The Construct of Task-Induced Involvement.

Applied Linguistics 22/1: 1±26
# Oxford University Press 2001
Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in a
Second Language: The Construct of
Task-Induced Involvement
University of Haifa, Israel and 2University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The paper makes an attempt to stimulate theoretical thinking and empirical
research in the domain of L2 vocabulary learning by introducing a construct of
involvement with motivational and cognitive dimensions: Need, Search, and
Evaluation. Retention of hitherto unfamiliar words is claimed to be conditional
upon the amount of involvement while processing these words. Involvement is
operationalised by tasks designed to vary in the degree of need, search, and
evaluation. The paper reviews a number of constructs that are currently
debated and investigated in the literature on cognitive and motivational aspects
of L2 learning. It also re-examines the existing empirical literature on task e€ect
in the light of the proposed construct of task-induced involvement, stresses the
need for deepening and broadening the construct, and discusses possibilities it
o€ers for research on vocabulary learning.
Virtually all second language learners and their teachers are well aware of the
fact that learning a second language (L2) involves the learning of large
numbers of words. Not surprisingly, many learners are somewhat apprehensive when faced with such an enormous task and teachers as well as learners
have always shown a keen interest in ®nding out how words can best be
learned. For many years, instructional practice has been based on the view,
unanimously supported by psychologists, that elaboration on features of new
words promotes their retention (Anderson 1995: ch. 6; Baddeley 1997: ch. 7).
This proposition is based on what learning psychologists have been repeating
for many decades after William James (1890: 662), namely that `all
improvement of the memory lies in the line of elaborating the associates'.
This means that the more attention that is paid to the formal and semantic
aspects of words and the richer the associations that are made with existing
knowledge (e.g. in the form of establishing similarities and contrasts between
old and new information), the higher are the chances that the new
information will be retained.
Likewise, all learners and teachers know that motivation promotes success
and achievement in L2 learning and that students who experience high
amounts of an external or intrinsic drive or need to learn, will achieve higher
levels of pro®ciency than students with low levels of drive. In practice, this
means that educationalists may attempt to increase students' motivation by
providing tasks and materials which students may experience as interesting
and appealing.
We entirely agree with the views that elaboration and motivation are key
factors in promoting vocabulary learning. However, we note with some
concern that the theoretical and the empirical literature on concepts of
cognition in the narrow, information-processing sense (such as elaboration
and attention), as well as the literature on a€ective components of cognition
(such as motivation and need), have not produced substantial progress in the
domain of L2 vocabulary learning. In this respect, theory and research on L2
vocabulary learning is lagging behind developments in the domain of L2
grammar learning, where recent years have spurred new theoretical and
empirical work on constructs such as `focus on form' (e.g. Long and Robinson
1998), `input processing' (VanPatten 1996), and task-based language teaching
(Skehan 1998; Robinson 2000). In this paper, we make an attempt to
stimulate both theoretical thinking and empirical research in the domain of L2
vocabulary learning by proposing a construct of task-induced involvement, with
three motivational and cognitive dimensions: need, search, and evaluation.
We begin with a review of the literature on a number of cognitive
constructs (such as attention, implicit and explicit learning, and elaboration)
and we brie¯y review the literature on motivation. This is followed by a
consideration of the notion of incidental learning, which is crucial for a proper
understanding of the literature of incidental L2 vocabulary learning. These
three ground-clearing review sections are rounded o€ with a brief summary.
Next, we examine the empirical literature on factors promoting incidental L2
vocabulary learning. Subsequently, we present our construct of task-induced
involvement load, re-examine the empirical literature in the light of this
construct and end our paper with a discussion of the needs to deepen and
broaden the construct both theoretically and empirically.
In this section, we will ®rst look at the literature on L2 grammar acquisition
(mostly referred to by `SLA', excluding vocabulary) and then review the
literature on L2 vocabulary learning, examining which cognitive constructs
have been invoked in these two domains. In trying to understand the SLA
literature, it is helpful to distinguish between views on how grammatical
knowledge is represented in the mind and views on how grammatical
knowledge is acquired.
With respect to the mental representation of grammatical knowledge, most
researchers in the generative school conceptualise L2 grammatical knowledge
as consisting of (1) a system of highly abstract principles and parameters
dealing with mostly abstract grammatical phenomena such as word order,
government, constraints on movement, agreement, tense, and co-reference,
which are commonly referred to as Universal Grammar (UG) or as the `core',
and (2) the remainder, or the `periphery' of grammatical knowledge,
pertaining to phenomena such as regular and irregular forms of noun
declension, verb conjugation, grammatical gender, etc. With regard to the
core, the discussion centres around the question of the initial state, in
particular the issue of how L2 learners, given the fact that they have already
set the parameters of UG for their L1, will set, or reset, or not set at all, the
parameters of L2.
In contrast to the symbolic view, the connectionist view represents language
knowledge as a neural network, consisting of a collection of units connected
to each other by a set of pathways (Broeder and Plunkett 1994). The network
is the product of a bottom-up process in which lower-level units have been
grouped with each other to form higher-level units. In this view, it is not
necessarily the case that the network (or parts of it) embodies grammatical
notions such as CP, NP, AGR, etc. Nor does the network, in comprehending or
producing language, apply rules. The fact that the outcome of comprehension
or production processes appears to be regular does not imply that rules have
been applied. Regular behaviour can also be generated by associative
processes based on the relative strength of certain connections standing in
competition with the strength of other connections.
It should be noted that a generative theory of grammar is only concerned
with the representation of knowledge and not with its acquisition or its
transition from one stage to another (Gregg 1996, 2000). Connectionists,
however, deal with representation and acquisition in a single theory. This will
become apparent in a later section, concerned with implicit and explicit
Noticing and attention
With regard to the question of how grammatical knowledge is acquired, three
positions are commonly distinguished (N. Ellis 1994a; R. Ellis 1993; Hulstijn
and De Graa€ 1994), which are referred to as the No Interface, Strong
Interface, and Weak Interface positions. According to these positions, explicit,
metalinguistic knowledge, e.g. knowledge of the rules to be found in
pedagogic grammars, does not a€ect the acquisition of implicit knowledge
(No Interface), transfers into implicit knowledge (Strong Interface), or may
indirectly a€ect the acquisition of implicit knowledge by focusing learners'
attention on features in the input which are critical for the grammatical
phenomenon to be acquired (Weak Interface). Schmidt (1994a, 1994b, 2000)
further developed the Weak Interface position into his Noticing Hypothesis. The
Noticing Hypothesis holds that, for L2 grammar acquisition to take place, it is
not necessary to learn metalinguistic principles or rules, but that learners must
`notice' critical features in utterances. In the case of subject±verb agreement,
for instance, learners must notice the co-occurrence of certain subject and
verb forms.
Schmidt (2000) de®nes `noticing' as the subjective correlate of what
psychologists call attention, roughly equivalent to `clear perception' and
`detection within selective attention' (Tomlin and Villa 1994; see also Carr
and Curran 1994). Reviewing the psychological literature on attention,
Schmidt (2000) concludes that although there may be some forms of learning
without attention (the evidence on unattended learning is highly contested in
the psychological literature), it is known that preparatory attention and
voluntary orienting vastly improve encoding:
Since many features of L2 input are likely to be infrequent, non-salient,
and communicatively redundant, intentionally focused attention may
be a practical (though not theoretical) necessity for successful language
learning. Language learners who take a totally passive approach to
learning, waiting patiently and depending on involuntary attentional
processes to trigger automatic noticing, are likely to be slow and
unsuccessful learners (Schmidt 2000).
Schmidt argues that there is sucient ground to motivate an attentionally
determined encoding-speci®city hypothesis for SLA, acknowledging that this
is insucient to settle the issue of explaining the acquisition of many of the
abstract features of UG. The growing interest in attention, `focus on form'
(Long and Robinson 1998), `input processing' (VanPatten 1996) and `input
enhancement' (Sharwood Smith 1993) has produced a still growing number
of empirical studies designed to investigate which attention directing tasks
may promote L2 grammar learning (e.g. Doughty 1991; Harley 1998; Hulstijn
1989; Lee 1998; Leow 1998; VanPatten and Oikkenon 1996; Williams 1999).
Implicit and explicit learning
The discussion in the SLA literature on the question of how L2 grammatical
knowledge is acquired has not only been in¯uenced by the issue of attention
and noticing but also by the related distinction between implicit and explicit
Implicit learning is acquisition of knowledge about the underlying
structure of a complex stimulus environment by a process which takes
place naturally, simply and without conscious operations. Explicit
learning is a more conscious operation where the individual makes and
tests hypotheses in a search for structure. Knowledge attainment can
thus take place implicitly (a nonconscious and automatic abstraction of
the structural nature of the material arrived at from experience of
instances), explicitly through selective learning (the learner searching
for information and building then testing hypotheses), or, because we
can communicate using language, explicitly via given rules (assimilation of a rule following explicit instruction) (N. Ellis 1994a: 1±2).
Schmidt (1994b) argues that attention to input is necessary for explicit
learning and may be both necessary and sucient for implicit learning.
According to N. Ellis (1994a: 3±4), many issues concerning implicit and
explicit learning are as yet unresolved. What aspects of grammar and
vocabulary can be learned implicitly? How modular and inaccessible is
implicit learning? What are the various mechanisms of explicit learning? Are
there sensitive periods for implicit language learning? What are the neural
substrates of these processes?
With regard to vocabulary learning, N. Ellis (1994b, 1994c) claims that the
perceptual aspects of new words, i.e. acquiring their phonetic and
phonological features, are learned implicitly as a result of frequent exposure.
Similarly, the motor aspects of the articulation of word forms develop
implicitly as a result of practice. However, the meaning of words is learned
explicitly, requiring the conscious processing at the semantic and conceptual
levels and paying attention to the form±meaning connections. Successful
learners use sophisticated metacognitive learning strategies, such as inferring
word meanings from context and semantic or imagery mediation, in this
Depth of processing
The notion of implicit learning, as de®ned by Ellis, and the distinction
between implicit and explicit learning, have their origins in connectionism,
which emerged as a new perspective in cognitive psychology in the 1980s (see
Broeder and Plunkett 1994, for an introduction). In the early 1970s, however,
an important breakthrough occurred in the study of learning and memory,
with the seminal work of Craik and Lockhart (1972), to which we will now
turn. Their depth of processing hypothesis, and the notions and hypotheses of
other scholars that grew out of it in subsequent years, can, from the current
viewpoint of connectionism, be categorised as dealing with explicit learning.
Craik and Lockhart argued that the chance that some piece of new
information will be stored in long-term memory is not determined by the
length of time that it is held in short-term memory but rather by the
shallowness or depth with which it is initially processed. They further
postulated several levels of processing depth. For instance, processing the
meaning of a new lexical item takes place at a rather deep level whereas
processing the phonological form takes place at a rather shallow level. Craik
and Lockhart were initially successful in providing evidence that semantic
processing of lexical items resulted in higher retention than phonological or
orthographical processing. The levels of processing theory, however, was
challenged, re®ned and modi®ed, and eventually even abolished, in the
following years. Two of the problems were: (1) What exactly constitutes a
`level' of processing, and (2) How do we know that one level is `deeper' than
another? For instance, can non-semantic processing tasks still be meaningful
activities? In other words, to be meaningful, an orienting task need not
involve thinking about the meaning of a word; it could just as well involve
thinking about its pronunciation or spelling.
Craik and Tulving (1975) suggested that what is critical to retention is not
simply the presence or absence of semantic encoding, but the richness with
which the material is encoded. A major obstacle facing all proposals resides in
the diculty of providing an unambiguous, operationalisable de®nition of
any notion proposed as a replacement for depth of processing, be it `encoding
speci®city', `distinctiveness of encoding', `degree of elaboration', `cognitive
e€ort', `degree of richness', etc. (Zechmeister and Nyberg 1982, ch. 12;
Baddeley 1997). Yet, cognitive psychologists remained uni®ed in their view
that `memory performance is determined far more by the nature of the
processing activities engaged in by the learner than it is by the intention to
learn per se' (Eysenck 1982: 203). Thus, researchers of knowledge representation, information encoding and retrieval, attention, and memory have not yet
succeeded in providing adequate theoretical explanations of phenomena of
human learning and memory in terms of quality (type) and quantity
(duration and frequency) of information processing (Anderson 1995, ch. 6;
Baddeley 1997, ch. 7). Yet they agree that processing new lexical information
more elaborately (e.g. by paying careful attention to the word's pronunciation, orthography, grammatical category, meaning, and semantic relations to
other words) will lead to higher retention than by processing new lexical
information less elaborately (e.g. by paying attention to only one or two of
these dimensions).
Our discussion of learning and cognition in the previous section was restricted
to the literature of cognition exclusively conceived of as information
processing. Human beings, however, are, as Gray (1999) observes, not just
information-processing devices but they also possess motives and emotions,
and they are integrated in a socio-cultural environment. Motivation, emotion,
and socio-cultural factors may a€ect the way in which humans process
information. Thus, cognition, as the `ability to acquire, organise, remember,
and use knowledge to guide behavior' (Gray 1999: 22), can be studied not
only in a narrow sense, as in most of the literature on implicit and explicit
memory and learning, but also in a broader sense, as in¯uenced by
motivations, attitudes, and social and cultural environments. (For an attempt
to develop an integrated view of a€ect and information processing in the
domain of SLA, see Schumann 1994, and Young and Perkins 1995.) The
acquisition of a second language normally requires the learning of many
thousands of words, and most L2 learners, being just `human', may approach
this heavy learning load with a great deal of apprehension. Therefore, we
decided to include at least one aspect of motivation, namely `need' in our
construct of task-induced involvement load. In this section, we brie¯y review
the relevant SLA literature.
Since the ground breaking work of Gardner and Lambert (1972), the
literature on L2 learning motivation distinguishes two types of motivation,
in¯uenced by integrative and instrumental orientations (reviews are given by
Crookes and Schmidt 1991; R. Ellis 1994: 508±517; Skehan 1989, ch. 4).
Integrative orientation involves an interest in L2 learning because of an
interest in the people that speak the L2 and their culture, while an
instrumental orientation concerns the practical value and advantage of L2
learning. Whereas orientation refers to the underlying reasons of L2 learning,
motivation refers to the directed e€ort L2 learners make. Both integrative and
instrumental motivation have been shown to be strongly related to L2
The socio-educational model of Gardner (1985) explains, at a general level,
how motivations (as well as self-con®dence and attitudes) are a€ected by the
socio-educational environment. However, as Crookes and Schmidt (1991)
observe, it does not specify how various educational settings and instructional
tasks may a€ect L2 learning motivation and how motivation might in¯uence
information processing by promoting learners' attention. Crookes and
Schmidt therefore present an agenda for research on the causal relationship
between motivation and information processing in SLA. Since the appearance
of the Crookes and Schmidt paper we have found no such empirical studies, at
least no studies which investigated experimentally how motivation could be
fostered or directed to induce L2 grammar or vocabulary learning. Even
Skehan (1998) and (Robinson 2000) summing up the many factors
contributing to task e€ectiveness, do not explore the question of how tasks
might a€ect learners' motivation or need to pay attention to the L2 input.
Somewhat closer to the possible relationship between tasks and motivation
or need comes DoÈrnyei (1994). In an attempt to gear motivation research
speci®cally to L2 learning in classroom settings, DoÈrnyei proposed a threelevel conceptualisation of L2 motivation. At the language level, motivation
refers to orientations toward the language, the people that speak it, and their
culture. At the learner level, motivation is concerned with the need for
achievement (see below) and self-con®dence. At the learning situation level,
motivation is considered as a€ected by (1) the syllabus and learning materials,
(2) teachers' attitudes and behaviour, and (3) cohesion and goal-orientedness
of the learners group. Although DoÈrnyei explicitly acknowledges the
importance of the perceived interest, relevance, and satisfaction with the
syllabus and learning materials, he does not provide a classi®cation of learning
tasks in terms of their potential to a€ect learners' need or motivation to pay
attention to the L2 input.
Most studies of motivation (and other socio-psychological variables) adopt a
correlational approach, measuring motivation by means of self-report
questionnaires. There are almost no studies adopting a causal approach by
trying to experimentally manipulate learners' motivation. In an exceptional
study, Gardner and MacIntyre (1991) compared vocabulary recall among two
groups of psychology students who were given a list of 26 English±French
word pairs. Students were native speakers of English in the Canadian
province of Ontario; they were not students of French. One group was
rewarded with $10 if they succeeded in learning 24 of the 26 words. Students
in the other group were just told to do their best with memorising the words.
The results showed that the ®nancially rewarded group performed signi®cantly better than the control group. Thus, this study provided some evidence
that L2 vocabulary learning can be promoted by incentives. The incentive
provided in this study, however, was extrinsic since it stemmed from the
condition under which the learning task had to be performed and not from
the task itself, or from the materials which were used to perform it.
In a similar vein, Crookes and Schmidt (1991) refer to a study of cued recall
of word list items (Eysenck and Eysenck 1980) in which an interaction was
obtained between (1) absence or presence of monetary reward and (2) the
strength of connections between the words and their corresponding retrieval
cues. High incentive improved recall to weak retrieval cues but had no e€ect
in the case of strong retrieval cues. This result suggests that the learning and
retention of dicult words will bene®t more than the learning of easy words
from need and motivation, whether they are induced by externally imposed
incentives or by intrinsic drives. To our knowledge, no one has yet submitted
this suggestion to an empirical test.
In the SLA literature, we have come across the term `need', in only three
places (Crookes and Schmidt 1991; Oxford and Shearin 1994, and Skehan
1989). Crookes and Schmidt (1991) mention the construct of need as part of
Keller's (1983) education-oriented theory of motivation. Keller distinguishes
many components of motivation, one of which is called instrumental needs.
Instrumental needs are met when the content of a lesson or course matches
what students believe they need to learn. Keller observes that humans have
needs for achievement, for aliation, and for power.
In an exploration of theories of motivation, relevant to L2 learning, Oxford
and Shearin (1994) mention two need theories, basing themselves on Landy
(1985), who claims that need is primarily a creator of tension. The ®rst one is
known as Maslow's hierarchy of needs, claiming that people regress from their
lower-order needs, such as self-actualisation, when their higher-order needs,
such as the need for food and sleep, are not met. The second theory,
(proposed by McClelland et al. 1953 and mentioned by Skehan 1989 as well),
is based on the need for achievement, induced by fear of failure. However, to our
knowledge, none of the need theories mentioned give a detailed account of
how learning tasks could be classi®ed in terms of the degree of need they may
evoke in the learner.
From the literature reviewed in the preceding sections, we draw the following
1 Attention, with noticing as its subjective correlate, appears to play a crucial
role in both implicit and explicit language learning.
2 Whether grammatical knowledge can, cannot, or must be attained in an
implicit or explicit way, is still an unresolved issue, complicated by di€erent
views on how various domains of grammar (abstract principles of the
grammar's core, or less abstract regularities and irregularities of its
periphery), are represented in the mind (as mental rules, or as a collection
of items associated with each other in a neural network).
3 Input and output modules of the lexicon, responsible for perceiving and
articulating words, appear to be learned implicitly, whereas word meanings
appear to be learned explicitly. Elaborative attention to a word's formal and
semantic features is conducive to its retention, but the literature does not
specify how `elaboration' is a€ected by tasks.
4 Motivation for learning an L2 is a€ected by the sociocultural as well as by
the educational environment re¯ected in learners' perceived interest,
relevance of the syllabus and learning materials and satisfaction with
them. Although the importance of the educational setting is acknowledged,
no speci®c suggestions have been made about the e€ect the various
educational settings and instructional tasks may have on L2 learning
motivation and about the e€ect motivation might have on information
processing by promoting learners' attention.
5 Two studies appear to provide evidence that external incentives, in the
form of ®nancial reward, increase performance in learning a list of
vocabulary items. The results of one of these studies suggest that the
learning of dicult words may bene®t more from the provision of
incentives than the learning of easy words.
6 There is at least one theory which explicitly subsumes need under
motivation. Need creates tension. We understand this assertion to mean
that a mild degree of tension may positively a€ect information processing,
and therefore may indirectly a€ect learning.
7 Instrumental need is ful®lled when the content of a lesson or course
matches what students believe they need to learn. Again, as in the case of
motivation, no speci®c proposals have been made for how instructional
tasks might foster instrumental need.
8 In summary, the most important conclusion to be drawn, in the context of
our objective to stimulate theory and research on L2 vocabulary learning, is
that no attempts were found in the literature to operationalise general
constructs such as noticing, elaboration, motivation, or need, at the micro
level of learning tasks. The construct of task-induced involvement load,
which we will propose, is meant to be a step in this direction.
Almost all of the many memory studies conducted in the tradition of Craik
and Lockhart (1972) and Craik and Tulving (1975), adopted a so-called
incidental learning design. In experiments investigating incidental vocabulary
learning, learners are typically required to perform a task involving the
processing of some information without being told in advance that they will
be tested afterwards on their recall of that information. In contrast,
participants in an intentional learning situation are told in advance that
their recall will be tested afterwards. Incidental learning conditions allow
researchers to investigate the e€ect of the particular kind of information
processing they are interested in. One method is to expose subjects to the
relevant material without instruction to learn (Type I design). This generally
means that subjects must perform some sort of orienting task that leads them
to experience the material to be tested but does not lead them to expect a later
retention test. For example, subjects are given a list of words and asked to
correct any spelling errors. Afterwards they are tested on the recall of all the
words in the list. Another technique of investigating incidental learning is to
ask subjects to learn something, but not the information targeted for
subsequent testing (Type II design). For example, we give subjects a text to
read and tell them they will be asked to recall the contents of the text.
However, what the subjects are not told in advance, is that the text contains
some unfamiliar words and that they will be tested afterwards on their recall
of these words (see Hulstijn, in press, for an extensive treatment of incidental
and intentional learning). The use of the terms incidental and intentional
learning in the psychological literature goes back to the beginning of the
twentieth century and has been used in experimental psychology for a long
time. Hundreds of experiments on incidental and intentional learning have
been conducted. Classical readings are Ebbinghaus (1964), Postman (1964),
McLaughlin (1965) and Eysenck (1982). In operational terms, incidental and
intentional learning can be distinguished simply in terms of prelearning
instructions that either do, or do not, forewarn subjects about the existence of
a subsequent retention test (Eysenck 1982: 198).
Apart from the strictly methodological meaning of incidental learning as it
is used in the experimental literature, the term incidental vocabulary learning
has also been given a more general, educational meaning, referring to the
learning without an intent to learn, or as the learning of one thing, e.g.
vocabulary, when the learner's primary objective is to do something else, e.g.
to communicate (Schmidt 1994a). Thus, in this more general de®nition, no
mention is being made of the presence or absence of a forewarning of an
upcoming retention test after the information-processing task. It is in this
latter meaning, that incidental learning has become known in the ®eld of
second and foreign language pedagogy, the most frequently quoted example
being vocabulary learning as the by-product of reading (Krashen 1989).
It should perhaps be pointed out that the notions of incidental and
intentional learning should not be confused with the notions of implicit and
explicit learning or memory, as discussed in the previous section. Although
implicit learning can be incidental only (i.e. without learners' awareness of an
upcoming retention test, or without learners' deliberate decision to commit
information to memory), explicit learning can occur both intentionally and
incidentally. The relevance of the above distinctions to L2 vocabulary learning
is not dicult to see. Since linking word form to word meaning is an explicit
learning activity requiring attention on the part of the learner, vocabulary can
therefore be learnt intentionally as well as incidentally.
With regard to the empirical study of intentional vocabulary learning, it is
hard to ®nd out which factors are responsible for vocabulary retention as
researchers have no control over what people do when they decide to commit
words to memory. A researcher or a teacher may, for example, suggest the use
of the key word method, yet the learner will choose another memorisation
strategy with which s/he may feel more comfortable. Incidental learning, on
the other hand, can be manipulated and therefore empirically investigated.
Teachers and researchers have control over the tasks which they assign in the
belief that they are conducive to vocabulary learning. Controlled experiments,
aiming to contribute to pedagogy and to the understanding of how words are
acquired, will therefore usually adopt the incidental design.
According to Hulstijn (1992), when learners were asked to infer the meaning
of words from context by choosing the correct meaning from multiple choice
options, subsequent retention of these words was better than when they were
provided with a synonym of the words during a reading task. Luppescu and
Day (1993), and Knight (1994) found that students who read a text and
looked up unknown words in the dictionary remembered them better than
students who read the text without a dictionary. We do not know whether in
the latter case learners were trying to infer the meaning of unknown words,
or were simply ignoring them. Hulstijn et al. (1996) found that the relatively
few words that were looked up in the dictionary during a reading task yielded
much higher retention scores on a subsequent test than the same words in the
marginal gloss condition. In Paribakht and Wesche (1997), words that were
practised in a series of exercises were retained better than words inferred from
context. In Newton's (1995) study, items that were negotiated for meaning
(by means of requests for clari®cations, or con®rmation checks) were better
remembered than non-negotiated items, even by learners who were not using
the words but simply observing the negotiation. Similarly, in R. Ellis (1994),
interactionally modi®ed input, i.e. input that included clari®cations, resulted
in more words that were learnt than pre-modi®ed input (input prepared on
the basis of prior student interaction before the experimental task). In the
latter case, however, more words were acquired per minute. Several studies
point to the value of output in speaking tasks for retention of new vocabulary.
In Ellis and He (1999), interactionally modi®ed output fared better than
interactionally modi®ed input. In a story retelling task used by Joe (1995,
1998), items used in original contexts were remembered better than items
used in non-original contexts. The only study which examined the e€ect of
writing on the retention of new vocabulary is by Hulstijn and Trompetter
(1998). They found that looking up the words in an L1±L2 dictionary and
incorporating them in a composition was more e€ective than looking up the
words in an L2±L1 dictionary for comprehension purposes.
The study by Cho and Krashen (1994) is often cited as evidence for
vocabulary acquisition through reading. Yet it is interesting to look closely at
what the four subjects in the study were doing and how much vocabulary
each of them acquired. One of them did not use a dictionary at all and she
acquired seven words from a book. The second subject used the dictionary
initially only and abandoned it at a later stage. She acquired eight words. The
other two subjects used the dictionary consistently and even wrote the words
with example sentences in a booklet (though they were not trying to
memorise these words intentionally). These subjects acquired 17 and 34
words per book. Hence, the study shows that dictionary use, a self-imposed
task of two of the subjects, resulted in better vocabulary learning than reading
only. The Table 1 summarises the studies mentioned above.
At ®rst glance, there seems to be no connection among all the studies
surveyed above. The tasks in some studies are communicative, in others they
are not; in some studies, output is required of students, in others, the
understanding of input; some studies use spoken language, others written
language; some studies use paper and pen; others use computers. And yet, in
each study, one task is superior to the other in terms of incidental vocabulary
learning. In explaining this di€erence, most authors suggest that the superior
task required a deeper level of processing of the new words than the other
task. Additional terms that have been used in connection with good retention
induced by tasks are: greater depth of processing; better, more intense quality
of information processing; degree of elaboration; quality of attention; richness
of encoding. These explanations fall under the conclusion presented in the
earlier review section that retention of information depends on the nature of
the information processing.
It should be noted that this explanation is usually a post-hoc explanation of
the results. This is not surprising since the concepts of deep processing or
elaboration defy simple formalisation and operationalisation. It is not dicult
to decide that a totally meaning-oriented task requires deeper word processing
than a totally form-oriented task, e.g. locate all words that end in a letter `e',
or classify words by their part of speech. Yet in a normal language learning
situation, teachers do not assign vocabulary tasks which do not include word
meaning. Hence it is hard to decide in advance whether one instructional task
requires deeper processing than another. Let us take, for example, three
simple tasks learners can do with the word `skinny': (1) looking up its
Table 1: Task e€ect on incidental vocabulary learning
The more e€ective task
The less e€ective task
Meaning selected from
several options
Meaning looked up in a
Meaning explained by
Reading with/without
Hulstijn 1992
Meaning looked up in a
Reading and a series of
vocabulary exercises
Meaning negotiated
Negotiated input
Used in original sentences
(oral task)
Interactionally modi®ed
Used in a composition
(L1±L2 look-up)
Meaning provided in a
marginal gloss
Reading only (and
inferring meaning)
Meaning not negotiated
Premodi®ed input
Used in non-original
Interactionally modi®ed
Encountered in a
reading task (L2±L1
Reading only, words not
looked up
Reading, words looked up
in a dictionary (selfimposed)
Knight 1994;
Luppescu and Day
Hulstijn et al. 1996
Paribakht and
Wesche 1997
Newton 1995
R. Ellis et al. 1994
Joe 1995, 1998
R. Ellis and He
Hulstijn and
Trompetter, 1998
Cho and Krashen
meaning in a dictionary and writing a sentence with the word; (2) looking up
its meaning and explaining the di€erence between `skinny', `thin', and `slim';
and (3) receiving a sentence with the word and trying to infer its meaning
from four alternatives presented by the teacher. There are no de®nite criteria
which would help us grade the three tasks in terms of the depth of processing
they require. Hence, if our concern is e€ective learning and teaching, we do
not know which task is more e€ective than which. And yet research on task
e€ectiveness would require the identi®cation of criteria which could be
observed, manipulated, and measured.
On the basis of the analysis of tasks surveyed earlier and on the basis of our
conclusion drawn from the literature reviewed, we propose to identify the
components of incidental tasks which we believe are conducive to the kind of
elaborate processing crucial for learning. This proposal should be conceived as
a ®rst attempt to stimulate researchers as well as practitioners to
operationalise the general labels of `attention' and `elaboration' into concrete
task-speci®c constructs. For now, three such components will be proposed
which, taken together, constitute the construct of involvement.
Our ®rst assumption about determining factors in vocabulary retention is as
Assumption One: Retention of words when processed incidentally, is
conditional upon the following factors in a task: need, search, and
Taken together, these three factors combine into what will be referred to as
involvement. Involvement is perceived as a motivational-cognitive construct
which can explain and predict learners' success in the retention of hitherto
unfamiliar words. We use the label cognitive in its narrow sense, i.e. referring
to information processing only, with the exclusion of a€ective aspects of
cognition, as explained in the preceding review.
The need component is the motivational, non-cognitive dimension of
involvement. It is concerned with the need to achieve. We interpret this
notion not in its negative sense, based on fear of failure, but in its positive
sense, based on a drive to comply with the task requirements, whereby the
task requirements can be either externally imposed or self-imposed. If, for
example, the learner is reading a text and an unknown word is absolutely
necessary for comprehension, s/he will experience the need to understand it.
Or, the need will arise during a writing or speaking task when the L2 learner
wants to refer to a certain concept or object but the L2 word expressing it is
unfamiliar. We propose to distinguish between `moderate' and `strong' need.
Need is moderate when it is imposed by an external agent, e. g. the need to
use a word in a sentence which the teacher has asked the learner to produce.
Need is strong when imposed on the learner by him- or herself. A case in
point is a decision to express a concept without knowing the appropriate word
for it. In the case of need, moderate and strong subsume di€erent degrees of
Search and evaluation are the two cognitive (information processing)
dimensions of involvement, contingent upon noticing and deliberately
allocating attention to the form±meaning relationship (Schmidt 1994a, 2000).
Search is the attempt to ®nd the meaning of an unknown L2 word or trying
to ®nd the L2 word form expressing a concept (e.g. trying to ®nd the L2
translation of an L1 word) by consulting a dictionary or another authority
(e.g. a teacher).
Evaluation entails a comparison of a given word with other words, a speci®c
meaning of a word with its other meanings, or combining the word with other
words in order to assess whether a word (i.e. a form±meaning pair) does or
does not ®t its context. If, for example, during a reading task, a word that is
looked up is a homonym, a decision has to be made about its meaning by
comparing all its meanings against the speci®c context and choosing the one
that ®ts best. Another example is an L2 writing task in which an L1 word is
looked up in a dictionary and three L2 alternatives are presented. The
translations have to be evaluated against each other and the most suitable one
has to be chosen for the speci®c meaning the L2 writer is trying to convey.
But unlike in the preceding example, the evaluation in the writing task will
involve additional syntagmatic decisions about the precise collocations of the
word which the learner is trying to use. Evaluation, as illustrated by the two
examples above, implies some kind of selective decision based on a criterion of
semantic and formal appropriateness (®t) of the word and its context. If the
evaluation entails recognising di€erences between words (as in a ®ll-in task
with words provided), or di€erences between several senses of a word in a
given context, we will refer to this kind of evaluation as `moderate'. If, on the
other hand, evaluation requires making a decision about additional words
which will combine with the new word in an original sentence or text, we
will refer to it as `strong' evaluation.
Involvement load
A real-life communicative situation, or a teacher-designed learning task can
induce any one, two, or all three of the components of involvement for each
word: need, search, and evaluation. A reading comprehension task which
requires the learner to look up the meaning of a homonym in a dictionary,
illustrates need (since knowing the word's meaning is necessary for the
successful completion of the comprehension task), search (since the meaning
of the word is looked up), and evaluation (since di€erent meanings of the
word have to be compared and checked against the context before one is
selected). If, however, the same task is simpli®ed for the learner by teacher's
glosses for unknown words in the text margin, search and evaluation are no
longer required. In the latter example, the task induces a weaker involvement
in the word as only the need component is at work. The task of the former
example, however, requiring need, search, and evaluation, induces a stronger
involvement. Thus we may say that tasks di€er in the involvement load they
In conclusion, involvement load is de®ned here as the combination of the
presence or absence of the involvement factors Need, Search, and Evaluation.
The variability in involvement load that can be experienced for di€erent
words leads us to formulate our second assumption.
Assumption Two: Other factors being equal, words which are
processed with higher involvement load will be retained better than
words which are processed with lower involvement load [Note 1].
Task-induced involvement load
Before exploring the notion of involvement load in this subsection, we would
like to point out that we adopt the general de®nition of task as provided by
Richards et al. (1985: 289), as `an activity or action which is carried out as the
result of processing or understanding language (i.e. as a response)'. In the socalled task-based approach, task is given a more speci®c meaning as `an activity
in which: meaning is primary; there is some communication problem to solve;
there is some sort of relationship to comparable real-world activities; task
completion has some priority; the assessment of the task is in terms of outcome'
(Skehan 1998: 95). We subscribe to the pedagogical aims of the task-based
approach and thus adhere to Skehan's urge `to develop pedagogic interventions
where learners focus on form naturally, rather than arti®cially' (Skehan 1998:
40). However, in the context of our aim to stimulate theory and empirical
research (as opposed to sound pedagogical practice), it suces to adopt the
more general de®nition even though that de®nition encompasses arti®cial noncommunicative tasks, such as ®lling in gaps or writing isolated and unconnected
sentences with given words. Of course, in applying the notion of involvement to
the language classroom, one would try to follow Skehan's principle.
The examples in the previous subsection, show that, in a natural
communicative task, di€erent words can induce di€erent involvement loads.
In a teaching context, however, or for research purposes, tasks can be
designed in such a way that the involvement load is (almost) identical for all
the words targeted for teaching or research. We will refer to this involvement
load as task-induced involvement load and illustrate it by analysing some learning
tasks, widely practised in educational settings, in terms of need, search, and
evaluation of newly met words (see Table 2).
Let us ®rst consider several reading tasks. A reading comprehension task
where unknown words are glossed for the student, but the comprehension
questions can be answered without reference to these words (1 in Table 2)
does not induce any need to focus on the glossed words (since they are
irrelevant to the task), nor any search for their meaning (since they are
glossed), nor any evaluation. A reading comprehension task with glossed
words that are relevant to answering the questions (2 in Table 2) will induce a
moderate need to look at the glosses (moderate because it is imposed by the
task), but it will induce neither search nor evaluation. The same task with
glosses removed (3 in Table 2), will not only induce need but also search
(provided that the student has deemed the unknown words as relevant
enough to look up). The presence or absence of evaluation may vary with
type of word and context. If an unknown word has only one meaning and if
the context allows a straightforward, literal interpretation of it, no decision
has to be made about its contextual meaning. If, on the other hand, the word
has several meanings, the reader has to select the meaning which makes sense
in the context, a decision demanding moderate evaluationÐmoderate since
the learner is not required to produce original language.
Let us now imagine the same text, but the target words have been deleted
from it. These words are listed at the bottom of the text with their translations
or explanations and the task requires the learner to ®ll the text gaps with the
correct words from the list (the task can be made more complex by adding to
the list words that do not ®t the text at all) and to answer the comprehension
questions (4 in Table 2). The ®ll-in task induces a moderate need, no search
(the words are explained) and a moderate evaluation, since all the words in
the list have to be evaluated against each other and the context of the gaps.
The next three examples are of writing tasks. In the ®fth task the learner is
asked to write original sentences with some new words. These words are
translated or explained by the teacher. The task induces a moderate need, no
search, and strong evaluation because the new words are evaluated against
suitable collocations in a learner-generated context. Now suppose the learner
is required to write a composition (as opposed to single sentences) and
incorporate some L2 target words; the teacher has not provided these words in
their L2 form, but by their L1 equivalent (6 in Table 2). The task will induce a
moderate need and search since the L2 word forms have to be looked up, and
again a strong evaluation as the words are used in learner-generated contexts.
Finally, consider a case of a composition where the learner wants to use
concepts for which s/he possesses no L2 form. S/he then decides to look up
these L1 concepts for their L2 equivalence (in an L1±L2 dictionary) and use
them in the composition (7 in Table 2). This task induces a strong need (selfimposed), search, and a strong evaluation.
The above analysis is summed up in Table 2. A minus (±) indicates an
absence of an involvement factor, a plus (+) indicates that the factor is present
in its moderate version, a double plus (++) marks the strong version of an
involvement factor.
Table 2 clearly shows how di€erent tasks di€er in the involvement load
they induce from the learner. This variability in task-induced involvement
load, together with Assumption Two, lead us to formulate our third
Assumption Three: Other factors being equal, teacher/researcherdesigned tasks with a higher involvement load will be more e€ective
for vocabulary retention than tasks with a lower involvement load.
In summary, we propose a motivational-cognitive construct of involvement,
consisting of three basic components: need, search, and evaluation. Each of
these three factors can be absent or present when processing a word in a
natural or arti®cially designed task. The combination of factors with their
degrees of prominence constitutes involvement load.
Our basic assumption regarding vocabulary retention is that retention of
hitherto unfamiliar words is conditional, in general, upon the degree of
involvement in processing these words. The concept of involvement can be
operationalised by devising tasks with various degrees of need, search, and
evaluation and can therefore be submitted to empirical investigation.
Table 2: Task-induced involvement load
Status of target
1. Reading and
2. Reading and
3. Reading and
Glossed in text but
irrelevant to task
Glossed in text and
relevant to task
Not glossed but
relevant to task
4. Reading and
questions and ®lling
5. Writing original
6. Writing a
Relevant to reading +
Listed with glosses
at the end of text
Listed with glosses +
on word and
Concepts selected
by the teacher (and
provided in L1).
The L2 learner±
writer must look up
the L2 form
Concepts selected
(and looked up) by
L2 learner±writer
7. Writing a
The Involvement Load Hypothesis: empirical support
Let us revisit the Task Table (Table 1) presented earlier, comparing each pair
of tasks in terms of their involvement load. The table is reproduced as Table 3,
this time showing which involvement component is present in one task of the
pair and absent in the other. Three examples will be singled out for detailed
illustration of the di€erences in the involvement load of the tasks.
Hulstijn (1992) showed that when meanings of words had to be inferred
they were retained better than words with given meanings. If we compare the
Table 3: Previous research re-visited
The more e€ective task
The less e€ective task
Meaning selected from
several options
Meaning looked up in a
Meaning looked up in a
dictionary +search
Meaning negotiated
++ need, +search
Negotiated input
Used in original sentences
Used in a composition
(L1±L2 look up)
Interactionally modi®ed
Reading and a series of
vocabulary exercises
Reading, words looked up
in a dictionary
Meaning explained by
Hulstijn 1992
Reading with/without
Meaning provided in a
marginal gloss
Meaning not negotiated
Knight 1994;
Luppescu and
Day 1993
Hulstijn et al.
Newton 1995
Premodi®ed input
R. Ellis et al.
Joe 1995, 1998
Used in non-original
Encountered in a reading
task (L2±L1 look up)
Interactionally modi®ed
Reading only (and
inferring meaning)
Reading only, words not
looked up
Hulstijn and
Trompetter 1998
R. Ellis and He
Paribakht and
Wesche 1997
Cho and Krashen
two tasks in terms of involvement load, we can see that the di€erence lies in
the absence of evaluation in the synonym-condition and presence of evaluation
in the multiple-choice condition. Learners had to evaluate all the alternative
meanings against the text context. (In both conditions there was a moderate
need, induced by the researcher, and no search).
Newton (1995) found that words which were negotiated for meaning in an
interactive task were retained better than words that were not negotiated. Put
di€erently, the choice to negotiate a word implies a need, induced by the
learner, and also a search for meaning. (Search for meaning does not have to
be in a dictionary only. The learner can search the text context, ask a teacher,
or peers.) When unknown words are not negotiated, it means the learner has
no need for them and therefore performs no search.
Joe (1995) shows that words with a `high degree of generation' are better
retained than words with a low degree of generation, or no generation at all.
What this means is that when words are used in a learner-generated, original
context, they are better retained than if they are used in a non-original
context (for example, memorised from text), or not used at all. The di€erence
probably lies in all three factors of involvement, but a fair comparison cannot
be made since memorisation belongs to the realm of intentional learning
whereas our construct of involvement applies to incidental learning. Thus, the
results of the study conducted by Newton and, perhaps in part, the results of
Joe's study can also be explained in terms of involvement. Words which were
retained better underwent a higher involvement load than words which were
retained less well.
The Involvement Load Hypothesis: a theoretical perspective
As mentioned in the introductory section, psychologists have associated better
learning with depth of processing, or degree of elaboration, or quality of
attention to information. Our construct of involvement decomposes the
concept of processing into two cognitive components (search and evaluation)
and adds a motivational component (need). This proposal should be
conceived of as a ®rst attempt to stimulate researchers as well as practitioners
to operationalise traditional general labels such as noticing, attention,
elaboration, and motivation, into task-speci®c components. Thus, although
involvement will vary with words, involvement can also be in¯uenced by task
factors. It is on the task factors that we direct our focus. All three factors can
be manipulated separately and in di€erent combinations by researchers or
teachers as shown in Table 2. As a research paradigm, therefore, our proposal
o€ers multiple possibilities to explore the relationship between retention and
various aspects of deep processing. This can be done by designing
experimental tasks with varying involvement loads.
How does the construct of involvement load relate to the Input Hypothesis
(Krashen 1985) and the Output Hypothesis in SLA (Swain 1985, 1996)? The
Involvement Load Hypothesis does not predict that any output task will lead
to better results than any input task. It predicts that higher involvement in a
word induced by the task (natural or arti®cial) will result in better retention
regardless of whether it is an input or an output task. To illustrate this point,
let us consider three tasks: one input and two output tasks.
The input task is to read a text for comprehension. During the reading, the
learner decides to look up certain words in a dictionary. Since it was the
learner's decision, the need is characterised as strong. Looking up the meaning
of a word implies a search. Let us assume the looked-up words have one
unequivocal meaning and the context does not lead to interpretation
diculties: hence there is no evaluation in the task. The involvement load
of the task is therefore ++need, +search, ±evaluation.
Now consider an output task: an exercise where words have to be ®lled in
into sentence blanks. The words to be ®lled in are written out in a list with
their translations or explanations. Since the use of words is imposed by the
teacher, need is moderate. There is no search as the words are glossed. In
order to ®ll in the correct word in each blank, the candidate words provided
by the teacher have to be evaluated against each other in the context of each
blank. Therefore the task requires a moderate amount of evaluation. The
involvement load of this output task is +need, ±search, +evaluation.
Finally, consider another output task: writing original sentences with words
which are provided with their translations or explanations. The need and
search of this task are the same as in the previous output task. Yet the amount
of evaluation is higher as the words are used in an original context. The
involvement load of this task is + need, ±search, ++evaluation.
The Involvement Load Hypothesis predicts that, among the ®rst two tasks, it
is the input task, reading with look-ups, that will yield better retention since it
is more involving than the ®ll-in output task. It also predicts that the input
task and the second output task, sentence writing, will be equally bene®cial
for retention since the two are identical in their involvement load. Similarly,
the model predicts that task e€ect does not depend on the mode as such, i.e.
whether the task is aural, oral, or visual. What matters is the motivationalcognitive dimensions of the task, i.e. its involvement load. The above
predictions can be tested, as will be suggested in the next section.
Further investigation of the involvement load e€ect
Our basic contention is that the e€ectiveness of a task is determined by the
involvement load it induces. Research should be conducted to test this
contention. Tasks with di€erent involvement loads could be compared with
regard to their e€ect on incidental vocabulary learning. A particularly
interesting comparison would involve conditions where the input and
output tasks have identical involvement loads. If involvement load is the
determining factor in task e€ectiveness, irrespective of whether the task is
input or output oriented, the two conditions should yield similar retention
Establishing the relative importance of need, search, and
So far the amount of the involvement load has been conceived of as the sum
of the plusses (of need, search, and evaluation). For example, a task consisting
of +need, +search, ±evaluation has the same involvement load as a task
consisting of +need, ±search, +evaluation. Yet all three factors may not be
equally important for vocabulary learning. Earlier we suggested that the
weight (impact on incidental learning) of search might be lower than that of
need and evaluation. Empirical research should compare tasks with the same
number of components (two), but a di€erent distribution of the components
Comparing the quality and quantity of exposure to words
A crucial question in understanding vocabulary learning is whether retention
depends on what one does with the word rather than how often one meets it.
In pedagogy, the question is whether task type is just as important, more so,
or less so than the number of tasks in which a new word appears. Put
di€erently, we would like to ®nd out whether the quality of exposure to new
vocabulary during `incidental' encounters can compensate for the relatively
limited amount of exposure which is characteristic of learning a second
language in a non-language speaking environment. Research could compare
vocabulary retention along two dimensions: varying task involvement loads
and varying the number of exposures to the investigated words.
The generality of the constructs in the theoretical literature and the paucity of
empirical research testing the noticing and elaboration hypotheses in the
domain of L2 vocabulary learning led us to adopt `a bottom-up approach' and
start our investigation at the task end of the issue. We examined a number of
studies on incidental vocabulary learning and inferred from them, in an
inductive fashion, three constructs: need, search, and evaluation. We are fully
aware of the possible criticisms of such a bottom-up approach since it draws
post hoc conclusions from existing instructional tasks rather than from results
of controlled experiments of the kind psychologists conduct in laboratories.
Yet this is not an unacceptable scholarly procedure. Advancement in scholarly
inquiry, both in terms of theory building and in terms of providing empirical
data, can proceed in a number of ways (Kuhn 1974). One way is to begin at
the higher end of the hermeneutic cycle: developing theory, deducing
hypotheses from it, testing them empirically, and applying the theory's
constructs and theses to practice. Another way is to begin at the lower end of
the hermeneutic cycle: looking at empirical data, trying to discern general
patterns, and establishing links with existing theories or developing new
theories. Whichever route is taken, full circle must be made eventually. Given
the fact that the last decade has not shown much progress in applying
cognitive notions to the domain of L2 vocabulary learning (in comparison to
the domain of L2 grammar learning, where research on noticing, pushed
output, recasts, and other types of feedback is thriving) we felt justi®ed in
adopting the latter, `bottom-up' approach.
As mentioned in the introduction, we hope that our Involvement Load
Hypothesis will be a ®rst step in stimulating theoretical and empirical work
and will be followed by other proposals of greater scope and depth. Greater
depth could be re¯ected in more precise de®nitions of the involvement
components and a more thorough theoretical link between them and theories
of information processing and a€ective components of cognition. Broader
scope could take the form of adding new components to the three proposed
here and, eventually, providing a theoretical underpinning for each of them.
(Revised version received March 2000)
We are grateful to our colleagues for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper:
Nanda Poulisse, Rob Schoonen, and Elisabeth van der Linden from the University of Amsterdam,
Paul Meara from the University of Swansea, Paul Nation from the Victoria University of
Wellington, and Norbert Schmitt from the University of Nottingham.
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