Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Vocabulary development through reading: A comparison of approaches

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posted on 2021-11-22, 11:49 authored by Boutorwick, TJ

This thesis compares two approaches to extensive reading to determine the extent that they facilitate vocabulary development. The first approach is a traditional reading-only approach, and the second approach is a task-based approach which supplements reading with post-reading meaning-focused discussions. These two approaches are compared using a battery of tests, most notably a measure for productive knowledge of word associations.  For years, scholars have believed that word associations have potential to reveal important information about a person’s language proficiency. One reason word associations are intriguing is that a large amount of a person’s lexicon can be assessed (Meara, 2009). This is possible because a large amount of data from the learner can be gathered in a short period of time. Another intriguing aspect of word association data is that it is one aspect of vocabulary knowledge that is not based on correct performance. This raises the question of an appropriate means of assigning value to the associations, a question which still hinders research to this day. Recent research has made progress in this area with a multi-level taxonomy (i.e., Fitzpatrick, 2007), creating a picture of the types of associations which exist in a learner’s lexicon. However, this taxonomy does not address the strength of the association. Wilks and Meara (2007) have attempted to tackle association strength through the use of self-report measures, whereby a test-taker reports strength of association on a four-point scale from weak to strong. This has left them with "...problems which we have not yet solved, notably a tendency for some test takers to claim that most associations are strong, while others appear to be very reluctant to identify strong associations..." (Meara, 2009, p. 80). In other words, the question of how to appropriately determine association strength is still unanswered.  In the current study lexical development, in the form of word association knowledge, was measured using a multi-response word association test. Participants were assessed on their knowledge of 60 target words which occurred in five graded readers that they read over the course of the study. The learners first self-reported their knowledge of the 60 target words in terms of no knowledge, form knowledge, or meaning knowledge. The students provided up to five associations for each word that they reported at either the form or meaning levels. They did this once before reading the five graded readers, and again after finishing the graded readers.  The associations provided by the students were analyzed using Latent Semantic Analysis, a method for computing semantic similarity between words (Landauer & Dumais, 1997). The associations a learner provided for each target word were assigned a similarity value representing how similar they were to the target word to which they were provided. The hypothesis was that the students who engaged in the post-reading discussion activities would show greater increases in associational knowledge of the target words than those students who did not participate in the discussions.  The major finding from this thesis was that the students who struggled with a word during the post-reading discussion and were provided an opportunity to discuss the word with their group developed associational knowledge to a significantly greater degree than those students who did not encounter the words during the discussions. This emphasizes the facilitative role that meaning-focused output activities have on vocabulary development. In addition, the associational knowledge developed at the initial stages of word learning (i.e., from no knowledge to form knowledge), continued to develop from form knowledge of a word to meaning knowledge of the word, and was also developing even when words did not change in reported knowledge. This suggests a continual restructuring of the learners’ lexicon, exemplifying past research (e.g., Henriksen, 1999). Overall, the findings suggest that an extensive reading approach which includes opportunities for meaning-focused interaction has greater benefits for lexical development when compared to a traditional reading-only approach to extensive reading.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Applied Linguistics

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


Macalister, John; Elgort, Irina; Siyanova, Anna