Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lexical Inferencing

Nassaji, H. (2003). L2 Vocabulary Learning from Context: Strategies, Knowledge Sources, and Their Relationship with Success in L2 Lexical Inferencing. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 645-670.

            One important skill English teachers and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers must help their students develop is inferencing. Hossein Nassaji (2003), author of the TESOL Quarterly article “L2 Vocabulary Learning from Context: Strategies, Knowledge Sources, and Their Relationship With Success in L2 Lexical Inferencing,” examines “the success of intermediate ESL learners’ inferencing when they come across unknown words in a written test” (646). In his study, Nassaji discovered a large percentage of ELLs had difficulty inferring new word meanings from context; actually, of the total inferential responses made by the 21 ESL learners, 18.6% of the responses were partially successful and 55.8% were unsuccessful (Nassaji, 2003). Noting the process of inferencing and its complexity, Nassaji provides a method and the most effective strategies to help ELLs use appropriate, collaborative strategies and knowledge sources when inferring the meaning of an unknown word. By using methods like the one he provided and collaborative strategies and knowledge sources, the author predicts ELLs will be able to more successfully infer unknown words.

But First,
            In Nassaji’s study, he makes a distinction between strategies and knowledge sources. Before discussing effective strategies and knowledge sources, a short definition of the two will help the reader understand the difference between strategies and knowledge sources. Strategies refer to the “conscious cognitive or metacognitive activities that the learner [uses] to gain control over or understand the problem without any explicit appeal to any knowledge source as assistance” (Nassaji, 2003, pg. 655). Knowledge sources refer to the learner’s knowledge utilized by the learner, which particular pertain to grammatical, morphological, discourse, world, or L1 knowledge (Nassaji, 2003).
The Good and The Bad
            The following tables exemplify the various strategies Nassaji examines in the study. The first table contains knowledge sources utilized in making lexical inferences. The second table contains strategies utilized in making lexical inferences.  

Out of these 11 different categories, he identified the top two utilized skills in his study. Concerning knowledge sources, he found world knowledge as the most frequently used (46.2%), followed by morphological knowledge (26.9%) (Nassaji, 2003).
            Nassaji indentified the top two strategies as word repeating (39.7%) and section repeating (24%) (Nassaji, 2003).  Nevertheless, the top two skills mentioned previously only represent the skills used most frequently by students.
            Upon further analysis, Nassaji discovered a variation in the success of inferring unknown words. Corresponding with the most frequent, he presented morphological and world knowledge to be the most successful in knowledge source-based inferential success (Nassaji, 2003). Concerning Strategies, he found verifying and self-inquiry strategies to be the most successful, even though the students in his study rarely used those strategies.

A Single Method
            At the end of Nassaji’s study, he notes ELLs making lexical inferences require a great deal effort. Nassaji (2003) suggests teachers “should devote part of the class time to identifying, defining, and explaining the new words to the students” (664). As teachers, explicit instruction of new vocabulary words is essential for ELLs. Once students begin to add new words to their mental lexicon, building various links and knowledge components, students will be able to successfully utilize various strategies and knowledge sources to help decode unknown words (Nassaji, 2003).
            According to Nassaji, since ELLs’ have difficulty with inferencing skills, he suggests a method: segmented texts. The author suggests that teachers present students with short and segmented texts. During the reading of those texts, students can focus on the unknown words in each segment. As students infer the unknown words in each segment, students will use their prior knowledge of previous segments to infer future passages (Nassaji, 2003).
            By utilizing the information presented in his study, Nassaji predicts learners will become more “conscious of the role of contextual clues and strategies”, and by doing so, they will gain “control over their relevant information and knowledge sources in the wider section of text” (pg 665). 

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