Digital flashcard systems like Memrise and Quizlet remain among the most popular language learning apps. Their focus is on the deliberate learning of vocabulary, an approach described by Paul Nation (Nation, 2005) as ‘one of the least efficient ways of developing learners’ vocabulary knowledge but nonetheless […] an important part of a well-balanced vocabulary programme’. The deliberate teaching of vocabulary also features prominently in most platform-based language courses.

For both vocabulary apps and bigger courses, the lexical items need to be organised into sets for the purposes of both presentation and practice. A common way of doing this, especially at lower levels, is to group the items into semantic clusters (sets with a classifying superordinate, like body part, and a collection of example hyponyms, like arm, leg, head, chest, etc.).

The problem, as Keith Folse puts it, is that such clusters ‘are not only unhelpful, they actually hinder vocabulary retention’ (Folse, 2004: 52). Evidence for this claim may be found in Higa (1963), Tinkham (1993, 1997), Waring (1997), Erten & Tekin (2008) and Barcroft (2015), to cite just some of the more well-known studies. The results, says Folse, ‘are clear and, I think, very conclusive’. The explanation that is usually given draws on interference theory: semantic similarity may lead to confusion (e.g. when learners mix up days of the week, colour words or adjectives to describe personality).

It appears, then, to be long past time to get rid of semantic clusters in language teaching. Well … not so fast. First of all, although most of the research sides with Folse, not all of it does. Nakata and Suzuki (2019) in their survey of more recent research found that results were more mixed. They found one study which suggested that there was no significant difference in learning outcomes between presenting words in semantic clusters and semantically unrelated groups (Ishii, 2015). And they found four studies (Hashemi & Gowdasiaei, 2005; Hoshino, 2010; Schneider, Healy, & Bourne, 1998, 2002) where semantic clusters had a positive effect on learning.

Nakata and Suzuki (2019) offer three reasons why semantic clustering might facilitate vocabulary learning: it (1) ‘reflects how vocabulary is stored in the mental lexicon, (2) introduces desirable difficulty, and (3) leads to extra attention, effort, or engagement from learners’. Finkbeiner and Nicol (2003) make a similar point: ‘although learning semantically related words appears to take longer, it is possible that words learned under these conditions are learned better for the purpose of actual language use (e.g., the retrieval of vocabulary during production and comprehension). That is, the very difficulty associated with learning the new labels may make them easier to process once they are learned’. Both pairs of researcher cited in this paragraph conclude that semantic clusters are best avoided, but their discussion of the possible benefits of this clustering is a recognition that the research (for reasons which I will come on to) cannot lead to categorical conclusions.

The problem, as so often with pedagogical research, is the gap between research conditions and real-world classrooms. Before looking at this in a little more detail, one relatively uncontentious observation can be made. Even those scholars who advise against semantic clustering (e.g. Papathanasiou, 2009), acknowledge that the situation is complicated by other factors, especially the level of proficiency of the learner and whether or not one or more of the hyponyms are known to the learner. At higher levels (when it is more likely that one or more of the hyponyms are already, even partially, known), semantic clustering is not a problem. I would add that, on the whole at higher levels, the deliberate learning of vocabulary is even less efficient than at lower levels and should be an increasingly small part of a well-balanced vocabulary programme.

So, why is there a problem drawing practical conclusions from the research? In order to have any scientific validity at all, researchers need to control a large number of variable. They need, for example, to be sure that learners do not already know any of the items that are being presented. The only practical way of doing this is to present sets of invented words, and this is what most of the research does (Sarioğlu, 2018). These artificial words solve one problem, but create others, the most significant of which is item difficulty. Many factors impact on item difficulty, and these include word frequency (obviously a problem with invented words), word length, pronounceability and the familiarity and length of the corresponding item in L1. None of the studies which support the abandonment of semantic clusters have controlled all of these variables (Nakata and Suzuki, 2019). Indeed, it would be practically impossible to do so. Learning pseudo-words is a very different proposition to learning real words, which a learner may subsequently encounter or want to use.

Take, for example, the days of the week. It’s quite common for learners to muddle up Tuesday and Thursday. The reason for this is not just semantic similarity (Tuesday and Monday are less frequently confused). They are also very similar in terms of both spelling and pronunciation. They are ‘synforms’ (see Laufer, 2009), which, like semantic clusters, can hinder learning of new items. But, now imagine a French-speaking learner of Spanish studying the days of the week. It is much less likely that martes and jueves will be muddled, because of their similarity to the French words mardi and jeudi. There would appear to be no good reason not to teach the complete set of days of the week to a learner like this. All other things being equal, it is probably a good idea to avoid semantic clusters, but all other things are very rarely equal.

Again, in an attempt to control for variables, researchers typically present the target items in isolation (in bilingual pairings). But, again, the real world does not normally conform to this condition. Leo Sellivan (2014) suggests that semantic clusters (e.g. colours) are taught as part of collocations. He gives the examples of red dress, green grass and black coffee, and points out that the alliterative patterns can serve as mnemonic devices which will facilitate learning. The suggestion is, I think, a very good one, but, more generally, it’s worth noting that the presentation of lexical items in both digital flashcards and platform courses is rarely context-free. Contexts will inevitably impact on learning and may well obviate the risks of semantic clustering.

Finally, this kind of research typically gives participants very restricted time to memorize the target words (Sarioğlu, 2018) and they are tested in very controlled recall tasks. In the case of language platform courses, practice of target items is usually spread out over a much longer period of time, with a variety of exposure opportunities (in controlled practice tasks, exposure in texts, personalisation tasks, revision exercises, etc.) both within and across learning units. In this light, it is not unreasonable to argue that laboratory-type research offers only limited insights into what should happen in the real world of language learning and teaching. The choice of learning items, the way they are presented and practised, and the variety of activities in the well-balanced vocabulary programme are probably all more significant than the question of whether items are organised into semantic clusters.

Although semantic clusters are quite common in language learning materials, much more common are thematic clusters (i.e. groups of words which are topically related, but include a variety of parts of speech (see below). Researchers, it seems, have no problem with this way of organising lexical sets. By way of conclusion, here’s an extract from a recent book:

‘Introducing new words together that are similar in meaning (synonyms), such as scared and frightened, or forms (synforms), like contain and maintain, can be confusing, and students are less likely to remember them. This problem is known as ‘interference’. One way to avoid this is to choose words that are around the same theme, but which include a mix of different parts of speech. For example, if you want to focus on vocabulary to talk about feelings, instead of picking lots of adjectives (happy, sad, angry, scared, frightened, nervous, etc.) include some verbs (feel, enjoy, complain) and some nouns (fun, feelings, nerves). This also encourages students to use a variety of structures with the vocabulary.’ (Hughes, et al., 2015: 25)

 

References

Barcroft, J. 2015. Lexical Input Processing and Vocabulary Learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Erten, I.H., & Tekin, M. 2008. Effects on vocabulary acquisition of presenting new words in semantic sets versus semantically-unrelated sets. System, 36 (3), 407-422

Finkbeiner, M. & Nicol, J. 2003. Semantic category effects in second language word learning. Applied Psycholinguistics 24 (2003), 369–383

Folse, K. S. 2004. Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Hashemi, M.R., & Gowdasiaei, F. 2005. An attribute-treatment interaction study: Lexical-set versus semantically-unrelated vocabulary instruction. RELC Journal, 36 (3), 341-361

Higa, M. 1963. Interference effects of intralist word relationships in verbal learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 170-175

Hoshino, Y. 2010. The categorical facilitation effects on L2 vocabulary learning in a classroom setting. RELC Journal, 41, 301–312

Hughes, S. H., Mauchline, F. & Moore, J. 2019. ETpedia Vocabulary. Shoreham-by-Sea: Pavilion Publishing and Media

Ishii, T. 2015. Semantic connection or visual connection: Investigating the true source of confusion. Language Teaching Research, 19, 712–722

Laufer, B. 2009. The concept of ‘synforms’ (similar lexical forms) in vocabulary acquisition. Language and Education, 2 (2): 113 – 132

Nakata, T. & Suzuki, Y. 2019. Effects Of Massing And Spacing On The Learning Of Semantically Related And Unrelated Words. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 41 (2), 287 – 311

Nation, P. 2005. Teaching Vocabulary. Asian EFL Journal. http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/sept_05_pn.pdf

Papathanasiou, E. 2009. An investigation of two ways of presenting vocabulary. ELT Journal 63 (4), 313 – 322

Sarioğlu, M. 2018. A Matter of Controversy: Teaching New L2 Words in Semantic Sets or Unrelated Sets. Journal of Higher Education and Science Vol 8 / 1: 172 – 183

Schneider, V. I., Healy, A. F., & Bourne, L. E. 1998. Contextual interference effects in foreign language vocabulary acquisition and retention. In Healy, A. F. & Bourne, L. E. (Eds.), Foreign language learning: Psycholinguistic studies on training and retention (pp. 77–90). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

Schneider, V. I., Healy, A. F., & Bourne, L. E. 2002. What is learned under difficult conditions is hard to forget: Contextual interference effects in foreign vocabulary acquisition, retention, and transfer. Journal of Memory and Language, 46, 419–440

Sellivan, L. 2014. Horizontal alternatives to vertical lists. Blog post: http://leoxicon.blogspot.com/2014/03/horizontal-alternatives-to-vertical.html

Tinkham, T. 1993. The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System 21 (3), 371-380.

Tinkham, T. 1997. The effects of semantic and thematic clustering on the learning of a second language vocabulary. Second Language Research, 13 (2),138-163

Waring, R. 1997. The negative effects of learning words in semantic sets: a replication. System, 25 (2), 261 – 274

Comments
  1. lexicojules says:

    A really interesting post and very similar to one I’ve had rattling round my head for a while and haven’t got round to writing! As interesting as a lot of vocabulary learning research is and as much as it can flag up points worth considering, it always strikes me that it’s too full of caveats (which, to be fair, are often present in the original paper, but tend to get lost in the reporting) to be easily generalizable to most teaching contexts.
    The paper that really made me smile was by Laufer & Hill (2000) … it was actually investigating the effects of electronic dictionary look-ups on vocab retention, but the most interesting thing for me was that it used two groups of students, one in Hong Kong and one in Israel. The results for the two groups were wildly different, with the HK students doing much better, and the researchers concluded that it may be down to a culture difference in terms of attitudes to learning, i.e. very conscientious HK students who did exactly what they were told and their more laid-back, pragmatic Israeli peers who did just enough to get through the immediate task at hand. With so much vocabulary research taking place in Asia, it points up just one more variable (amongst the many you mention and no doubt others we haven’t even thought of) that perhaps no one’s taking into account.
    For me, research is valuable and we should be following it because it helps us think critically about what we do and why, and maybe question ideas we took as given, but it needs to be viewed very much through a lens of common sense and of experience of teaching in a specific context.

  2. Oliver Rose says:

    Interesting points, there are certainly a number of factors apart from just isolated ease of memorization to be considered. One benefit of words being presented in sets of words with same part of speech is that they can more easily be used in sentence patterns for classroom practice. e.g. “What do you usually do on _______?” (Mon/Tues/Wed etc; “What is he ______ about?” (angry/ happy/confused/disappointed etc). This has the benefit of giving practice of grammar/communication as well as contextualized vocab practice.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Yes, I agree. Keith Folse actually makes the same point: ‘It is easy to write materials from semantic sets. Once you present the color names, you can practice using the colors in either a rote drill: “The book is (name of color). I like it;” or in a communicative (two-person) drill: “What color is your (name of object)? My (name of object) is (name of color). What color is your (name of object)?” (Folse, 2004: 47)

    • lexicojules says:

      Oliver, I agree that it’s easier to write activities – and in some cases, especially at lower levels, that a simple repeated structure might be helpful – but it also risks students getting fixed into predictable patterns of usage (e.g. person + is + adjective) that they find harder to get out of later on. I see it a lot in the learner corpus data that I look at, that post-intermediate students don’t develop a range of ways of expressing ideas, in part, I suspect, because they learnt sets of words in fairly fixed patterns early on and tend to stick to them. Presenting a bit of variety, say a handful of adjectives and a handful of verbs, I think encourages them to play around with different ways of express things (e.g. ‘She’s happy’/’She’s enjoying the course’).

      • N says:

        Totally second that! I still shudder at the memory of my B2-level guys ploughing through ‘punishing’, ‘tough’, ‘gruelling’ and ‘arduous’ which they were supposed to use to speak about their experience with training (let alone the bias the set itself established towards training!). On the other hand, I can also remember the frustration of my A2-level students when faced with “OK” as part of the same set as ‘like’, ‘don’t like’, ‘love’, and ‘hate’… What I mean is, I’m all for a sensible variety of patterns to express things – as long as there’s some balance to it, allowing learners form meaningful connections.

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