summary

1. Introduction
With a renewed awareness of the primacy of lexis within language related activities, the complex issue of learning and teaching vocabulary in English as an Additional Language (L2+) has inspired an increasingly extensive amount of research over the past two decades (Schmitt, 2008; Meara, 2002). Many questions remain, however, concerning how vocabulary is acquired, automaticity developed, and word knowledge processed.

The aim of this paper is to provide an overview of how explicit and incidental learning approaches are thought to inform vocabulary acquisition, and how through a combined integration, a complementary approach might be argued for and encouraged as a pedagogically appropriate option for learners of English at a post intermediate level.

The paper begins by providing a background outlining the inherent challenges and relevant issues of vocabulary acquisition upon which the eventual analysis and argument is based, and moves on to examine the reported effectiveness of learning vocabulary through a direct, explicit approach, and within an incidental, meaning focused framework. In this light, the effectiveness of extensive reading will be reviewed and the possible gains in vocabulary learning discussed. Additionally, noticing and its role in learning vocabulary will be examined and evaluated in view of its association with increasing opportunities for acquisition to take place.

Through an analysis of reported findings in which these elements are thought to converge to aid acquisition, an argument for a synthesis will be explored. This discussion will be based on current research and hypothesis, and related to previous findings in the area of vocabulary acquisition and extensive reading. Suggestions for pedagogical application will be implied, and the impact of learner strategies will be noted. Finally, a summary will be offered in support of an integrated approach, with focused noticing and learner engagement as crucial elements to be fostered within the creation of the necessary conditions for vocabulary acquisition to flourish.

2. Background
Let us begin by examining, in brief, some of the challenges facing learners in reference to vocabulary learning. In focusing on what a learner needs to know about a word, the first distinction made is usually the meaning-form connection. This might also be described as 'sight vocabulary', and is what is needed for automaticity to begin and continue to develop. The meaning-form connection, while adequate for recognition and general meaning, has its limitations, however, and at this initial receptive level, a number of further distinctions need to be made; for example, the word's sound/spelling relationship or likely patterns in which it can be found (Schmitt, 2008).

For recognition to be taken to the level of retrieval and production (Nation 2007: 7 in Schmitt ibid.) it is considered necessary that learners begin to make a number of contextual associations, an act which provides opportunities for deeper processing of the words encountered, allowing increased automaticity and acquisition to take place (Schmitt, ibid.). What is more, further knowledge regarding possible grammatical patterns, collocation, and constraints such as frequency and register need to be taken into account and learnt gradually (Schmitt, ibid.: 333-335). This underpins the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition, which is thought to develop through extensive and regular exposure and the resulting incidental learning gains derived from the repeated encounters of vocabulary in context (Schmitt, 2005: 118; Nation, 2003: 238).

In brief, dependent on the personal goals of the language learner and his or her initial point of proficiency, what is necessary to be known about a word, and the number of words that need to be learnt and sustained, is a complex and challenging task. Learners of English, particularly at a post-intermediate level, are often heard to comment that what they lack above all is vocabulary. This is corroborated by research studies, in which the vocabulary sizes of learners often fall quite short of goals set, or the requirements necessary to operate in English comfortably (Laufer, 2000 in Schmitt, 2008: 332).

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.

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.

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.

5. Learner strategies
As hinted at previously, in order to operationalise vocabulary acquisition from extensive reading of non-simplified texts there are several strategies that learners may benefit from. Guessing from context, while acknowledged to be perhaps 'the most important of all sources of vocabulary learning' (Nation, 2003: 232), may be problematic due to the possibility of too many unknown words being present, compounded by the presence of colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions. However, with explicit training, learners can become more adept guessers (Nation, ibid: 250-252). Dictionary use might prove to be a more appropriate support when reading authentic texts, although explicit training here may also bring higher dividends. In addition, training leaners to link new information to known information, creating mental links through a shared construction of meaning and images, and keeping a vocabulary notebook can all be viewed as effective vocabulary learning strategies (Oxford, 2011).

In the case of reading authentic texts within Literature Circles, for example, these strategies are reinforced through the scaffolding inherent in the roles directing the reading and subsequent discussions and negotiation of meaning, as is early and self-initiated use of new words (Shelton Strong, 2011). In all three of the studies previously mentioned, another important, positive strategy which was employed, and which may be the underlying, initial step to any learning (Schmidt, 1990; McLaughlin, 1990; Ellis, 1991; in Nation, 2003), is selective attention, or noticing (Oxford, ibid.). This appears to be key, as Schmitt (2008: 339) summarizes that, 'overall, virtually anything that leads to more exposure, attention, manipulation or time spent on lexical items adds to their learning'.

As teachers, I believe that this is one of the essential overriding strategies we need to engineer when adding value to extensive reading, and one which is worth being overt and explicit about with our learners so that they are aware of what they can do to help themselves. The space limitations of this paper do not allow a further detailed examination of learner strategies, but it may be suffice to reiterate their importance and point out that time employed in raising awareness and scaffolding successful practice in the classroom is certainly time well spent, in my view.

6. Summary
Directed and meaningful noticing, whether teacher led or learner initiated, has been brought to the forefront of our discussion and there is a broad consensus that within the number of variables learners bring to the acquisition process; that meaningful attention and sustained engagement with words both in and out of context has an important impact at varying levels of mastery, and is thought to be an essential component within a view of the incremental nature of vocabulary learning.

This overriding factor can be explicitly and indirectly brought to our learners' attention through intentional instruction, or as in the case of Literature Circles, introduced as learner-led scaffolding. Taken to different degrees, within different activities, both in the classroom and at an autonomous level, it is likely that these strategies should prove useful in promoting sustained contact, the facilitation of new associations, and encourage deeper processing of new and known lexical items, thus creating favourable conditions for acquisition to take place.

Incidental and explicit approaches to language learning, and in particular, the acquisition of lexis, have been suggested to be both complementary and self-supporting. A keen awareness of this, as learners move towards becoming more advanced, expert users of English, is crucial for teachers and learners alike. It has been suggested to be not only feasible to integrate the two, but advantageous as well, particularly within an extensive reading element aimed at higher level learners. Given the complex variables involved and the reality of the incremental nature of acquiring a diverse, and expanding command of the lexical components of the English language, an integrated explicit-implicit approach to vocabulary learning with a committed, long term focus may well deserve a more central role within the English language learning curriculum.


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Scott Shelton-Strong has been involved in teaching and training over the past 20 years and has lived and worked in Spain, Jordan, Tunisia, New Zealand, the UK,  the USA , and Vietnam. He holds a CTEFLA, the Cambridge DELTA and is currently (2012) completing an MA TESOL from Nottingham University. His interests include action research in the classroom with an emphasis on building learner autonomy, teacher development and training, and using literature in ELT.

Email: scottjshelton@gmail.com

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