Investigating the Different Learning Conditions Towards Teaching English Vocabulary in Hong Kong

Categories: English Language

To respond the first research question about the most effective learning condition for the immediate recall and long-term retention of word meanings, it is concluded that the combined approach is the most successful in the immediate recall and long-term retention of English vocabulary among young ESL learners, followed by the L1 gloss approach and at last the L2 context approach. In the present study, when both L1 glosses and L2 examples are given, the number of correct responses increases. L1 Chinese glosses provide learners with concrete information and at the same time establish the form-meaning link in the initial stage of vocabulary acquisition.

This is because the L1 concept is already established and provides a natural and efficient vehicle to make the form-meaning link, it will allow more cognitive resources to be focused on the form of newly learnt L2 words (Bancroft, 2002), and therefore learners tend to have better performance in the recall and retention of word meanings.

This finding is also in line with Prince’s (1996) study, where he found that L1 translation learning is conducive to L2 vocabulary acquisition.

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Although the same phenomenon is observed in this study, the difference in the percentage of correct responses between L1 gloss group and L2 context group (63.3% and 60%) is not as significant as in Prince’s (1996) findings (66.69% and 49.38%). There are several reasons to account for the difference, first, participants from the L2 context group might have different and extreme English proficiency levels as the standard deviation is quite large in the immediate recall test (2.

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23). Second, some advanced learners might have already known and have prior knowledge of the words used in this study. A similar pattern is also observed in the delayed post-test, and this can be explained by the “depth of processing” model. As Craik & Lockhart (1972) have suggested, things that are processed deeply in one’s brain makes a deeper impression on memory than something processed without a great mental effort.

Learning from L1 glosses can learn new vocabulary quickly as the form-meaning link is established faster, yet words learnt this way are also quickly forgotten. On the other hand, learners from the L2 context group would have deeper processing of the words as more time and cognitive efforts are needed to digest the information presented in L2, and hence word meanings are better retained in the brain with richer decoding input. Despite the fact that students learning from L2 context might retrieve word meanings better, the results showed that the L2 context learning condition was the least effective method among the three approaches. There are many possible explanations, for example, students might make incorrect guesses as not all the words presented are fully understood by them, as noted by one of the participants.

The possibility of making wrong guesses is also acknowledged by different research, as Folse (2004) argued, even for competent native speakers, might sometimes find it challenging to infer word meanings correctly, as contexts in the real word setting “is often not very clear in terms of revealing meaning of the word if the reader really does not know the word”. Another reason to account for the results is that even participants guess the meaning correctly, more time and cognitive efforts were required to process the contextual information and therefore less time would be spent on committing the word in their memory, leading to the unsatisfactory test results for the L2 context group.

Based on the test performance, although the present study does not fully support the findings of Prince (1996)’s study, it does not suggest that either L1 gloss or L2 context alone should be used in vocabulary teaching. Instead, the combined approach should be adopted. The provision of L1 glosses not only facilitates the formation of form-meaning link in the initial stage of learning a word, it also will have more connotations and associations of the word, but at the long run an over reliance on L1 glosses also poses harm to further L2 vocabulary learning. Therefore, the role of L2 contextual information should not be underestimated. Encountering target words in meaningful contexts expose learners to the total linguistic environment and therefore facilitates full understanding of a word (Nation, 2001). Providing L2 example sentences also allows learners to know how these words are used in real-life situations and help them to build up semantic links between the L2 vocabulary.

However, for lower proficiency learners, they might make wrong guesses from contexts. With the presentation of L1 glosses, such effect could be minimized, and learners could map the new L2 words’ form with the corresponding L1 words which already exist in the memory (Barcroft, 2002). The results obtained from this study supported the combined approach and this is also reflected in other literatures (Nation and Newton, 1997), advocating that L2 vocabulary learning can be first taught out of context, for example by providing L1 equivalents at the early stage of learning, followed by giving comprehensible and meaningful context-embedded learning at the later stage of vocabulary acquisition.

The second research question investigates learners’ attitudes and perceived usefulness towards the three approaches. From the questionnaire results, it is evident that a majority of learners (15 out of 18 participants) favored the combined approach the most. This finding also echoes with the performance in the immediate recall and retention test, where the combined approach group outperformed students from the two other groups. The questionnaire results were also in alignment with results obtained from Fan’s (2007) study, which investigates Hong Kong tertiary students’ perceived usefulness and frequency of use of different vocabulary learning strategies. Her findings revealed that the most frequently used strategy might not be considered as very useful by them. For instance, advanced learners used significantly more often the guessing strategy than dictionary strategies, however they perceived the latter one as more useful.

This finding is also reflected in the present questionnaire, that most school teachers and students used the guessing strategy the most, while at the same time students still have a strong preference for the availability of L1 glosses apart from reading the word in L2 contexts. As Laufer and Kimmel (1997) suggested, learners might feel insecure if they could not relate the meaning of a given foreign word to a meaning in their L1. In contrast, when students they look up monolingual dictionaries where only L2 contexts are offered, these dictionaries are usually perceived as “difficult” and making learners feel uncertain about the exact meaning of the unknown word. It was also pointed out by Krashen (1989) that as most young L2 learners are not dedicated linguists, they generally prefer the lower effort short cut such as translation learning than higher effort strategy such as inferencing, when both L1 glosses and L2 context were simultaneously provided, since most learners prefer the immediate understanding of word meanings rather than making guesses through contextual cues.

Apart from pedagogical benefits and students’ preference for the use of L1, the inclusion of L1 can also provide “psychological reassurance” and affective factors for being able to relate learning to their familiar mother tongue (Meiring & Norman, 2002). If the language environment was completely deprived of L1, where they feel disoriented and powerless, has been identified as one possible source of demotivation and decreasing confidence, especially for students with more limited proficiency (Littlewood & Yu, 2009). In fact, even students express their hope of L1 use, there was a huge mismatch between students’ need and expectation, and actual teaching practice in Hong Kong.

Littlewood and Yu (2009) interviewed a group of junior secondary school students and more than 60% of them reported that L1 was used less than 10% of English lesson time. Until today, whether or not to incorporate L1 has been a taboo in Hong Kong education and many English teachers refrain themselves from using L1 to explain word meanings as they are required to use as much English as possible and there are guidelines that L2 should be the only language which appears in English lessons (Li, 2017). Certainly, different approaches have its benefits and drawbacks and therefore vocabulary learning should not just lie with one single approach, teachers and learners should have more flexibility in strategy choices and teachers should be encouraged to use the combination approach of both L1 glosses and L2 contexts in teaching vocabulary, balancing between the realm of education policies and students’ actual preference and proficiency levels.

The results of the present study reveal that among the three learning conditions, the combined approach of L1 gloss and L2 context was the most effective in the immediate recall and retention of word meanings, and at the same time the most preferred method for Hong Kong primary school students. The use of L1 gloss has its role in the acquisition of vocabulary as it is very helpful for students to learn the vocabulary instantly, but over reliance on L1 counterparts poses harm as learners will tend to map every word with its L1 consequently. Fortunately, the participants understand the importance of having L2 sentences and contexts that lead to deeper mental processing as word meanings are context sensitive (Nation, 2001). Taking account into the results and the implications discussed above, several suggestions are made to enhance L2 vocabulary learning for Hong Kong students. First, teachers should not single out and deny the potential benefits of L1 in vocabulary teaching and a flexible amount of use should be allowed to explain word meanings; Second, teachers should teach words in meaningful contexts with comprehensible inputs and teachers should provide training to students on how to look for contextual cues in the pure L2 context.

Third, a combined use of L1 gloss and L2 context should be adopted, for example vocabulary could be first explicitly taught in an isolated way, followed by providing meaningful and rich contexts on the function of the word; or otherwise, teachers could first teach the word with contexts, and afterwards provide L1 glosses for explanation to students to confirm their guesses and build up their conceptual knowledge of the unknown word. However, students should be reminded that L1 glosses should only be used as a complement to aid understanding, multiple exposure of the word in meaning contexts is of the most utmost importance. In actual lessons, what kind of instruction works best greatly depends on the need and ability of learners, teachers’ belief and the nature of vocabulary itself. Therefore, teachers should be allowed to have more flexibility in strategy choices to assist and enhance students’ vocabulary learning.

The present study hopefully has shed some light on the effectiveness of different learning conditions towards teaching English vocabulary in Hong Kong, but it is by no means without limitations. The study itself might not be representative enough due to the small sample size. Moreover, individual differences might have caused the variation of results as the participants came from different schools although efforts have been made to ensure they have similar proficiency levels. Also due to time constraint, a preliminary vocabulary test was not conducted to ensure they have no prior knowledge of the words used in the experiment. Another limitation concerns with the procedures of the experiment. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, face to face teaching was avoided and the words are taught through online videos instead. The validity of the research results would be enhanced if the words are taught in person to better resemble the real teaching practice at schools. Building upon the foundation laid by this study, future studies could be conducted to investigate the difference in the preference of high and low proficiency level learners. It would also be beneficial to explore how the three learning conditions interact with the productive aspect of vocabulary being taught.

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Investigating the Different Learning Conditions Towards Teaching English Vocabulary in Hong Kong. (2022, Mar 26). Retrieved from

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