Thesis (M.A.), 2013
77 Pages, Grade: 91.1%
LIST OF TABLES
Chapter One: Introduction
1.2 Lexical inferencing and applied linguistics
1.3 Statement of the problem
1.4 Questions of the study
1.5 Significance of the study
1.6 Limitations of the study
1.7 Outline of research
Chapter Two: Literature Review
2.2 Aspects of lexical knowledge
2.3 Major lexical learning strategies
2.4 Lexical inferencing is compensatory but risky
2.5 Types of linguistic inferencing strategies: Linguistic knowledge sources, clues-based inferencing strategies
2.5.1 Types of clues
2.5.2 Linguistic lexical inferencing strategies
2.6 Concluding remarks
3.2 Participants of the study
3.3 The reading texts and target word(s)
3.4 Data collection procedures and instruments
3.5 Data categorization
3.6 Concluding remarks
Chapter Four: Findings and Discussion of the Results
4.2 Findings of the study
4.2.1 The identified strategies
4.2.2 Findings of the questionnaire
4.3.1 Summary of the results
4.3.2 Similarities and differences in employment of strategies
5.2 Summary of the major results of the study
5.5 Suggestions for further investigations
I cordially recognize my Dr. Khalaf Al-Makhzoumi from Yarmouk University and Dr. Samir Jarbou from Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST). Their enlightening remarks and direction have enabled me to achieve my goal of completing this work.
With pleasure, I would like to recognize the contribution of all faculty members and staff of the Department of English Language and Linguistics at JUST, particularly Prof. Mohammad A. Nahar who guided me in times of confusion, and provided direction in times of loss. To all of my instructors I am thankful for their myriad knowledge in (applied) linguistics that ignited in me a strong interest in (applied) linguistics and TEFL. Many thanks go to my colleagues and friends at JUST.
Last but not least, words could never describe how grateful I am to my wife for her infinite patience during my study years. I am appreciative of my brothers and sisters for their constant encouragement throughout my journey of education. I want my children, Mohammed, Rayan, Hala and Yara, to be sensitized to the fact that I would have preferred to spend the hours invested in this work with them, but it is the culture of giving back.
1 Frequency distribution of use of lexical processing strategies
2 Knowledge sources used in inferencing (Paribakht & Wesche, 1999)
3 French-English true cognates
4 French-English false cognates
5 Widespread English/Arabic cognates in the Jordanian society
6 Misleading homonyms (homophones)
7 Misleading homonyms (homographs)
8 Education levels of participants
9 Participants responses: valid responses (VR), invalid responses (IVR)
10 The identified categories of lexical inferencing strategies
11 Correct and incorrect inferences provided by the participants
12 Combinations of knowledge sources used
13 The use of strategies in the questionnaire according to the participants
14 Lexical inferencing strategies employed by Arabic speaking Jordanian learners of EFL
LEXICAL INFERENCING STRATEGIES EMPLOYED BY JORDANIAN GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE LEARNERS OF ENGLISH AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
Awni Shati M. Etaywe
This study aims at investigating the lexical inferencing strategies that Arabic-speaking Jordanian graduate and undergraduate learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) employ as they read to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words. It examines whether students of various academic levels would use the same or different strategies. It evaluates how successfully they can employ these strategies to attain the proper meaning. To this end, a survey comprising of a lexical inferencing test and a questionnaire was used to collect data from 103 students majoring in English. Students were divided into three groups: beginner (first year) BA students, advanced (fourth year) BA students and MA students. The collected data from students’ responses were analyzed quantitatively and categorized according to Paribakht and Wesche's classification (1999) of linguistic knowledge source-based lexical inferencing strategies. Results show that students’ lexical inferencing ability was inadequate in general, particularly among beginner students at the BA level. The most frequently used strategy by all groups is the discourse-based strategy followed by establishing word associations then by grammar-based strategy. Results show differences between the study groups in terms of the successful employment of certain strategies, as well as the type and the frequency of the strategies used. Differences can be attributed to the variance in the acquired skills which build up as the academic level of learners advances. The study highlights the importance of teaching lexical inferencing strategies to students of EFL.
Key words: lexical inferencing (strategies), linguistic clues, contextual clues, unfamiliar word
Vocabulary is "the building block of language"
(Schmitt, Schmitt, & Clapham, 2001:53)
Lexical competence is essential for building linguistic capacity, communicative competence, as well as learners' academic success. Thus, errors in grasping vocabulary would disrupt communication (Nagy & Townsend, 2012). Wessels (2011:1) stresses that lexical knowledge is “the single best predictor of English learners' academic achievement. With this in mind, effective vocabulary instruction must be a goal of all educators working with English learners”. One of the most common cognitive techniques employed by second language (L2) learners to generate and learn meaning of unfamiliar words in context is lexical inferencing (Deschambault, 2012), the significance of which has received a general consensus among second language (L2) researchers. This study aims at investigating the lexical inferencing strategies that are employed by Arabic speaking Jordanian graduate and undergraduate learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) while reading to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words. It examines whether learners of various academic levels would reveal similarities or differences in strategy types and ability at strategy use to reach meaning successfully. It highlights the most/least frequently employed strategies among Jordanian learners.
Realizing the significance of lexical inferencing as a major cognitive process, lexical inferencing area of research has received an upsurge of interest, with the intention to help learners of English as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) (Paribakht & Wesche, 2009; Paribakht & Wesche, 1999). Concisely stressed, lexical inferencing refers to a process whereby readers derive the meaning of unfamiliar/unknown words by using linguistic clues and the context in which words appear (Frantzen, 2003). It is a context-based strategy that involves the utilization of a variety of linguistic and nonlinguistic sources to'word-
attack'(to use Oxford's (1990) term) the meanings of words that a learner does not know. What also justifies the importance of this specific strategy is that the ability to draw inferences is correlated to one's reading skills. That is, poor inferencing causes poor comprehension (Kispal, 2008) and that "well-elaborated semantic knowledge […] is mostly gained through learning words by employing inferencing strategies in reading" (Hunt & Beglar, 2005: 28). Thus, under favourable conditions that are pertinent to text or word characteristics as well as the reader's knowledge, lexical inferencing strategies can lead to incidental vocabulary acquisition (Nassaji, 2004; Paribakht & Wesche, 1999).
Readers of texts in a foreign language often employ certain lexical inferencing strategies when encountered with unfamiliar lexical items (words or phrases whose meaning the reader has either never encountered before or is subject-specific terminology). These strategies are subject to the background knowledge in the target language (English in this case) and to any available cross linguistic knowledge transfer mainly between languages of the same origin (e.g. Indo-European languages). This transfer is less likely to occur in cases where the first language (L1) and second language (L2) are more distant in origin as in between English and Arabic.
For Arabic speaking-Jordanian learners (whose L1 is Arabic), English nowadays is not a fad. It has become almost a must, as a large spectrum of sciences and college specializations are taught in English; in addition, English nowadays is formally learnt after Arabic from grade one at school. Nevertheless, the researcher of the current study considers English in Jordan as a foreign language (but not a second language as in Pakistan and Singapore) because it is not officially recognized in Jordanian institutions (as an official language). Having said that, unfamiliarity with English vocabulary raises a serious challenge for a large number of students, including Jordanian students of English (as a foreign language) and linguistics who form the population of this study. Thus, since the majority of research carried out in the area of lexical inferencing focuses on informants speaking languages other than Arabic, accumulating evidence from groups whose L1 is Arabic could contribute to a better understanding of Jordanian learners' reading behaviour. Such behaviour can be investigated whether similar findings would appear in unassisted reading situations, where consulting dictionaries or experts might be inaccessible (as in exams), or in a situation where pausing while reading the text to consult someone might rather impede the flow of reading or seem impractical. In such situations, making inferences will be the practically appropriate option in order to guess word meaning.
Ostensibly, there is a fundamental relation between lexical inferencing and major areas of research of applied linguistics, such as language acquisition, L2 literacy, EFL-reading courses (in which new sets of vocabulary are introduced), and the English language proficiency tests. These areas of research bring lexical inferencing into the heart of interest by linguists and pedagogists. For example, it is extensively seen that the English language proficiency test-takers are required to infer a target word meaning in a text. Such requirement has become a routine task in the form of standardized vocabulary type of question in the reading sections of TOEFL and IELTS, as in the following TOEFL example:
"At that time, slaves from a number of different ethnicities were forced to work together under colonizer's rule. Since they had no opportunity to learn each other's languages, they developed amake-shiftlanguage called a pidgin".
'Make-shift'in paragraph 3 is closest in meaning to:
A. complicated and expressive
B. simple and temporary
C. extensive and diverse
D. private and personal
Such reading-based tasks may justify Krashen's (2004) argument that vocabulary is best learnt through reading. Krashen asserts that reading itself helps in vocabulary learning by creating opportunities for inferring word meaning in context. More to the point, Nassaji (2004) contends that one type of knowledge source that is correlated to learners' reading ability and understanding texts is vocabulary knowledge. And for the same reason, the researcher ('the researcher' throughout the study refers to 'the researcher of the current study') investigates lexical inferencing strategies usedwhile reading. If the text is full of too many words that are uncommon for the reader, this will badly affect comprehension (Laufer, 1992). Nevertheless, this does not eliminate the value of making inferences.
Corder's view, cited in Davies (1999), of applied linguistics suggests that in order to infer meaning while reading, L2 readers typically apply their prior linguistic knowledge. In these terms, Corder's view of applied linguistics as "mediate[ing] between linguistics and language teaching" and that "applied linguistics" presupposes "linguistics" emphasizes the importance of linguistics in teaching and learning English which involves lexical inferencing; so one cannot apply what she/he does not possess (Davies, 1999:6). In another line of thought, learning linguistics seems to be a prerequisite for applying such knowledge in inferencing tasks whilst reading. In this sense, the researcher of the current study assumes that lexical inferencing (by taking advantage of prior linguistic knowledge and applying it to a reading task) is one facet of application of linguistics, and without prior knowledge in linguistics, efficient employment of such a process is questionable. Considering that applied linguistics is "the study of language and linguistics in relation to practical problems" (Davies, 1999:6), the researcher considers lexical inferencing a probable solution to a problem that readers of English in all study fields face (particularly learners of English as a foreign language). That is why the researcher has selected his sample from the population of students of English and linguistics. These learners of EFL are expected to have already possessed some kind of background knowledge about the English language and linguistics. Making inferences would involve operations of direct analysis, transformation or synthesis of learning materials. Such synthesis is based on clues available in context and it has the potential for leading to vocabulary learning. Haastrup (1991) has identified lexical inferencing as "making informed guesses" about the meaning of unfamiliar words based on text clues. In short, the investigation of this study is hoped to end with an explanation of the so called informed guesses and implications despite Myong's (2012) assumption that L2 learners may not make intelligent inferences in the same way as native speakers can due to their lack of general language proficiency. This study is also hoped to mediate between lexical studies and studies on teaching reading and lexical acquisition related skills (inferencing strategies).
While lexical acquisition is an essential prerequisite to communication, it is often regarded as a 'headache' (to use this researcher's word) for L2 learners (Segler, Pain & Sorace, 2002). Jordanian learners of EFL are no exception of such a headache that can be partially relieved by lexical inferencing. Deriving word meaning, with the help of clues/ hints, makes inferencing seem a pragmatic solution to many difficulties faced by EFL learners. Nevertheless, deciding on the more acceptable inferred meanings opens the door for mistakes and it makes inferencing risky. And this brings up to the surface the issue of what types of linguistic knowledge sources (such as phonological, morphological and syntactic knowledge) are necessary for making (successful) inferences and how these sources are utilized.
This study aims at investigating the lexical inferencing strategies that Arabic-speaking Jordanian graduate and undergraduate learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) employ as they read to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words. In compliance with this aim, this study addresses the following research questions:
a. What linguistic inferencing strategies do Jordanian undergraduate and graduate students of EFL employ when they attempt to derive the meaning of unfamiliar words while reading?
b. Are there any differences or similarities in applying these strategies among learners of diverse academic levels (in this case BA and MA students)?
c. Is there any marked core relation of inference-making success/ failure to the learners' academic level?
Earlier, the researcher carried out a pilot study that comprised 6 undergraduate Jordanians to verify the unfamiliarity of target words. The target words were 20 contextualized nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The 6 participants confirmed that they knew most of the words in each context/sentence except for the twenty underlined target words. In addition, in order to examine the level of context support for these 20 target words, the six Jordanian undergraduate participants were asked to infer the words in a gap cloze. The researcher noticed that the target words were of limited use for the L2 readers.
The researcher collected his data from 103 students: 80 students majoring in English Language and Linguistics (at the BA level), and 23 students majoring Applied Linguistics (at the MA level) by means of a survey comprising of a questionnaire and lexical inferencing test. The data collected were analyzed quantitatively and taxonimised according to Paribakht and Wesche's classification (1999) of linguistic inferencing strategies.
Undeniably, there is a plethora of materials that highlight the relationship between various clues and inferencing (Haastrup, 1991; Paribakht & Wesche, 1999; Nassaji, 2004; Pulido, 2007). This study departs from the previous studies in its intention to add something unique to the existing knowledge base by achieving the following: First, to the best of the researcher's knowledge this is the first study on lexical inferencing that studies Jordanian learners of EFL whose L1 is Arabic. Second, the examined sample includes a variety of adult Jordanian learners of EFL from various university levels. Third, the study attempts to be exhaustive in terms of looking for all possible strategies employed by the sample.
The study demonstrates learners' task asa hybrid act. In other words, it requires achievingtwo roles: first, acquiring linguistic knowledge (a prerequisite), and second, being able to employ that knowledge in drawing inferences as a practical option to overcome their limited lexical knowledge. The researcher aims to verify whether or not the findings of the current study concur with previous studies. The significance of this study can be further seen through the following points:
a. The study demonstrates how various sources of linguistic knowledge might help Jordanian learners of EFL infer meaning whilst reading. It links between knowledge in linguistics and teaching practices in a way that emphasizes Corder's view of applied linguistics as mediating between linguistics and teaching practices.
b. At the instructional level, this study has a direct impact on English teaching practices in Jordanians’ as well as other Arab students' classrooms by providing support to what guidelines and strategies instructors should provide their students with to assist them to become better independent learners. It shows ways that can be introduced to Jordanian L2 readers to promote their readiness, and pave the way to meaning extraction.
c. The study examines the relationships between type and frequency of the employed strategies on the one hand and learners' academic level on the other, thus testing the influence of the students' level on making inferences.
d. The current study adds to the knowledge base of EFL learners by verifying the importance of linguistic knowledge in lexical inferencing, and filling some gaps in the current research regarding teaching English vocabulary at Jordanian institutions.
The study has some limitations though. First, reports of the survey are limited to the length of class periods in which the survey has taken place. Second, the informants of this study are limited to graduate and undergraduate students of JUST University. Thus, it is not conclusive whether all findings may be generalized to all graduate and undergraduate Jordanian or Arab students. Third, informants were not given enough time to practice inferencing tasks before performing the actual test of the study, and such preparatory practice could have given the students an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the lexical inferencing task.
This study includes four further chapters: Chapter Two presents the theoretical framework of the study. It gives a general overview of the studies on lexical knowledge including major lexical learning strategies, and linguistic-source based lexical inferencing strategies. Chapter Three describes the methodology of the study, explains the research design, the participants of the study, instrumentation and data collection procedures, and the criteria for data analysis. Chapter Four presents the findings as well as discussion of the results corresponding to the research questions. This study ends with a summary, conclusions, recommendations, and suggestions for further studies in Chapter Five.
This chapter presents the theoretical framework of the study. It gives a general overview of the studies carried out on the area of research of the current study including aspects of lexical knowledge, the major lexical learning strategies, compensatory but risky lexical inferencing, kinds of lexical inferencing strategies and linguistic clues which readers often employ to derive lexical meaning. This would help build up a clear picture of what lexical inferencing is and how it is achieved.
Qian cited in Qian and Schedl (2004) proposes that lexical knowledge contains four correlated aspects within the process of vocabulary use and development: (1) vocabulary size (2) depth of vocabulary knowledge (3) lexical organization which includes storage and connection of words in the mental lexicon and (4) automaticity of receptive-productive knowledge. Qian’s framework shows that depth of vocabulary knowledge is as central to the multidimensional domain of vocabulary knowledge as vocabulary size. For Qian, depth of vocabulary knowledge comprises lexical characteristics such as phonemic, morphemic, semantic, collocation, and graphemic properties; and these properties play a significant role in reading comprehension. Laufer (1990:148) highlights six linguistic components of word knowledge: form (recognizing the spoken and written form, being able to pronounce and spell the word correctly), word structure (recognizing the basic morphemes and word derivations), syntactic pattern in a sentence, meaning, lexical relations with other words (synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy), and common collocations.
According to Nassaji (2004), knowing a word should include more than knowing the individual meaning in a context. Significant relationship exists between depth of vocabulary knowledge and lexical inferencing strategy use and success. Nassaji's study in which he examines the relationship between EFL learners' depth of vocabulary knowledge, learners' lexical inferencing strategy use, and their success in deriving word meaning from context concludes that there is a significant relationship between the depth of vocabulary knowledge and the type of strategy used and the degree in success achieved. The results of his study indicate that the students with stronger depth of vocabulary knowledge use certain strategies (morphological analysis, and grammar) more frequently than those of weaker depth of vocabulary knowledge. Stronger students use effectively certain lexical inferencing strategies than their weaker counterparts; and depth of vocabulary knowledge has made a significant contribution to success in making inferences over the contribution made by the learners’ degree of strategy use. The findings of Nassaji's study will be compared to the findings of the present study.
Vocabulary is the leaves that endow the language tree with life. To know all these leaves and to acquire all English lexis are farfetched to native English speakers as well as English learners. This all encompassing knowledge is unlikely to happen especially if we take into consideration that "the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's third edition each contains about 500,000 words", exclusive of specialized and scientific terms (Davies, 1999:108). However, reaching a certain level of lexical knowledge by English learners is a requirement for understanding. According to Laufer (1992), there is a direct causality-link between lexical knowledge and understanding a reading text. Thus, finding feasible strategies to deal with unfamiliar words sounds an imperative option.
L2 learners are often exposed to media through which they receive the L2 lexical input in all means, particularly through printed texts (which is the researcher's interest). This exposure may be considered by learners as either comprehensible or incomprehensible regardless of the size of lexical knowledge of learners at various levels. In general, various situations require varied levels of vocabulary knowledge. Paribakht and Wesche (1999:196) argue that “the higher the academic level, the greater the vocabulary mastery needed”. Cobb (2007) suggests that 2,000 most frequent vocabulary items are considered to be essential for basic L2 reading because they would cover approximately 80% of the words in a text in general. However, Nation (2006) contends that much more vocabulary is necessary to read authentic texts, and she argues that 8,000–9,000 word families are required for better comprehension of texts. In brief, studies disclose widely varying estimates, which indicates that there will always be a need for dealing with new and more vocabulary.
Typically, all language learners use strategies in the learning process either consciously or unconsciously when encountering a new lexical item. And every time a reader faces new input she/he finds it inevitable to attempt to employ some strategies to process information. Lawson and Hogben (1996:106) argue that good learners do not only use more strategies, but they also rely more heavily on strategies than the less competent learners. Language learning strategies (LLSs) are identified by Oxford (1990:9) as “operations employed by the learner to aid the acquisition, storage, retrieval, and use of information". Inference-making is one of the direct LLSs which Oxford describes as "guessing intelligently".
Fraser (1999) has carried out a study on lexical processing strategies (LPS) and has found that L2 learners tend to use various lexical learning strategies once they encounter unfamiliar words while reading. These strategies fall in three options: (1) ignoring the unfamiliar word and continuing reading, (2) consulting a dictionary or another person and (3) inferring word meaning based on linguistic and contextual clues (See Table 1).
Table 1:Frequency distribution of use of lexical processing strategies (LPS)
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
Note: The total is based on 878 unfamiliar word encounters
Fraser finds that about 50% of the adopted strategies are lexical inferencing strategies. In unassisted situations, Fraser's third option (inferring) remains most pragmatic for L2 learners, and time saving. Interestingly, high rates of ignoring may lead to a severe limitation of learning potential.
Not knowing the meaning of new items due to limited knowledge, it is recommended that learners employ some compensatory strategies to find the intended meaning. Lexical inferencing strategies are compensatory for being "used to make up for limited knowledge" of the language (Oxford, 2002:128). Inferencing strategies enable learners to use the new input for comprehension despite limitations in knowledge. The learner forms hypotheses through attending to input or using the context to interpret the input and derive its meaning (Oxford, 1990).
Basically, since inferencing aims at reaching a judgment based on evidence/clues presented in a text, in this sense, making lexical inferences is similar to other inference processes carried out by detectives who examine clues in a crime scene, or by a doctor who diagnoses a certain disease. However, acceptable judgments get affected by various variables, mainly limited knowledge. This contention is verified by Paribakht and Wesche (1999) and Frantzen (2003) who contend that word-related, text-related as well as reader-related variables influence accurate lexical inferencing, including factors such as word characteristics (for example part of speech, degree of concreteness or abstraction, etc.), the connection between the referential meaning of the foreign word and the word in the learners’ L1, the similarity between word form and word meaning, text difficulty, knowledge of grammar and background knowledge.
These compensatory strategies are risky since the outcome is uncertain and the possibility of failure is there as Rubin cited in Beebe (1983:46) states. Having said that, inferencing is not simple. It is not a process of connecting a word form to a word meaning, but a complex development involving the learning of such knowledge as that of grammatical functions such as parts of speech, sociolinguistic factors such as word connotation, and frequency intuitions such as collocation (Nation, 2001). Besides, making inferences unsuccessfully may lead to failure in comprehension as long as inferencing can be affected by the information contained in the passage and reader's limitations.
A study carried out by Frantzen (2003) presents some factors that affect lexical inference. Findings of the study indicate that some of the reasons leading to incorrect inferences might exist in the context itself and the student’s behaviour. Firstly, the vagueness and ambiguity of the context make it seem unbeneficial or even misleading. All readers in Frantzen’s study areinattentive to details in contextwhen reading both difficult passages and easier ones. Secondly, another learner factor is that at times students show an oblivious certainty about words they think they know and consequently they stick to their original wrong answers despite the fact that context offers help.
To infer the meaning from whatever clue available to her/him, the reader should be vigilant to all sources of information that constitute evidence for inferring. Pieces of evidence could be in the form of linguistic clues or nonlinguistic clues. Clues can affect the process and the outcome of word inference-making. However, over-reliance on one type of clues means that other types of clues are not being activated, which would result in ineffective lexical inferencing processing (Haastrup, 1991).
A study by Shen (2008) investigates 120 Thai students' abilities, difficulties, and strategy use in lexical inferencing. Data are collected from students' retrospections immediately after a lexical inference test as well as a survey on a vocabulary strategy questionnaire. Shen analyzes his self-descriptive data collected from the incorrect answers according to Nassaji’s categories, to examine the students’ difficulties in the use of knowledge sources. It is worth mentioning that Nassaji (2003:655), makes a distinction between learners’ appeals to knowledge sources and the used strategies: he defines knowledge sources as those “instances when the learner made explicit reference to a particular source of knowledge, such as grammatical, morphological, discourse, world, or L1 knowledge”. On the other hand, Nassaji defines strategies as “conscious cognitive or metacognitive activities that the learner uses to gain control over or understand the problem without any explicit appeal to any knowledge source as assistance”. These activities include "repeating", "verifying", "self inquiry", "analyzing", "monitoring", and "analogy". Shen's results show that most students had difficulty in using world knowledge and morphological knowledge to infer word meaning. Among the high-frequency-used strategies are “using prior knowledge and recognition of cognates”.
Paribakht and Wesche (1999) rely solely on the term knowledge sources to describe learners’ lexical inferencing strategies, and condense these knowledge sources under two major headings of clues: linguistic knowledge sources which include intralingual and interlingual clues, and extra-linguistic sources. Linguistic lexical inferencing strategies, in particular, will be utilized in this study. Paribakht and Wesche (1999) conducted a retrospective study of lexical inferencing with 10 intermediate-level ESL students in order to find out the knowledge sources and cues they use to understand the meaning of unfamiliar words in a passage. They used a summary task (asking students to summarize a passage in their own words) and a question task (asking students to answer questions about the passage).
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