Visible or Invisible Links: Does the Highlighting of Hyperlinks Affect Incidental Vocabulary Learning, Text Comprehension, and the Reading Process?

Article excerpt


This article investigates how the signaling-mode of electronic glosses in online texts (i.e., presented digitally on a computer screen) influences the user's reading process, incidental vocabulary learning, and text comprehension. Indeed, does the fact that hyperlinks with dictionary definitions are visible (i.e., highlighted) or invisible affect the foreign language learner's look-up behaviour and as a consequence the possible learning outcome? Furthermore, the article addresses the question whether the type of reading task (general vs. specific) affects the learner's use of these links and the amount and quality of the language learned. The article discusses empirical research conducted in an attempt to address these questions. The results indicate that when reading a text with highlighted hyperlinks, readers are significantly more willing to consult the gloss. However, this increased clicking does not slow down the reading process, does not affect text comprehension, and does not increase the vocabulary learned incidentally. The reading task does not seem to alter the clicking behaviour of the students but seems to influence the reader's vocabulary learning: A content-oriented reading task decreases the reader's attention for vocabulary.


Current technologies in language learning allow student-users to consult translations, dictionary definitions, grammatical explanations, and cultural information at the simple click of a mouse. The availability of this kind of additional, often multimediatic, information is considered to be one of the preeminent advantages of language learning via computers, and consulting any of these extras is no longer seen as a major interruption of the language-learning activity. Research has concentrated on the effectiveness of this supplementary information and has evaluated whether these annotations improve, for instance, text comprehension or actual language learning (e.g., vocabulary learning). In general, they were found to be beneficial to several aspects of language learning (e.g., Brett, 1997, 1998; Chun & Plass, 1996, 1997; Hulstijn, Hollander, & Greidanus, 1996; Lomicka, 1998). However, although many things have been said about what should appear on the screen to obtain better results in language learning, how these features should appear to the learner-user is still under investigation. The how question is often considered to be a simple design question, independent of the learning process. But is this truly the case? Is the layout of the screen an autonomous issue, separate from the learning that is going on? In reading research, it has been suggested that the presentation-mode of a text on paper matters, and affects the cognitive aspects of text processing: variables such as comprehension and reading speed are said to be influenced by typefaces, margins, line length, font size (Frenckner, 1990, cited in Muter, 1996). It is still unknown to what extent findings from paper media can be extended to electronic media (Muter, 1996), but it has become clear through empirical research (see Dillon, 1992, for a review) that features such as the use of colour, screen size, interline spacing, and size of characters can play a role in the optimisation of reading from the screen and thus the learning that accompanies this reading.

Within the entire spectrum of all possible on-screen features that could have an impact on the amount and the quality of language learning, I chose to focus on the signaling-mode of glosses. Indeed, the primary aim of this study is to evaluate whether the way in which the software indicates that glosses are available influences the learners' willingness to consult the gloss. Moreover, this research concentrates on how this affects the readers' language learning (e.g., vocabulary learning) and overall text comprehension. In software designed to improve foreign or second-language readings skills, one might opt for highlighting difficult words, thus indicating a link with the provided extra information. …