Please cite as:
Son, J.-B. (2001). CALL and vocabulary learning: A review. English Linguistic Science, 7, 27-35.

CALL and Vocabulary Learning: A Review

Jeong-Bae Son
The University of Southern Queensland


This article explores CALL research on vocabulary learning. It discusses the use of the computer for lexical skill development in terms of linking CALL with vocabulary acquisition and searching for effective ways to use CALL in vocabulary instruction. For the discussion, it takes up findings from studies of lexical CALL. Through the literature review, it is suggested that more research is needed to find out the effects of lexical CALL on manifold aspects such as implicit and explicit learning of vocabulary and comprehension.

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I. Introduction

Computer-assisted language learning (CALL) has been actively applied to second language (L2) and foreign language (FL) reading with courseware which provides a range of on-screen activities. Along with this, researchers have tried to examine the usefulness of computer-assisted reading activities in various ways. Related to research on reading skill development, considerable attention has been given to vocabulary learning in CALL (Conrad, 1996; Ellis, 1995; Goodfellow, 1995). While giving an overview of previous research on vocabulary learning in CALL environments, this article discusses the use of the computer for vocabulary learning in terms of linking CALL with vocabulary acquisition and searching for effective ways to use CALL in vocabulary instruction. For the discussion, it highlights two main topics of CALL research on vocabulary learning: the development of lexical CALL programs and the use of on-line lexical resources.

II. Development of Lexical CALL Programs

Through surveys of vocabulary acquisition theories, researchers have suggested guidelines for the design of CALL programs for vocabulary or described programs they developed for vocabulary learning. For instance, Goodfellow (1994) proposes that lexical CALL programs need to address the learner's need to build a sizeable L2 mental lexicon; to maximize interactivity in the selection, processing and practice of target words; to promote a deep learning; to support learning processes which focus on structure in the target-word list; to diagnose and help modify surface learning approaches; and to generate and record data on learning approaches and outcomes. Röllinghoff (1993) describes a lexical program developed by using HyperCard and adapted to several languages including French, English, German, and Spanish. Nara (1992, 1994) presents the design of an on-line Kanji dictionary and its search functions, and reports on the development of a collocational dictionary for Japanese, emphasising improved monitoring facilities.

There are also empirical vocabulary studies related to the development of lexical CALL programs. In a study observing L2 learners' use of a software system connected with an on-line dictionary, Bland, Noblitt, Armington and Gay (1990) interpret the form of students' queries as an indication of their stage of lexical development. From the results of two experiments with English as a second language (ESL) readers, Coady, Magoto, Hubbard,

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Graney and Mokhtari (1993) suggest that practice with high-frequency vocabulary through computer-assisted learning does benefit reading.

To examine the effect of a context-embedded approach to second language vocabulary instruction, Kang (1995) conducted a study with elementary school students who had basic knowledge of the English alphabet and sentence structure. The instructional methods used for vocabulary learning were: "Paper and Pencil (P&P), Computer-based Word-for-word (CW), Computer-based word-for-word plus Picture (CP), and Computer-based Context (CC)" (p. 46). The P&P condition represented a conventional method of vocabulary learning guided by a human instructor. The CW condition incorporated the same definition-based approach used in the P&P, but employed a computer instead of a human instructor. In the CP condition, pictures were additionally used with the features included in the CW. The CC condition provided students with a situational context first in which the target English vocabulary occurred and then the meaning of the word and an example sentence. The results showed that the group treated by the computer-based context method performed significantly better than any other group in a retention test. This suggests that the presentation of vocabulary with visual, aural and sentence contexts in computer-assisted learning environments would enhance vocabulary learning and teaching.

III. Use of On-line Lexical Resources

In FL learning, dictionary use is one of the key skills and strategies suggested by reading researchers (Hosenfeld, Arnold, Kirchofer, Laciura & Wilson, 1981; Nuttall, 1982). Barnett (1989) states, "Efficient dictionary use is a strategy in itself and crucial to reading with understanding. Students need to know when to use a dictionary (and which kind) and how to use it" (p. 133). Hence, FL readers are required to know how to locate the meaning of an unfamiliar word by using a dictionary.

The significant difference between paper dictionaries (conventional dictionaries) and computerised dictionaries (electronic dictionaries) is in presentation modality. Paper dictionaries provide printed information in sequence from beginning to end. Computerised dictionaries allow learners to get auditory and visual information presented by text, sound or graphics through diverse exploration paths. Zähner, Gupta and Olohan (1994) note that electronic dictionaries can "start with essential data only and then allow users to progress from there to explore the lexical information in as much detail as they require and the lexicon can offer" (p. 77). As stated by Aust, Kelley, and Roby (1993), electronic references such as on-line

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dictionaries and glossaries represent "one of the most rapidly growing forms of electronic text" (p. 63).

There are many design issues for electronic text and on-line lexical resources. Key considerations in the design of on-line lexical resources include the number of words, the length of definitions, the amount of information and the presentation method of information. To look at one of these issues, Cumming, Cropp and Sussex (1994) compared four word definition formats in a paper-pencil experiment. The experimental formats were (1) phrasal definition alone, (2) sentence definition alone, (3) phrasal definition plus a usage example, and (4) sentence definition plus a usage example. They found that most ESL learners preferred having the sentence format definition plus a usage example.

To investigate the effects of dictionary use and look-up behaviour of readers on vocabulary learning or reading comprehension, several researchers used computerised dictionaries in their studies (e.g., Chun & Plass, 1996a, 1996b; Hulstijn, 1993; Knight, 1994). With the aid of the computer, Hulstijn (1993) conducted two experiments on the behaviour of FL readers, particularly Dutch high school students, in looking up the meaning of unfamiliar words. To look up the meaning of a difficult word in an English text on the screen of a personal computer, the students moved the cursor to the desired word and pressed the Enter key. A window then opened showing the translation of the word in the students' first language and disappeared by pressing the Enter key again. From the results of tests and the students' log files registered to the computer, Hulstijn found, not surprisingly, that students with greater vocabulary knowledge looked up fewer words than students with smaller vocabulary knowledge. However, no significant difference in the number of words looked up was found between students with high inferring ability and students with low inferring ability. There was also no significant difference in English vocabulary knowledge and inferring ability between students who used "maximal" strategy (i.e., those who looked up a large number of words) and students who used "minimal" strategy (i.e., those who looked up fewer words).

Knight (1994) also used a computerised dictionary in a study on incidental vocabulary learning from context and the effect of dictionary access on reading comprehension. The computer was programmed to record the number of words each student looked up and the amount of time each student spent reading an article. College intermediate-level Spanish learners were randomly assigned to one of two reading conditions: dictionary access and no dictionary access. In order to look up a word, students in the access condition first pressed the designated lookup key on the computer and then typed the root form of the Spanish word in the box. When the correct root was supplied, the dictionary definitions appeared in the centre of the screen. From the results of vocabulary tests and recall tests, Knight found that high verbal ability students learnt more words than low verbal ability students, and students who used a dictionary learnt more than those who did not. She concluded that low verbal ability students are more dependent on vocabulary knowledge than high verbal ability

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Chun and Plass (1996a) reported three studies of the effectiveness of multimedia annotations on vocabulary acquisition. Participants were second-year students of German at three universities. The students watched a video preview that gave an overview of a German short story and then read the story and looked up the meaning of individual words by freely selecting any of the different types of annotations available in the form of text, pictures, and video. They subsequently took a vocabulary test and wrote a recall protocol. In all three studies, the students were able to look up words that had been annotated in a multimedia program called CyberBush. For this, they clicked on the word and held the mouse button down, and then dragged the word to icons indicating the types of annotations available (text definition, picture, and video) and dropped it on the icon representing the desired annotation. All types of annotations accompanied by an audio component appeared on the left side of the screen. The results showed a higher rate of incidental learning of vocabulary and significantly higher scores for words that were annotated with pictures and text than for those with video and text or text only.

Based on the same studies but with a different focus, Chun and Plass (1996b) also indicated that a dynamic visual advance organizer aided in overall comprehension and that annotations of individual vocabulary items consisting of both verbal and visual information helped more than verbal information only. They also found a moderate correlation between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension.

Several studies using computer-mediated texts with glossaries demonstrated the positive effects of electronic glossaries on vocabulary learning or reading comprehension. In L1 research, for example, Reinking and Rickman (1990) investigated whether intermediate-grade readers' vocabulary learning and comprehension would be affected by displaying texts on a computer screen that provided the meanings of difficult words. After being randomly assigned to four treatment conditions, the subjects read two informational passages containing several difficult words identified by teachers. In two of the conditions, they read the passages on printed pages accompanied by either a dictionary or a glossary comprised of the difficult words. In the other two conditions, they read the passages on a computer screen that provided either optional or mandatory assistance with the meanings of the difficult words. The results indicated that subjects who read passages with computer assistance scored significantly higher on a vocabulary test, and subjects who read passages on the computer screen with mandatory assistance also outperformed other subjects on a comprehension test. Reinking and Rickman concluded that reading comprehension can be increased when computer-mediated texts are used to expand or to control options for acquiring information.

In an English as a foreign language (EFL) study assessing the effects of an electronic glossary on reading comprehension of authentic texts, Leffa (1992) also found that a computer-mediated electronic glossary was more efficient than a traditional bilingual

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dictionary, allowing beginning level students to understand 38% more of the passages, using 50% less time. In another study on the capability of instantaneous look-ups in on-line dictionaries, Lyman-Hager, Davis, Burnett, and Chennault (1993) compared two groups of L2 learners of French, one that received assistance with computerised dictionaries and one that had assistance with printed pages of glosses. The results showed that students who worked on-line had significantly better scores on the vocabulary quiz containing 20 words considered crucial to the story they read than those who did not.

On the other hand, Aust et al.'s study (1993) shows no significant differences in comprehension. They conducted a comparative study of hyper-reference and conventional paper dictionary use on the measures of consultation frequency, study time, efficiency, and comprehension. In their terms, a hyper-reference meant "an electronic reference aid that offers immediate access to supportive information with a clear and direct return path to the target information" (p. 64). Hyper-reference users could consult definitions for any word in an electronic book, and after clicking on a word, the definition window immediately appeared on the page opposite to the selected word. The results indicated that, with higher efficiency (consultations per minute), hyper-reference users consulted over two times as many definitions as conventional dictionary users. The study also found that, in another comparison of the use of bilingual (Spanish/English) and monolingual (Spanish/simplified Spanish) dictionaries, bilingual dictionary users consulted 25% more definitions and completed reading in 20% less time than did monolingual dictionary users. However, there were no significant differences between hyper-reference and paper media and between bilingual and monolingual dictionary use in comprehension measured by a proposition recall protocol. Aust et al. recommend that future research needs to re-examine these results in different settings with various text types, longer periods and more conventional or computer-based comprehension measures such as multiple-choice questions or sentence-completion tasks.

IV. Summary and Conclusion

Recent CALL research in reading has tried to examine various factors of computer-assisted reading instruction, and to suggest ways in which CALL can improve students' reading abilities. One of the reading components in which CALL researchers have shown great interest is the role of computers in lexical skill development. Research on computer-assisted vocabulary learning has significant implications for CALL software design such as the presentation methods of on-line lexical resources and the effective use of verbal

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and visual information in reading instruction. From studies of computer-mediated texts and glossaries, however, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the effects of electronic glossaries on vocabulary learning and reading comprehension because the computer-based assistance for delivering the meanings of words in each study was accompanied by different presentation methods.

Although there have been some studies of the effectiveness of computer dictionaries for vocabulary acquisition or reading comprehension, necessary comparative and evaluative studies are apparently lacking. For instance, research needs to address the effects of on-line and off-line texts and glossaries presented in different types of text formats on reading comprehension as well as vocabulary learning, particularly in FL classroom situations where reading materials need to be integrated into the existing curriculum of the language course. Therefore, it is suggested that more research is needed to find out the effects of lexical CALL on manifold aspects such as implicit and explicit learning of vocabulary and comprehension. These research activities would provide better understanding of how software can be developed and used best in CALL environments and of what students learn from computer-assisted vocabulary activities.


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