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Vocabulary Learning on the Internet

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

The Internet has become an invaluable source of information for learners and teachers, and some of the features of the Internet that make it such a useful source of information can also serve to support the learning of vocabulary.
Vocabulary acquisition is not a one-off event. Understanding the nuances of a word, as with all understanding, is a matter of degree and requires multiple encounters with that word in varied contexts.
Rachel Ebner and Linnea Ehri from the City University of New York believe that the internet environment, where learners can search vocabulary items on Google or other search engines, look them up on websites such as, or click on hyperlinks from one webpage to another, can support vocabulary learning by allowing learners to encounter the word in a variety of contexts.
The support of graphics, audio, or video information often found on websites can further deepen their understanding of the word. However, the Internet is also a place where learners can become easily distracted and lose sight of the goal they are working towards.
In order to overcome this challenge Drs. Ebner and Ehri propose using protocols that support the development of metacognitive strategies in learners that help keep them focused on their goals.
Drs. Ebner and Ehri investigated the extent to which such protocols might be useful by presenting a vocabulary learning task to two groups of learners. Both groups were given the task of learning 10 vocabulary items and relating each one to the topic of a Wikipedia article entitled “Religion in ancient Greece.”
One group was instructed to read any text they chose to read aloud and to think aloud about their actions by responding to the following questions:
• Before I act – How will this help me reach my goal?
• While or after I act – Is this helping me, or did that help me, reach my goal?
The other group was also asked to think aloud as they worked, but in a much more unstructured way. They were given the instruction: “Please read the text out loud to me and, as you do that, tell me everything that comes to mind – what you are thinking or feeling in the process of understanding what the text is about.”
Both groups were given a variety of pre- and post-tests to determine the extent to which they understood the 10 vocabulary items across a number of dimensions.
What were the results?
• The two groups did not differ significantly with respect to time on task.
• There was also no difference in the relevance of the websites visited.
• Participants who used the structured think-aloud protocol demonstrated significantly higher gains across all dimensions of word knowledge measured, with the exception of pronunciation. The lack of a difference for pronunciation can be explained by the fact that both groups already demonstrated a high level of pronunciation accuracy at pre-test.
• When students clicked on a link that turned out to be irrelevant, the students using the structured think-aloud protocol got themselves back on track more quickly.
What might these results mean?
This simple experiment shows the power of encouraging students to use metacognitive strategies to monitor their performance. While the researchers sometimes prompted students using the structured protocol to use the questions if they were not doing so, participants in this condition made use of the metacognitive strategies even when not specifically prompted to do so.
The researchers recognize that such metacognitive habits take time to build and will require deliberate effort in the early stages. They suggest that in a classroom context peers could be used to prompt each other; this support could be faded over time once the questions begin to become habitual.
Teachers could work with students to adapt this simple protocol to a variety of other situations. Internet learning in particular seems to be an area where a greater degree of self-regulation is likely to lead to greater success.
Ebner, R., & Ehri, L. (2013) “Vocabulary Learning on the Internet: Using a Structured Think-Aloud Procedure.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56 6, pp. 480-489.

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02/07/2015 - Andy
Thanks for this article Gordon. it is very timely for us as we seek ways within our 1:1 laptop environment to give students tools to build vocabulary skills. I wonder about your thoughts about programs such as Membean. We are considering this and given the topic of online learning tools to teach students vocabulary, are there online programs such as Membean or others that you know of that target the skills you point out as essential here?

Thanks Gordon. I always enjoy reading your posts.

Andy Ferguson
Middle School Principal
American International School of Johannesburg



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