Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

An Investigation of Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in Relation to Learner Proficiency Level and Word Frequency

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

An Investigation of Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in Relation to Learner Proficiency Level and Word Frequency

Article excerpt


This study examined the relationship between learners' incidental vocabulary acquisition and their level of proficiency, and between acquisition and word frequency in a text. Participants were Turkish learners of English at three proficiency levels. One reading text and four vocabulary tests were administered over a two-week period. Analyses of the data revealed that lexical gains from reading were significant for each group (p < .05). The higher proficiency groups were able to acquire more words than lower level groups. Word frequency in the text was also a significant factor in vocabulary acquisition (p < .05), with 29% of the variance in acquisition being accounted for by frequency. However, frequency did not play a greater role in the vocabulary acquisition of lower level learners than in that of higher level learners.

Key words: implicit and explicit instruction, incidental acquisition, reading, vocabulary acquisition, word frequency

Languages: English, Turkish


Many second language acquisition (SLA) researchers believe that sufficient lexical knowledge is the essential component in developing language proficiency (Grabe & Stoller, 1997). In the past three decades, research has increasingly stressed the importance of lexis (Maley, 1986; Richards, 1976; Stoller & Grabe, 1993). This trend has gradually led to an increased emphasis on researching the teaching and learning of vocabulary. Today, acquiring second language (L2) vocabulary is sometimes considered to be of greater importance than the acquisition of structure rules. Entire methodologies, such as Lewis's Lexical Approach (1993), are based on the preeminence of vocabulary acquisition in language learning. In his subsequent work, Lewis (2000) stated that the most important distinction between high and lower level language learners is not the difference in their grammatical knowledge but in the size of their lexicons.

For L2 learners in a university context, the amount of vocabulary to be acquired can seem daunting. A great number of the words must be acquired incidentally rather than through direct vocabulary study. Studies have shown, for example, that much of first language (L1) and advanced L2 learners' vocabulary knowledge is likely to come from incidental acquisition through extensive reading (Nagy, 1997; Nagy & Herman, 1987). But how large does a learner's lexicon need to be in order to facilitate further incidental vocabulary acquisition? If reading is the primary means of incidental vocabulary acquisition, what is the impact of a learner's existing lexical proficiency (vocabulary size) on the number of words he or she is able to acquire incidentally through reading? More specifically, how does the frequency of a target word in a text affect the likelihood of a learner acquiring that word?

In order to explore these questions, this study examined the effect of L2 learners' lexical proficiency and word frequency in a text on incidental vocabulary acquisition through reading.

Review of Literature

"Knowing" a Word

The categorization of different facets of "knowing" a word depends on various distinctions, the most basic of which is the receptive versus productive dichotomy that distinguishes between the ability to simply recognize a word while reading or listening and the ability to actually produce the word in writing or speaking.

Another classification for lexical knowledge includes six major components: (a) knowing the different denotations of a word; (b) knowing the appropriate uses of a word; (c) knowing its syntactic properties; (d) knowing its underlying forms and derivations; (e) knowing the associations the word has with other words (collocations); and (f) knowing the connotations of the word (Gass, 1989; Olshtain, 1987). Richards (1976) added a seventh component which is the frequency of occurrence of a word.

Wesche and Paribakht (1996) divided word knowledge into three levels, which include (a) initial recognition (oral or written), (b) comprehension of common connotations and denotations of the word in context, and (c) the ability to produce the word quickly and correctly in a variety of contexts. …

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