Form-first approach in foreign language word learning

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This article reports a study examining whether foreign language (FL) word learning can be improved with reduction in cognitive load. Cognitive load theory has received substantial supports in various fields of learning but never in FL word learning. Due to the defined poverty in exposure to the FL, hence deprived cognitive pre-requisites for natural FL development, cognitive load could be critical to FL learning success. Thus while word learning may be a simple attempt of associating word forms with their meanings for L1 children, for FL learners, the cognitive load is multiplied by the additional task of taming the often intractable phonological forms (both perceptive and productive) at the same time they are making the association. In light of cognitive burden reduction, FL learners could thus benefit from learning phonological forms first as their L1 counterparts do. The present study examined whether beginning learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) learn English novel names better if first familiarized with the phonological rimes of target names whose referents are taught only later. Chinese-speaking first graders were assigned to one of three teaching conditions: rime familiarization, which familiarized children with rimes through rhyming activities without any meanings involved; spoken vocabulary, which taught words in rhyming groups together with their referents; and semantic control, which focused on word use. As the results showed, the rime familiarization group outperformed the other two by an improvement score several times greater, suggesting the critical role of cognitive load in FL word learning success.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-68
Number of pages18
JournalSecond Language Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Jan

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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