The process of vocabulary learning : vocabulary learning strategies and beliefs about language and language learning

  • Robert Michael Easterbrook

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The process of learning a foreign language is an important and challenging component in foreign language students’ lives due to the students’ limited language exposure and opportunities to practice the language. While research in China has focused on vocabulary learning strategies and the Chinese culture of learning beliefs about language and language learning, these have been explored as individual factors. Research has not explored these factors as part of a process of learning that is driven by both strategies and beliefs in the one research project. In attempting to fill this gap, the present research thus explored the possible influence of vocabulary learning strategy use and beliefs about language and language learning on the process of vocabulary learning in the Chinese university context. The research was novel in that it compared vocabulary strategy use, students’ language learning beliefs and examined potential impact on vocabulary development across 4 grades at a university level. Using mixed methods, quantitative and qualitative, the research explored vocabulary learning strategy use (VLS),beliefs about language and language learning (BALLL),general and specific, and English vocabulary size, in this order, to gain insights into the process of English vocabulary learning. Data was collected using three questionnaires (one vocabulary learning strategies questionnaire, and two beliefs questionnaires),a range of vocabulary size tests (e.g. vocabulary size tests 1000,2000,3000 and Academic) and interviews with Chinese English Majors in a university context. Non-parametric Kruskal-Wallis and Spearman’s rho correlation tests were run, the first to observe statistically significant differences in mean-scores, at the individual level within a grade, and then between grades, and second, to observe the relationship among strategies, beliefs and vocabulary size test scores. The Kruskal-Wallis test was used to observe relationships among the main factors (e.g. strategies, beliefs and vocabulary size test scores),as well as between the main factors and age and years of English education. The interviews underwent thematic analysis to highlight common themes which allowed students to elaborate on some questionnaire responses. The results show that there is consistency in strategy use and beliefs about language and language learning in Chinese English Majors process of vocabulary learning. The process: students often discover new vocabulary in written materials, sometimes TV/movies and songs, and then use a small range of strategies to learn it using other strategies to complement the small range of strategies. The most frequently used strategies included guessing meaning, looking up dictionary, learning its spelling, writing it down, learning its pronunciation, saying it aloud, and connecting it with the Chinese meaning. This process was observed in and/or interpreted from their VLS use and their BALLL, general and specific. The results of exploring these factors highlighted 1) particular VLSs repeatedly used across four grades which included discovering new vocabulary in textbooks, when reading English materials; memorizing the new word’s pronunciation and spelling; connecting new words to the Chinese meaning; looking at the new word several times; remember the new word by its meaning (when read again)),and 2) general and specific beliefs about language and language learning, for example, it’s important to repeat English words and practice often and I learn English to find a good job in the future. Other strategies were used on occasion to complement the fixed set of strategies, depending on the learning task such as remembering a new word by its meaning (when heard again); the way the new word is used; trying to guess the word’s meaning from context (e.g. the sentence the word is used in). There were strong correlations found among vocabulary learning strategies and beliefs, both general and specific. There was no significant correlation found between strategy use/ beliefs and vocabulary size tests. Vocabulary size grew incrementally but not dramatically throughout the four-year degree. There was little difference in scores for all students in the 4 grades on the vocabulary size tests 1000 to 3000 and Academic, with scores decreasing from vocabulary size tests 1000 to 3000. However, scores increased in each grade on the Academic size test e.g. English vocabulary size ranged from 2400 to 5200 for grade 1; from 3900 to 6300 for grade 2; from 1900 to 5900 for grade 3; from 3500 to 6100 for grade 4. The result can be attributed to students following a fairly fixed regime of vocabulary learning strategy use, driven by a range of beliefs that reflect how students conceptualise language and how to learn it, as well as a lack of opportunity to use it and limited exposure. The fixed regime of vocabulary learning strategy use might also be explained by classroom pedagogy which tends not to focus on oral communication therefore limiting or constraining English vocabulary size and language development. The discussion provides recommendations for teaching vocabulary and strategy training in the Chinese university context.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorEleni Petraki (Supervisor)

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