The role of context and dictionary definition on varying levels of word knowledge for ESL adults

Orsini Gonzalez, Fordham University


For English-speaking college students, the huge obstacle of vocabulary building, especially from words in print, perhaps is partially overcome by selective use of learning strategies, specifically, the dictionary and guessing meaning from context. However, investigations in the use of definitional and contextual approaches for second-language learners are scarce, particularly for English as a second language (ESL) adults in higher learning. In the present experimental study, ESL students were placed in one of four conditions to learn new words using context and dictionary definition passages. The four groups consisted of all combinations of weak and strong context and adequate and inadequate dictionary definitions. The effects of definitions and context on vocabulary learning for each condition were tested. One hundred four ethnically diverse students were randomly assigned to one of four conditions consisting of 15 words presented in written context and definition forms. Each word was presented, first, in either a strong or weak context, immediately followed by an adequate or inadequate definition form. All subjects studied the target words in their respective conditions for a period of time and their word learning immediately was assessed by a series of four tests: (a) multiple-choice format of synonyms, (b) multiple-choice example, (c) self-generated definition sentences, and (d) sentence completion. A series of analyses of variance was applied to examine the between-group main effects on each major variable. In addition, analyses of variance were applied to examine the interactive effects of the two variables. A significant difference was found at the.05 level between groups in adequacy of dictionary definitions on vocabulary learning while no significant difference was found between groups in relative strength of context. Furthermore, no significant interactive effects were found between context and dictionary definition on the learning of new words. Although previous research suggests the overall importance of context on the learning of new words for native speakers of English, this study suggests the supportive role that adequate dictionary definitions have on word knowledge acquisition for ESL adult learners. Furthermore, it was found that the strategic use of strength of context and adequacy of definitions supported the new word learning efforts of second-language learners.

Subject Area

Higher education|Curricula|Teaching|Literacy|Reading instruction|Adult education|Continuing education

Recommended Citation

Gonzalez, Orsini, "The role of context and dictionary definition on varying levels of word knowledge for ESL adults" (1998). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9839506.