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Title:The effects of semantic and thematic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary
Author(s):Tinkham, Thomas Nelson
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):McClure, Erica F.
Department / Program:Linguistics
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Language, Linguistics
semantic clusters
Abstract:An examination of current ESL textbooks reveals that many students of English are introduced to much of their new English vocabulary through "semantic clusters," sets of words from a single syntactic and semantic category. Such clusters (e.g., knife, fork, spoon) may be inevitable given the facility with which they fit the substitution drills and tables employed by teachers and writers taking a structural approach to L2 learning as well as the situations, notions, and functions of special interest to ESL educators following a more learner-centered approach. Nevertheless, a search for justifications for semantic clustering reveals little or no empirical support for their employment. Quite to the contrary, evidence in support of "interference theory" and the "distinctiveness hypothesis" strongly suggests that semantic clustering may actually impede rather than facilitate learning.
Evidence presented by proponents of "schema theory," however, suggests that sets of new words all of which are associated with a common concept or schema may be more easily learned than sets of unassociated words. The possibility arises, therefore, that many L2 students are presented their new vocabulary grouped in a manner that impedes learning while an alternate manner of grouping might actually make learning easier.
With this possibility in mind, the present study was designed to investigate the effects upon learning of semantic clustering, i.e., grouping semantically and syntactically similar new words, and the effects of thematic clustering, i.e., grouping new words associated with a common concept, e.g., new words paired with beach, sunny, and swim. The study consisted of two experiments, both comparing the learning rates (as measured on trials-to-criterion tests) of subjects learning clustered words and the learning rates for unrelated or unassociated words. The first experiment mixed clustered and non-clustered words in a single list to be learned while the second separated clustered and non-clustered words into different lists.
The results of both experiments reveal that semantic clusters were learned with more difficulty than sets of unrelated words while thematic clusters were learned more easily than sets of unassociated words. These results suggest that the common practice of presenting ESL students with new words grouped in semantic clusters be replaced by the presentation of words grouped in thematic clusters.
Issue Date:1994
Rights Information:Copyright 1994 Tinkham, Thomas Nelson
Date Available in IDEALS:2011-05-07
Identifier in Online Catalog:AAI9416443
OCLC Identifier:(UMI)AAI9416443

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