Building the vocabulary of English Language Learners

girl browse internetWhat is the best way for English-language learners (ELLs) to build vocabulary in their new language? Are they better off learning new words with vocabulary exercises or by repeatedly encountering words in their reading?

A recent study of 50 high school ELLs in Taiwan found that students who engaged in reading plus vocabulary enhancement activities (RV) outperformed students who learned words by repeatedly encountering them while reading related articles (narrow reading-NR).

“More heat than light has been generated regarding the effect of extensive reading on acquisition of new second language (L2) vocabulary,” writes researcher Hui-Tzu Min of the National Cheng Kung University.

The 50 male Chinese students participating in this 5-week intervention spent 2 hours per week in one of the 2 instructional treatments. One group read selected text and practiced vocabulary exercises while the other group read articles that were related to the selected text. A Chinese version of the modified Vocabulary Knowledge Scale was employed to assess students’ knowledge of 50 vocabulary items. The RV group demonstrated significantly more knowledge about the target vocabulary than the narrow reading group.

“Narrow reading activities in this study did not offer as much help in understanding the meaning of a specific word unless students were active and strategic,” Hui-Tzu Min writes. Based on this study vocabulary exercises seem to be a better option for teachers of ELLs, especially for teaching frequently used words, he adds.

EFL Vocabulary Acquisition and Retention: Reading Plus Vocabulary Enhancement Activities and Narrow Reading, Language Learning, March 2008, pp. 73-115.

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