adult learners approach to learning lexis in l2

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  • Adult Learners' Approaches to Learning Vocabulary in Second LanguagesAuthor(s): Razika SanaouiSource: The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 15-28Published by: Wiley on behalf of the National Federation of Modern Language Teachers AssociationsStable URL: .Accessed: 29/11/2014 17:26

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  • Adult Learners' Approaches to Learning Vocabulary in Second Languages RAZIKA SANAOUI York University, Faculty of Education, Ross S848 4700 Keele Street, North York, Ontario, Canada M3J 1P3 Email:

    How do adult second language (L2) learners approach the task of vocabulary learning and what mnemonic procedures do they use to help themselves retain the lexical items that they are learning in their L2? These questions were first investigated in an exploratory study with 50 beginning and advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) learners then through four case studies of ESL learners and eight case studies of French as a Second Language learners. The research identified two distinct approaches to vocabulary learning in an L2, a structured and an unstructured approach that differed in five aspects: (a) the extent to which learners engaged in independent study, (b) the range of self-initiated learning activities in which learners engaged, (c) the extent to which learners recorded the lexical items they were learning, (d) the extent to which learners reviewed such records, and (e) the extent to which they practised using vocabulary items outside their L2 course.

    HOW DO SECOND LANGUAGE (L2) LEARN- ers approach the task of vocabulary learning? What mnemonic procedures do they use to help themselves retain lexical items they are learning in their L2? These questions were posed in three consecutive research studies (Sanaoui, 1990, June; 1992; 1993, April). First, an exploratory inquiry examined approaches to vocabulary study used by 50 learners en- rolled in an intensive English as a Second Lan- guage (ESL) program. Second, case studies of four ESL learners' approaches to vocabulary learning and mnemonic procedures were con- ducted in the context of the same language program. A third investigation consisted of case studies of approaches and mnemonic pro- cedures used by eight adult students of French as a Second Language (FSL) for learning vo- cabulary while enrolled in a French conversa- tion course.

    This article reports on the three studies in the order in which they were conducted, de-

    scribing their contexts, methodologies, and findings.' The present study is one of very few studies that adopt methodological principles of ethnographic interviewing (Erickson, 1986; Spradley, 1979) to contribute detailed, thor- ough descriptions of adult learners' behaviors for learning vocabulary (Meara, 1983, 1987, 1993). A final section of this article provides an overview of findings from all 12 case studies and summarizes characteristic features of two ap- proaches to lexical learning that were identi- fied. Implications for future research and L2 instruction are also suggested.

    This research was undertaken with the view that detailed descriptions of learners' ap- proaches to vocabulary study and their mne- monic procedures are necessary to advance cur- rent knowledge about what people do to learn the vocabulary of their target language. In the present research, a learner's approach to vocab- ulary learning or study is defined as a learner's study habits for learning new words or phrases. Mnemonic procedures refer to procedures that learners apply to a specific lexical item in order to facilitate its retention (for example, associat- ing a word with the situation in which it first appeared).

    The Modern Language Journal, 79, i (1995) 0026-7902/95/15-28 $1.50/0 ?1995 The Modern Language Journal

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  • 16 The Modern Language Journal 79 (1995)

    Studies by Cohen and Aphek (1980, 1981) have been informative about mnemonic procedures that L2 learners use. Their studies conducted with learners of Hebrew as an L2 indicated that these students reported using several kinds of associations as mnemonic procedures for re- taining lexical items. For example, learners as- sociated words in the first language (L1) to words with a similar sound in the L2; they asso- ciated part of an L2 word to an English (L1) word by sound and meaning and the other part to a Hebrew (L2) word by sound and meaning; they associated L2 words with other L2 words by sounds; they associated Hebrew words to proper names; and they made associations by making a mental picture of the word. The researchers also provided evidence that students who made associations retained words successfully over time, and they suggested that students probably use other kinds of mnemonic procedures. More recent studies by Brown and Perry (1991), Kelly (1986), and Crow and Quigley (1985) are infor- mative about what occurs when learners are trained to use specific mnemonic procedures (for example, "the keyword technique"), but they reveal little about the procedures that the learners themselves would normally use in set- tings outside of the research contexts. One pur- pose of the present research was to obtain fur- ther descriptions of mnemonic procedures that learners might use.

    In addition to Cohen and Aphek's studies (1980, 1981), which focused on mnemonic asso- ciations, other studies, based on data obtained from student interviews and self-reports, have revealed that learners engage in other beaviors in order to learn vocabulary in an L2 (Nai- man, Fr6lich, Stern & Todesco, 1975; O'Malley & Chamot, 1990; Oxford, 1990; Wenden & Rubin, 1987). For example, learners have re- ported using dictionaries, memorizing lists of words, making up word charts, practising words, learning words in context, repeating words, using mental imagery, and reviewing previously learned words. The documentation that is currently available is informative, but it may provide only a limited account of learners' approaches to vocabulary study, partly because much of this research has concerned itself with people's general behaviors in learning an L2, vocabulary being only one among many other aspects of language that have been examined. The present research concentrated solely on lexis, seeking to obtain comprehensive ac- counts of learners' approaches to vocabulary study.



    This exploratory study was conducted in the context of a 6-week vocabulary course in an intensive ESL program at a university located in a predominantly Anglophone city in eastern Canada. The vocabulary course was featured as one of several elective courses; it supple- mented instruction in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. A total of 50 students enrolled in the vocabulary course participated in the study. This population was made up of two classes of adult ESL learners, one class combining students judged by institutional tests and teacher perceptions to have begin- ning and low-intermediate proficiency in English, and one class judged similarly to have high-intermediate and advanced proficiency in English. Students were from various linguis- tic and cultural backgrounds, including native speakers of French, Spanish, Japanese, Chi- nese, and Arabic.

    Methodology and Data Collection

    Over a 6-week period, all participants were asked to (a) monitor and document daily the approaches they took to the task of vocabulary learning and (b) report on and discuss features of their individual approaches with other par- ticipants in the course. Monitoring and daily documentation of the students' personal expe- riences and activities related to vocabulary learning were an integral component of this noncredit vocabulary course. The reporting of this information took place partially in the con- text of the course and partially during meetings scheduled outside class because of the con- straints of time, number of students, and course curriculum. From a pedagogic perspective, the rationale for including such activities in the course was that learners may benefit from (a) developing a better awareness of what they do in order to learn vocabulary and (b) obtain- ing descriptions of what other learners do in order to cope with the task of vocabulary learning.

    "Sharing sessions" were held for 60 minutes once weekly for 6 weeks, during which small groups of learners reported on notes they had made. Students described and discussed what they had done and how they had proceeded throughout the week in order to learn vocabu- lary. The researcher observed and made written records of the behaviors, practices, and habits

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  • Razika Sanaoui 17

    related to vocabulary learning that individual students reported, as well as records o


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