Structure and Word Learning
For adults, the majority
of new words are learned through incidental encounter. Incidental
encounters include oral conversations, viewing various forms of media (i.e.
television, film, etc.), listening to classroom lectures and discussions, and
reading various forms of text (i.e. magazines, newspapers, books, etc.). Through
these types of encounters, new word meanings are inferred without the help of
formal definition, explicit explanation, or even instruction (Landauer &
Dumais, 1997; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985; Stahl, 1991; Sternberg, 1987).
The primary way in which adults acquire new vocabulary is through reading, which
is a social activity that provides benefits for those who master it. Individuals
who read more are better equipped to meet personal, social, and occupational
needs (Smith, 1996). However, in the United States there is a need to increase
the mastery level of adults in the area of reading. Only a small
percentage of adults aged 16 and older are able to fully comprehend challenging
prose materials (National Centre of Education Statistics, 2003). Individual
differences in reading ability influence individual differences in vocabulary
knowledge. One way to aid readers in learning new vocabulary is to determine how
the text structure interacts with reading ability. So what is the optimal way to
structure a text so as to support meaning making and vocabulary acquisition? In
this paper we present two psychological experiments which attempt to shed light
on this question.
In the first experiment, we
compared two types of discourse (e.g., narrative and expository) to see if
college students would be better at acquiring new vocabulary from one particular
discourse type. Narrative discourse gives an account of events which tell
readers a story and are used to inform or persuade people using elements such as
theme, plot, and characters. Expository discourse explains or informs readers
using definition, sequence, categorization, and cause-effect. Data revealed a
word learning advantage for words read in narrative compared to expository
texts. In a second experiment, we then looked at characteristics of narrative
texts that may influence word learning. In this study, we explored the
possibility that one property affecting the comprehension of narrative text
difficulty is the number of situation models which a reader is required to
mentally construct in order to understand the text. We hypothesized that
creating a new situation model should be more difficult than updating a
pre-existing one. Following Zwaan (2004) we take situation models to be analog
representations built up by the reactivation of perceptual information. We found
that people were significantly better at inferring the meaning of novel words in
a single-situation model condition as opposed to a multi-situation model
condition despite the fact that single situation model passages had higher
average readability ratings. Taken together these two studies provide an account
of how text structure can facilitate the acquisition of new vocabulary. These
data have implications for the construction of instructional materials and the
assessment of vocabulary knowledge.
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