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Learning vocabulary through meaning-focused input: Replication of Elley (1989)

and Liu & Nation (1985)
Stuart Webb
Language Teaching / Volume 49 / Issue 01 / January 2016, pp 129 - 140
DOI: 10.1017/S0261444815000051, Published online: 17 March 2015

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How to cite this article:
Stuart Webb (2016). Learning vocabulary through meaning-focused input: Replication of Elley
(1989) and Liu & Nation (1985). Language Teaching, 49, pp 129-140 doi:10.1017/
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c Cambridge University Press 2015

Lang. Teach. (2016), 49.1, 129140 
doi:10.1017/S0261444815000051 First published online 17 March 2015

Replication Studies
Learning vocabulary through meaning-focused input: Replication
of Elley (1989) and Liu & Nation (1985)
Stuart Webb Faculty of Education, Western University, Canada
There has been a great deal of research on first language (L1) and second language (L2)
learning through meaning-focused input since Nagy, Herman & Andersons (1985) seminal
study of incidental vocabulary learning through reading. Two strands of research within this
area are incidental vocabulary learning through listening and guessing from context. This
article discusses widely-cited studies from each of these areas Elley (1989) and Liu & Nation
(1985) that deserve to be replicated. Both studies made important contributions to the
field, were original in their designs, and advanced our understanding of how vocabulary is
learned in context. The benefits of replicating these two studies are described and several
suggestions are made for how the replications might be completed.

1. Introduction
Research has indicated that L1 words can be learned incidentally through reading (e.g.
Jenkins, Stein & Wysocki 1984; Nagy, Herman & Anderson 1985) and listening (Elley 1989;
Robbins & Ehri 1994). Motivation for this research has been the hypothesis that the vast
majority of L1 words are learned incidentally. Studies of incidental vocabulary learning
through reading provide support for this as they have consistently shown that words are
learned gradually through repeated encounters in context. Research has also shown that
L2 vocabulary is also learned incidentally through reading (e.g. Pitts, White & Krashen
1989; Day, Omura & Hiramatsu 1991; Horst, Cobb & Meara 1998) and listening (Brown,
Waring & Donkaewbua 2008), and that gains are a function of frequency (e.g. Horst, Cobb &
Meara 1998; Webb 2007). However, a lack of L2 input may limit the extent of L2 incidental
vocabulary learning to the high frequency words (Cobb 2007), leading some researchers to
argue that a large proportion of L2 words may be learned through instruction rather than
incidentally (Laufer 2001, 2003; Webb 2008a).
Although there is an abundance of research that has investigated incidental vocabulary
learning through reading, there have been few studies that have looked at the potential for
learning L1 and L2 words through listening. The best known study of incidental vocabulary
learning through listening was conducted by Elley (1989). Elleys research was innovative
in that it was the first study to show that vocabulary could be learned incidentally through


listening, and that teacher explanations of word meanings during story telling may increase
the size of these gains. One reason why research on vocabulary learning through listening is
lacking may be that it is more difficult to learn words through listening than through reading
(Brown, Waring & Donkaewbua 2008). Thus, perhaps the lack of research in this area may be
due to an absence of statistically significant findings indicating that vocabulary is consistently
learned through listening.
Listening plays an important role in vocabulary growth; between 5,000 and 6,000 word
families are learned through listening by pre-reading children (Goulden, Nation & Read
1990; Biemiller 2005). Because of the significance of Elleys 1989 study, and the paucity of
research in this area, the best place to start with new studies of vocabulary learning through
listening is with replications of the original study. Replications would throw some light on the
validity and reliability of the previous results, and may provide some indication of the extent
to which the results may be generalized to other contexts.
Because vocabulary learning gains made from encounters in meaning-focused input are
relatively small, another line of research has focused on how we might increase the potential
for vocabulary growth through reading and listening. Studies of guessing from context have
indicated that by focusing greater attention on unknown words encountered in context,
the chance of learning words increases. Guessing from context is the most commonly used
strategy for learning words from meaning-focused input and is a frequently researched
area of vocabulary learning (e.g. Hulstijn 1992; de Bot, Paribakht & Wesche 1997; Fraser
1999; Paribakht & Wesche 1999). Liu & Nations (1985) study is unique in that it looked
at how lexical coverage affects the ability to successfully infer word meanings from written
text. Lexical coverage refers to the percentage of words that are known in a text. Research
investigating lexical coverage has shown that as the proportion of known words in a text
increases beyond 90%, comprehension is also likely to increase (Laufer 1989; Bonk 2000;
Hu & Nation 2000; Schmitt, Jiang & Grabe 2011; van Zeeland & Schmitt 2013a). These
studies have in turn contributed to greater focus in the research literature on the number of
words necessary to reach the lexical coverage points associated with comprehension of spoken
discourse (e.g. Nation 2006; Webb & Rodgers 2009a, 2009b; Rodgers & Webb 2011) and
written (Hirsh & Nation 1992; Adolphs & Schmitt 2003; Nation 2006; Webb & Macalister
2013), as well as the potential to incidentally learn vocabulary through comprehensible input
(Webb 2010).
Liu & Nations (1985) study indicated that lexical coverage affects the potential to
successfully guess words from context; there is a better chance of successfully inferring
unknown words in texts with a higher lexical coverage than passages with a lower lexical
coverage. This finding has great value as it supports an extensive L2 learning approach
that involves reading and listening to large quantities of comprehensible input as a means
to increase vocabulary size. The importance of this finding and the lack of research in this
area provide justification for approximate and conceptual replications of the original study.
Replication of the research would help to verify the original findings and may provide greater
clarity as to how lexical coverage affects guessing from context.
This article presents the case for replication of two important studies of vocabulary
learning through meaning-focused input. Justification for replication of the original studies
is outlined in the following sections. For each study, the methodology is first described and



then approaches to replication are suggested. Finally, the conclusion sums up the reasons
why the research remains important to the field and why replication of these papers is

2. Suggested study for replication: Liu & Nation (1985)

2.1 Background to the study
Liu & Nation (1985) is one of many studies that have looked at L2 learners ability to guess
words from context. For example, one strand of research has focused on the procedure for
guessing from context (Clarke & Nation 1980; Nation & Coady 1988; Nation 1990, 2001,
2013). Another has looked at the types of contextual clues that can be used to help derive
word meaning from context (Haastrup 1985, 1987, 1991; de Bot et al. 1997; Nassaji 2003).
A third strand of research has indicated that instruction and proficiency affect guessing
from context; instruction has a positive effect on successful inferencing, but the effects of
instruction may vary according to proficiency level (Fukkink & de Glopper 1998; Kuhn
& Stahl 1998; Walters 2004). A fourth strand has looked at the process of guessing from
context through introspective and retrospective L2 learner data (Haastrup 1985; de Bot
et al. 1997; Nassaji 2003). Finally, a fifth strand on guessing from context has examined
how inferring word meaning is affected by the information that is present in the context
(e.g. Haastrup 1985; Sternberg 1987; Hulstijn 1992; Dubin & Olshtain 1993; Haynes 1993;
Webb 2008b). Liu & Nations (1985) research is most closely related to this latter line of
Liu & Nation (1985) is the only study to examine the effects of lexical coverage on inferring
the meanings of unknown words from context during reading. Native and non-native teachers
of L2 English took part in the study. The participants read versions of two passages and were
asked to write the meanings of pseudowords that had replaced lower frequency words in
the texts. The meanings could be expressed in either the L1 or L2. The passages varied in
length and lexical coverage. Two versions of one passage were provided in the appendix.
However, information about the other passage is not sufficient for use in a replication.
In one version of the passages, the lexical coverage was about 90%; approximately one
word in ten was unknown. In these texts, all of the words that were less frequent than
the most frequent 2,000 word families in Wests (1953) General Service List were replaced
with pseudowords. The pseudowords were of a similar length as the words they replaced
(prined traced, radalosumic philosophical), had suitable derived forms (benalment
dominance, alamution environment), and included the same inflections (antelasing
prevailing, alliranes attitudes). The second versions of the passages were expanded versions
of the first texts. The procedure for creating these texts involved replacing all of the words
outside of the General Service List and the American University Word List (Praninskas 1972)
with pseudowords until there were the same numbers of pseudowords as in the first text. This
resulted in texts that covered the same content as the first versions, but had a much higher
lexical coverage. Lexical coverage in the expanded versions was approximately 96%; one in


every 25 words was unknown. The participants always completed the shorter version of the
two texts first.
The participants responses were scored by three raters on the degree to which they
accurately represented the meaning of the replaced words in those contexts. The raters
scored responses for accuracy as 100%, 80% and 0% correct, and examples of responses
that achieved these scores were provided. Responses that were given scores of 100% and
80% were counted as correct answers. No information was provided on how the three raters
reached agreement on the overall score for each response.
Analysis of the data provided partial support for the hypothesis that words are more likely
to be successfully guessed in context when there is a higher proportion of known words in a
text. The descriptive statistics suggested that the participants were able to successfully derive
the meanings of more pseudowords for one version that had higher lexical coverage, but not
for the other. The results also revealed that the scores were higher in the version that had
higher lexical coverage for nine out of ten pseudowords that were the same in both versions
of the texts. However, inferential statistical analysis was not completed and so it is not clear
to what extent the findings were due to chance.

2.2 Approach to replication

This study deserves replication because it employed an innovative approach to investigating
guessing from context, the intervention indicated that lexical coverage is a factor in successful
guessing, it is a frequently cited study (248 citations listed by Google Scholar on 28 May
2014), and because of the attention that lexical coverage has recently received in a number
of studies looking at comprehension of spoken (Bonk 2000; van Zeeland & Schmitt 2013a)
and written discourse (Laufer 1989; Hu & Nation 2000; Schmitt, Jiang & Grabe 2011). It
may be most useful to conduct a series of replications that investigate the same research
questions with a methodology that is modified slightly to shed greater light on the original
studys outcomes.
A series of replications would be useful to determine the reliability of the earlier findings
and the degree to which the results might be generalized to other contexts. Replication
might involve the manipulation of key variables such as text type and proficiency level that
have pedagogical significance and may affect guessing from context. One methodological
variation that would be useful to adopt in any replication is the approach taken to
manipulating coverage that has been used in studies investigating how lexical coverage
affects comprehension (Hu & Nation 2000; Schmitt, Jiang & Grabe 2011; van Zeeland &
Schmitt 2013a). In these studies, texts with varying lexical coverage figures all had the same
number of running words. In Liu & Nation, the two texts were of different lengths. Because
it could be argued that the additional text in the longer versions may include information
that could help to infer the meanings of target words, it would be better to always use
the longer version of the text but to vary the coverage between versions. This would also
allow the possibility of creating versions with more than the two levels of coverage in the
original study. Examining the degree to which target words were successfully inferred in
versions that had 90%, 95%, 98% and 100% lexical coverage would provide more precise



findings, and help to substantiate the earlier research. A second methodological innovation
that might be included in any replications is using an additional delayed post-test. This
would shed light on the degree to which the original findings are valid at different retention
In one approach to approximate replication, it would be useful to examine the extent to
which words are correctly inferred from context in a range of different text types. Because
there are a variety of text types (graded readers, short authentic reading passages, spoken texts
such as dialogues and monologues) used for language learning, investigating how guessing
from context is affected by lexical coverage in different texts would help us to better interpret
the earlier findings and indicate the extent to which they might be generalized to other texts.
Because learners are exposed to a wide variety of texts, it is particularly important to examine
the effects of lexical coverage on guessing from context in different texts to strengthen the
reliability of the original findings. In a second approximate replication, it would be useful
to look at how guessing from context is affected by lexical coverage for groups of learners
at different levels of proficiency. Liu & Nations study included participants from a range of
levels but did not examine the extent to which such learners were able to successfully infer
words in the study. Research has shown that L2 learners with a larger vocabulary size tend
to be more successful at learning words incidentally through reading (Zahar, Cobb & Spada
2001; Tekmen & Daloglu 2006). Therefore, a replication of the Liu & Nation study that
manipulates the language learning profile of the participants would help to determine the
degree to which the earlier findings might be generalized across different groups of learners.
Examining the extent to which beginner, intermediate and advanced learners were able to
infer the meanings of words in texts at different levels of lexical coverage might indicate the
degree to which the original findings are valid for different learning profiles. Moreover, if
learners at different levels vary in the degree to which they can successfully infer the meanings
of words at different lexical coverage levels, it might better explain the results of the earlier
studies of incidental vocabulary learning through reading.
There would also be value in undertaking a conceptual replication investigating the effects
of coverage on guessing from context. This might involve having individual participants do a
think-aloud protocol while completing the same guessing from context tasks outlined above.
The research would examine the same questions as in the original study and include the same
design modifications suggested above. However, a qualitative element built into a replication
might further shed light on whether lexical coverage hides any useful data such as which words
in the texts are outside the coverage of known words, what is the contribution to the text that
these unknown words make, and how accessible are these unknown words to the learner?

3. Suggested study for replication: Elley (1989)

3.1 Background to the study
This study explored the effects of repeated listening of a story on L1 incidental vocabulary
learning, as well as the effects of teacher explanation of target words when the story was
read aloud in two experiments. The research expanded on some of Elleys earlier results,


found during piloting in his well-known book flood studies (Elley & Mangubhai 1983; Elley
1991). Elley hypothesized that children incidentally learn many words through listening to
stories and that teacher explanation of difficult vocabulary in a story increases the amount of
The first experiment investigated the extent to which young children incidentally learned
vocabulary through listening to a story read three times over one week. Seven experienced
teachers and 157 seven-year-old children from seven classes in seven schools in New Zealand
took part in the study. The students formed the experimental group. There were no control or
comparison conditions in this experiment. The story, Gumdrop at Sea (Biro 1983), was selected
by the teachers because it was judged to be likeable, included many attractive pictures and
contained at least 20 words that were thought to be unknown to the children. The story was
read at a normal pace over approximately nine minutes. In a pilot study, four of the target
words (direct, impatient, squeezed, disaster) were found to be known by many children with
a similar learning profile as the participants. These words were replaced in the story with
lower frequency synonyms (regulate, irritated, crammed, calamity). Twenty target items were
selected for the study and these items and their corresponding learning gains are presented
in the study.
Elley hypothesized that six textual factors may affect the vocabulary learning gains. These
were: the number of occurrences of the target items in the text, the number of times the
target items were included in pictures within the text, the information present in the story
that could be used to infer the target word meanings, the importance of the target words to
the development of the storyline, imageability of target items, and the students familiarity of
the target meanings. Three teachers who did not participate in the study rated the last four
factors on a six-point scale. The data was also analysed according to the participants pre-test
scores to determine whether prior vocabulary knowledge affected learning gains.
The study used a quasi-experimental pre-test, post-test design. Vocabulary knowledge was
measured using a 20-item multiple-choice test with the target word provided in both aural
and written modes. For half of the items, the choices were made up of four pictures (the key
and three distractors). For the other ten items, the choices were definitions (the keys were
synonyms and three distractors). Several examples of the test items were provided in the
The analysis revealed that knowledge of all but six of the target items increased by more
than 10%. There was a mean increase of 15.4% with gains ranging from 7.6% to 41.4%.
Inferential analysis of the difference between pre-test and post-test scores was not provided.
Multiple regression analysis indicated that three of the six factors (the number of occurrences
of the target items in the text, the number of times the target items were included in pictures
within the text, the information present in the story that could be used to infer the target
word meanings) had a significant positive medium or high correlation with learning, and that
four of the factors combined accounted for 53% of the variance.
Elley reported that the lack of a control group, the absence of delayed post-tests, and the use
of only one story were limitations to the first experiment. The second experiment addressed
these limitations by examining learning through listening to two other stories with post-tests
at two retention intervals (one week and three months after the treatment) and included
a control group to ensure that learning did not occur from taking the test of vocabulary



knowledge. It also further investigated the relationship between the textual variables and
learning, and looked at the effects of teacher explanation of target words on vocabulary
A between-participants design was used in the second experiment and 178 eight-year-old
students from eight intact classes were assigned to two experimental and one control group.
Eight experienced teachers participated; a different teacher taught each of the eight classes.
Group A heard the first story read with explanations of the meanings of the target words. The
meanings of the target words could be explained in three ways: by providing definitions, using
role play, and by pointing to a picture. Group B heard the same story without the explanations
using the same procedure as in the first experiment. The groups were counterbalanced for
the second story. The test was administered to a third group at the same retention intervals,
but it did not listen to the stories. Its role was to control for a possible learning effect from
taking the test.
The descriptive statistics indicated that listening to the stories without explanation
contributed to incidental vocabulary learning although the size of the scores indicated that
the amount of learning may vary from text to text. This result supported the findings of
the first experiment. The results also suggested that teacher explanation may contribute to
much larger vocabulary learning gains than listening without teacher support for vocabulary
learning. The descriptive data also indicated that the participants with the lowest scores on
the pre-test made the greatest gains. However, because participants with higher pretest scores
could learn fewer words than those with lower pre-test scores, it is necessary to examine
relative learning gains rather than actual learning gains in this analysis (Shefelbine 1990;
Horst, Cobb, & Meara 1998). However, the absence of inferential analysis and effect sizes in
all of the comparisons between the groups makes it difficult to clearly determine the validity
of these conclusions. Multiple-regression analysis indicated that all six variables had medium
to large correlations with vocabulary learning in one text. Results of the analysis with the
other text were not provided.

3.2 Approach to replication

There are several reasons why replication of this study is warranted. First, the study has had
a large impact on the field and is widely cited as evidence of incidental vocabulary learning
occurring through listening (739 citations listed by Google Scholar on 1 June 2014). Second,
there are many positive features of the research design. Elley provides sufficient information
about the methodology (the texts, target items, test items and teachers explanations) to allow
replication for two of the three stories used in the study. His use of a pre-test, post-test and
delayed post-test design has become the standard approach to studies looking at incidental
vocabulary learning (Schmitt 2010; Nation & Webb 2011). Third, research on incidental
vocabulary learning through listening is an under-researched area in both the L1 and L2
contexts. L1 findings are somewhat contradictory; Robbins & Ehris (1994) results provide
support; however, Brett, Rothlein & Hurleys (1996) study found that vocabulary learning
through listening to a story did occur when supported with teacher explanation of word
meanings but did not occur without support. L2 studies have provided some indication that


L2 incidental vocabulary learning does occur through listening (Vidal 2003; Brown, Waring
& Donkaewbua 2008; van Zeeland & Schmitt 2013b), but the amount of learning is less than
might occur through reading (Brown, Waring & Donkaewbua 2008; Vidal 2011). Brown,
Waring & Donkaewbuas (2008) study is the only one that specifically examined incidental
learning of L2 vocabulary through listening to stories. The effects of explaining word meaning
during listening is yet to be examined in L2 research.
Given the importance of the study, the lack of research that has further examined incidental
vocabulary learning through listening, and the fact that the experiments are clearly described,
there is sufficient justification for replication. The study might be replicated in three ways.
First, an approximate replication that included more detailed analysis of the results would be
most useful. Additional analysis of the results would include using a paired-samples t-test in
Experiment 1 to determine the statistical significance of any learning that occurred from pretest to post, and determining the effect size. A mixed between-within participants repeated
measures ANOVA should be included in the analysis of the second experiment to determine
whether gains from pre-test to post-test are statistically different for each of the three groups,
and whether the size of gains differs between the three groups. In the analyses of the gains
between groups and between proficiency levels, relative gains should be examined rather
than actual gains because relative gains account for differences in prior knowledge between
groups (Shefelbine 1990; Horst, Cobb & Meara 1998). Approximate replication of the study
with the additional analyses would help to substantiate the strength of the earlier findings.
Second, an approximate replication with L2 learners is needed to determine whether the
original findings might also be valid in the L2 learning context. The procedure of the original
study could be followed, along with the additional analysis suggested above. One variation
that may be necessary in an L2 replication is the selection of texts. Research has indicated
that childrens texts may be more lexically demanding than materials written for L2 learners
(Webb & Macalister 2013). If the original texts are appropriate for advanced L2 learners,
then the replication could be conducted accordingly. However, if the texts were found to
be too difficult, the replication could be conducted using graded readers since these are the
texts most commonly used in L2 extensive reading programmes. This would also increase
the ecological validity of an L2 study. Graded readers would need to be carefully selected so
that target words were chosen in relation to the six variables that Elley included in his study.
Third, an approximate replication of the study with L2 learners that involved additional
manipulation of the number of readings of the text would provide greater clarity of how
vocabulary is learned through listening to stories. In the original study, the stories were
read to the learners three times on the basis of repeated listening of childrens stories being
ecologically valid. However, it is not clear to what extent vocabulary may be learned from
listening to stories once or twice with and without explanation of word meanings. Replication
of the study with different matched groups that listen to the story once, twice and three times
in each experiment would provide a more accurate indication of how listening and teacher
explanation of word meanings contribute to vocabulary learning. It would show whether we
might be able to generalize any gains in vocabulary knowledge to contexts where a story is
heard once, or whether it is rather the accumulated gains made through repeated listening
to the text that account for learning. Because L2 research has indicated that frequency
plays a large role in whether or not words are learned incidentally through reading while



listening (Brown, Waring & Donkaewbua 2008), and that repeated readings of a text increases
the amount of vocabulary learning (Horst & Meara 1999), examining the degree to which
words are learned through different numbers of readings would add greater clarity to Elleys
findings. Moreover, since discussion of vocabulary learning is typically related to reading or
listening to a text once, this replication would help us to interpret the ecological validity of
the original study.

4. Conclusion
Although vocabulary learning through meaning-focused input is widely researched, the two
studies discussed in this paper represent areas within the field where further research is needed.
Studies of lexical coverage have indicated the importance of vocabulary for comprehension of
both written and spoken input (Schmitt, Jiang & Grabe 2011; van Zeeland & Schmitt 2013a),
as well as the vocabulary sizes that may indicate comprehension of different discourse types
(Meara 1991, 1993; Hirsh & Nation 1992; Adolphs & Schmitt 2003; Nation 2006; Webb &
Rodgers 2009a, 2009b). Despite the interest that this line of research has generated, Liu &
Nations (1985) study remains the only one that has looked at how lexical coverage affects
guessing from context. Replication of this study would help to verify the earlier findings,
allow us to generalize the results to other texts, and would thus be a useful starting point for
further research in this area. The case for replication of Elleys (1989) study is similar. It is the
landmark study of vocabulary learning through listening and represents one of few attempts
to research this area despite the importance of the topic to the field. Approximate replication
of the study would help to verify the earlier findings, and determine whether the results could
be generalized to the L2 context. Approximate replications could also then be designed to
assess the robustness and generalizability of the findings. This approach to replication would
help to determine the extent to which any vocabulary learning gains were due to listening
to a story once, or whether they were the result of listening to multiple readings of the story.
This would enhance our understanding of the findings because most discussion of incidental
vocabulary learning through listening may be focused on listening to a text only once.

I am grateful to Paul Nation for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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STUART WEBB is a Professor at Western University, Faculty of Education, Room1026, Althouse Building,
1137 Western Road, London, Ontario, Canada. His research interests include vocabulary studies,
extensive reading, and language learning using television. His articles have been published in journals
such as Applied Linguistics, TESOL Quarterly and Language Learning. His recent book (with Paul Nation),
Researching and analyzing vocabulary, was published by Heinle (2011).