Discourse 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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