In the latest issue of ‘Language Teaching’, there’s a ‘state-of-the-art’ article by Frank Boers entitled ‘Glossing and vocabulary learning’. The effect of glosses (‘a brief definition or synonym, either in L1 or L2, which is provided with [a] text’ (Nation, 2013: 238)) on reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition has been well researched over the years. See Kim et al. (2020) for just one recent meta-analysis.

It’s a subject I have written about before on this blog (see here), when I focussed on Plonsky ad Ziegler (2016), a critical evaluation of a number of CALL meta-analyses, including a few that investigated glosses. Plonsky and Ziegler found that glosses can have a positive effect on language learning, that digital glosses may be more valuable than paper-based ones, and that both L1 and L2 glosses can be beneficial (clearly, the quality / accuracy of the gloss is as important as the language it is written in). Different learners have different preferences. Boers’ article covers similar ground, without, I think, adding any new takeaways. It concludes with a predictable call for further research.

Boers has a short section on the ‘future of glossing’ in which he notes that (1) ‘onscreen reading [is] becoming the default mode’, and (2) that ‘materials developers no longer need to create glosses themselves, but can insert hyperlinks to online resources’. This is not the future, but the present. In my last blog post on glossing (August 2017), I discussed Lingro, a digital dictionary tool that you can have running in the background, allowing you to click on any word on any website and bring up L1 or L2 glosses. My reservation about Lingro was that the quality of the glosses left much to be desired, relying as they did on Wiktionary. Things would be rather different if it used decent content – sourced, for example, from Oxford dictionaries, Robert (for French) or Duden (for German).

And this is where the content for the Google Dictionary for Chrome extension comes from. It’s free, and takes only seconds to install. It allows you to double-click on a word to bring up translations or English definitions. One more click will take you to a more extensive dictionary page. It also allows you to select a phrase or longer passage and bring up translations generated by Google Translate. It allows you to keep track of the items you have looked up, and to download these on a spreadsheet, which can then be converted to flashcards (e.g. Quizlet) if you wish. If you use the Safari browser, a similar tool is already installed. It has similar features to the Google extension, but also offers you the possibility of linking to examples of the targeted word in web sources like Wikipedia.

Boers was thinking of the provision of hyperlinks, but with these browser extensions it is entirely up to the reader of a text to decide how many and which items to look up, what kind of items (single words, phrases or longer passages) they want to look up, how far they want to explore the information available to them, and what they want to do with the information (e.g. store / record it).

It’s extraordinary that a ‘state-of-the-art article’ in an extremely reputable journal should be so out of date. The value of glossing in language learning is in content-focussed reading, and these tools mean that any text on the web can be glossed. I think this means that further research of the kind that Boers means would be a waste of time and effort. The availability of free technology does not, of course, solve all our problems. Learners will continue to benefit from guidance, support and motivation in selecting appropriate texts to read. They will likely benefit from training in optimal ways of using these browser extensions. They may need help in finding a balance between content-focussed reading and content-focussed reading with a language learning payoff.


Boers, F. (2022). Glossing and vocabulary learning. Language Teaching, 55 (1), 1 – 23

Kim, H.S., Lee, J.H. & Lee, H. (2020). The relative effects of L1 and L2 glosses on L2 learning: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research. December 2020.

Nation, I.S.P. (2013). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Plonsky, L. & Ziegler, N. (2016). The CALL–SLA interface: insights from a second-order synthesis. Language Learning & Technology 20 / 2: 17 – 37

  1. chasholmes says:

    As always a very useful post. It’s very timely for me as I’m currently working with a learner who needs to gain a CSCS card ( a safety certificate that is necessary to work in the construction industry in the UK). Because of his relatively low level he has a large number of vocabulary items to learn and even higher level learners would probably struggle with terms like midsole. At the moment I’m using Quizlet but I’ll now add a sentence with the term in context taken from the test. It will be interesting to see the effect. Thanks again.

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