Interviews with James Stubbs on “Future Multilingual”

James Stubbs over at Future Multilingual (YouTube channel) interviewed me recently about second language acquisition and vocabulary instruction. It was a lot of fun – thanks to James for inviting me! The interviews were short and to the point. You can find them here:    

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Does Teaching Morphology Improve Vocabulary?

Does teaching morphology improve students’ vocabulary? Short answer: No. Long answer: See my recently published article here. Medium-length answer: The theory behind morphological instruction is that if you teach students Greek and Latin roots and/or common prefixes and suffixes, students will be able to apply that knowledge to figure out the meanings of new words. […]

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How We Improve Our Vocabulary (Video)

I gave a talk to a group of students and scholars at the IZ Education Center (Iran) via Skype on May 15, 2020. I’ve edited the video to include only my presentation, since I don’t have permission to include video/audio feeds during the Q&A session. The video quality of the recording via Skype isn’t brilliant, […]

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I’m Not a Real Doctor, But I Acquire Like One from TV

We’ve previously reviewed evidence that you can pickup scientific vocabulary from reading science fiction. Now a new study shows that you can pickup medical vocabulary from watching TV dramas about doctors and hospitals. Yen Dang at Bristol University (Dang, in press; paywall) created a list of 895 medical words types* that occurred frequently in medical […]

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Can Language Minority Students Acquire Academic Vocabulary from Reading?

Gallagher, Taboada Barker, Beck, and Buehl (2019) evaluated yet another academic vocabulary intervention for middle school students. They concluded that language minority (LM) students (called “English Bilinguals” in the study) “need explicit instruction to improve vocabulary knowledge” (p. 15). They claimed to show that LM students were unable to acquire any new academic words incidentally from the texts […]

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Vocabulary, Grammar, Sex, and Aging

The title Vocabulary, Grammar, Sex, and Aging is from a paper published a few years ago in the journal Cognitive Science, not what’s been on my mind lately. The study, by Fernando Moscoso del Prado Martín at UC-Santa Barbara,analyzed a large corpus (a million words) of telephone conversations from men and women of different ages in terms […]

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Why Reading Fiction is Good for Academic Achievement

The education writer at Forbes, Natalie Wexler, argued last week that reading fiction isn’t the “only” thing needed to boost academic achievement. It’s a curious position to take, not because it is wrong – I agree with her completely – but because no one in the reading field I’m aware of has ever said that […]

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Another Massive Vocabulary Study Finds No Gains, Massive or Otherwise

To make them easier to find, several items originally included in the now-defunct ‘This Week in Language Education’ series are being reposted over the next few weeks. Jayanthi and colleagues  (2017 online; paywall) conducted a study – in what seems like an endless series of massive, federally-funded studies of this sort – to determine the efficacy […]

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The Myth of Teaching Morphology

Several researchers have claimed that “morphological instruction” is an effective way to improve students’ vocabulary and reading proficiency (Carlisle, 2010; Nagy, Berninger, & Abbott, 2006). The theory is that once you know the parts of words (prefixes, roots, suffixes), you will be able to “transfer” your knowledge of morphology to learn new words. A bigger […]

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Should Intermediate English Acquirers Read Children’s Literature?

Reading in a Foreign Language just published my critique of an article from the previous issue (Macalister and Webb, 2019a) on the topic of children’s literature and adult ESL readers. There are also two rebuttals to my piece (Webb & Macalister, 2019b; Macalister, 2019)). First, a TL;DR summary on the exchange. Macalister and Webb (2019a) […]

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What Counts as Success in Vocabulary Instruction?

I’ve discussed in previous posts (here and here) the inefficiency of academic vocabulary teaching programs such as Word Generation. In one evaluation of the program, Snow, Lawrence, and White (2009) found that after 30 hours of instruction, Word Generation students learned fewer than three extra words compared to a control group. That’s a whopping one new […]

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We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Exercises*: Listening to Stories is More Efficient Than Direct Instruction for Vocabulary Acquisition

Study reviewed: Loftus-Rattan, S. M., Mitchell, A. M., & Coyne, M. D. (2016). Direct vocabulary instruction in preschool: A comparison of extended instruction, embedded instruction, and incidental exposure. The Elementary School Journal, 116(3), 391-410. (pay wall) Everyone agrees that reading storybooks to young children helps them build vocabulary. But lots of researchers think they can […]

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How Reading ‘The Martian Chronicles’ Can Improve Your Scientific Vocabulary: Rolls & Rodgers (2017)

Rolls, H., & Rodgers, M. P. (2017). Science-specific technical vocabulary in science fiction-fantasy texts: A case for ‘language through literature’. English for Specific Purposes, 48, 44-56. In my last post, I presented evidence that when high school students read books for pleasure related to their school subjects, their test scores in those subjects go up. Rolls and Rodgers […]

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Academic Vocabulary Instruction II: Learning 1 Word in 5 Hours Shouldn’t Count as a Success

Study reviewed: Townsend, D., & Collins, P. (2009). Academic vocabulary and middle school English learners: An intervention study. Reading and Writing, 22(9), 993-1019. In a previous post, I noted that one of the studies often cited for the success of academic vocabulary instruction, Snow, Lawrence, and White (2009), is in fact an example of its questionable effectiveness. […]

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Academic Vocabulary Instruction: Does Word Generation Really Teach You Two Years’ Worth of Words in 22 Weeks?

Study reviewed: Snow, C., Lawrence, J., & White, C. (2009). Generating knowledge of academic language among urban middle school students. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(4), 325-344. One of the hot topics of the past decade or so in language education research has been the teaching of “academic language” and “academic vocabulary.” I have […]

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Carpe Vinum: Does Drinking Help Vocabulary Retention?

Carlyle, M., Dumay, N., Roberts, K., McAndrew, A., Lawn, W., & Morgan, C. (2017). Improved memory for information learnt before alcohol use in social drinkers tested in a naturalistic setting. Nature. (Open Access) If you thought my previous discussion on the benefits of sleeping on vocabulary acquisition was a bit “out there,” consider the latest […]

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Carpe Noctem: Is it Time for Chronolinguistics?

Williams, S. E., & Horst, J. S. (2014). Goodnight book: Sleep consolidation improves word learning via storybooks. Frontiers in psychology, 5. (open access) A few months ago, I read a wonderfully-written and informative book called Rest by Alex Pang. Pang reviews recent research on the benefits of taking breaks, napping, and sleeping on learning, creativity, and productivity. So […]

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The Goldilocks Corollary to the Input Hypothesis

Zoe M. Flack, Jessica S. Horst. Two sides to every story: Children learn words better from one storybook page at a time. Infant and Child Development, 2017; e2047 DOI: 10.1002/icd.2047 (paywall) The Input Hypothesis (more generally referred to now as the Comprehension Hypothesis) states that we acquire language by understanding messages (Krashen, 1981, 1982). How exactly do we […]

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College ESL Students “Don’t Have Time” to Read in English, Researchers Claim

From a recent issue of Language Teaching Research (open access) dedicated to vocabulary teaching: For the past decade, we have been witnessing a heated debate between the advocates of ‘vocabulary-through-input’ position and the proponents of word-focused instruction. The most recent example is the discussion between Cobb, Nation, and McQuillan in the October 2016 issue of Reading in […]

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Converging Evidence on Vocabulary Acquisition: Another Look at Reynolds (2016)

In a previous post, I reviewed a recent study by Reynolds (2016) on the impact of frequency and “congnativeness” in vocabulary acquisition. It is worth discussing his data a bit further in order to compare his findings with Paul Nation’s (2014) estimates on the time efficiency of vocabulary acquisition through reading. Nation analyzed a series […]

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Frequency and Cognate Effects in Vocabulary Acquisition

Reynolds, B. (2016). The effects of target word properties on the incidental acquisition of vocabulary through reading. TESL-EJ, 20(3), 1-31. Reading is the most powerful tool available to language acquirers for expanding and broadening vocabulary knowledge. Studies have found that while you have a low probability (around 5-15%) of picking up the meaning of an unknown […]

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Does Vocabulary Instruction Improve Reading Comprehension?

Elleman, A. M., Lindo, E. J., Morphy, P., & Compton, D. L. (2009). The impact of vocabulary instruction on passage-level comprehension of school-age children: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(1), 1-44. One of the most widely-cited articles in the past 40 years on the impact of first-language vocabulary instruction on English reading […]

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The IBM Computer Cloud of Unknowing

This press release is making the rounds this week, announcing a collaboration between Sesame Street and the letters I, B, and M. Big Bird and Big Blue are teaming up to do “learning in the cloud” with Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings Watson the Super-Computer. Their first project together is called a “cognitive vocabulary learning app”: Watson’s augmented […]

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Rakuten, Japan’s 21st Century Online Powerhouse, to Launch 19th Century Language School

One of the leading online retailers in Japan, Rakuten, is getting into the English-teaching business. According to their press release, their “Super English” lessons will use software developed by a new startup in the language teaching “space,” Lingvist.io. Here’s how Lingvist summarizes its system: Lingvist applies mathematical optimization and statistics to make the language-learning process as fast as it can theoretically […]

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How Many Words Can You Acquire in a Year?

There is an exchange in the current issue of Reading in a Foreign Language regarding papers that Paul Nation and I published on the number of words one can acquire through free reading. The original papers are here: Nation (2014) McQuillan (2016) The exchange is here: Tom Cobb’s critique Paul Nation’s response My response I will add […]

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In Case You Missed It: What Can Readers Read After Graded Readers?

Earlier this year I published an article in Reading in a Foreign Language about reading your way to fluency in English. Check it out here (free!).

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