The ability of young learners to construct word meaning in context


young learners
meaning construction

How to Cite

Butler, Y. G. (2020). The ability of young learners to construct word meaning in context. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 10(3), 547–578.

Number of views: 1005

Number of downloads: 791


This study examines young English readers’ ability to infer word meanings in context and to use metacognitive knowledge for constructing word meanings in relation to their reading performance. The participants were 61 fourth-grade students in the United States, comprising 24 monolingual English-speaking (ME) students and 37 English-as-a-second-language (L2) students; each group was also divided into strong and emergent readers in English. Participants were asked to read aloud paragraphs containing words unfamiliar to them in two different contextual conditions (i.e., explicit and implicit conditions), to guess the unfamiliar word meanings, and to tell a teacher how they arrived at the inferred meanings. Quantitative analyses found significant differences between strong and emergent readers in their oral fluency as well as in their ability to infer word meanings and articulate their use of metacognitive knowledge. Although significant differences were found in the ability to infer word meanings and the use of metacognitive reasoning between ME and L2 students, such differences disappeared after controlling for the size of students’ receptive vocabulary. Qualitative analyses also revealed differences in the kinds of knowledge and strategies that strong and emergent readers relied on when constructing the meaning of unknown words in both explicit and implicit contexts.


Anglin, J. M., Miller, G. A., & Wakefield, P. C. (1993). Vocabulary development: A morphological analysis. Monographs of Society for Research in Child Development, 58, 1-186.

August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., McCaslin, E. S. (1983). Vocabulary development: All contexts are not created equal. The Elementary School Journal, 83(3), 177-181.

Bialystok, E., Luk, G., Peets, K. F., & Yang, S. (2010). Receptive vocabulary differences in monolingual and bilingual children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13(4), 525-531.

Butler, Y. G. (2019). Teaching vocabulary to young second- or foreign-language learners: What can we learn from the research? Language Teaching for Young Learners, 1(1), 4-33.

Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (2014). Reading comprehension and vocabulary: Is vocabulary more important for some aspects of comprehension? L’Année Psychologique, 114, 647-662.

Cain, K., Oakhill, J., & Lemmon, K. (2004). Individual differences in the inference of word meanings from context: The influence of reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, and memory capacity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(4), 671-681.

Can, R. (2016). The relationship between readers’ comprehension skills and answers of cohesive relationships. Anthropologist, 21, 85-92.

Carlo, M. S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Dressler, C., Lippman, D. N., Lively, T. J., & White, C. E. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of English-language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 188-215.

Carton, A. S. (1971). Inferencing: A process in suing and learning language. In P. Pimsleur & T. Quinn (Eds.), The psychology of second language learning (pp. 45-58). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chall, J. S. (1987). Two vocabularies for reading: Recognition and meaning. In M. G. McKeown & M. E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 7-17). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cronbach, L. J. (1942). Measuring knowledge of precise word meaning. The Journal of Educational Research, 36(7), 528-534.

Dale, E. (1965). Vocabulary measurement: technique and major findings. Elementary English, 42, 895-901.

de Bot, K., Paribakht, T. S., & Wesche, M. B. (1997). Towards a lexical processing model for the study of second language vocabulary acquisition: Evidence from ESL reading. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19, 309-329.

De Houwer, A. (2009). Bilingual first language acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Diakidoy, I. N. (1998). The role of reading comprehension in word meaning acquisition during reading. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 13(2), 131-154.

Duff, D., Tomblin, J. B., & Catts, H. (2015). The influence of reading on vocabulary growth: A case for a Matthew effect. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 58, 853-864.

Duke, N. K., & Carlisle, J. (2011). The development of comprehension. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, E. B. Moje, & P. P. Afflerback (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. IV, pp. 199-228). New York: Routledge.

Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, L. M. (1981). Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

García, G. E. (1991). Factors influencing the English reading test performance of Spanish-speaking Hispanic children. Reading Research Quarterly, 26(4), 371-392.

Gibson, T. D., Jarmulowicz, L., Oller, D. K. (2018). Difficulties using standardized tests to identify the receptive expressive gaps in bilingual children’s vocabularies. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 21(2), 328-339.

Goodrich, J. M., & Lonigan, C. J. (2018). Development of first- and second-language vocabulary knowledge among language-minority children: Evidence from single language and conceptual scores. Journal of Child Language, 45(4), 1006-1017.

Goriot, C., van Hout, R., Broersma, M., Lobo, V., McQueen, J. M., & Unsworth, S. (2018). Using the picture vocabulary test in L2 children and adolescents: Effects of L1. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Advance online publication.

Haynes, M. (1993). Patterns and perils of guessing in second language reading. In T. Huckin, M. Haynes, & J. Coady (Eds.), Second language reading and vocabulary learning (pp. 46-64). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Huckin, T., & Block, J. (1993). Strategies for inferring word meaning in context. In T. Huckin, M. Haynes, & J. Coady (Eds.), Second language reading and vocabulary learning (pp. 153-178). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Jimenez, R. T., Garcia, G. E., & Pearson, P. D. (1996). The reading strategies of bilingual Latina/o students who are successful English readers: Opportunities and obstacles. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(1), 90-112.

Ke, S., & Koda, K. (2019). Is vocabulary knowledge sufficient for word-meaning inference? An investigation of the role of morphological awareness in adult L2 learners of Chinese. Applied Linguistics, 40(3), 456-477.

Kucan, L., & Palincsar, A. S. (2011). Locating struggling readers in a reconfigured landscape. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, E. B. Moje, & P. P. Afflerback (Eds.) Handbook of reading research (Vol. IV, pp. 341-358). New York: Routledge.

Laufer, B. (1997). The lexical plight in second language reading: Words you don’t know, words you think you know, and words you can’t guess. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition (pp. 20-34). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mancilla-Martinez, J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2011). The gap between Spanish speakers’ word reading and word knowledge: A longitudinal study. Child Development, 82(5), 1544-1560.

Marulis, L. M., & Neuman, S. B. (2010). The effects of vocabulary intervention on young children’s word learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80(3), 300-335.

Masrai, A. (2019). Vocabulary and reading comprehension revisited: Evidence from high-, mid-, and low-frequency vocabulary knowledge. SAGE Open.

Moghadam, S. H., Zainal, Z., & Ghaderpour, M. (2012). A review on the important role of vocabulary knowledge in reading comprehension performance. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 66(7), 555-563.

Nagy, W. E. (1995). On the role of context in first- and second-language vocabulary learning. Technical Report No. 627, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Nagy, W. E., Diakidoy, I., & Anderson, R. C. (1993). The acquisition of morphology: Learning the contribution of suffixes to the meanings to derivatives. Journal of Reading Behavior, 25, 155-170.

Nagy, W. E., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge: Implications for acquisition and instruction. In M. G. McKeown & M. E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 19-35). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nagy, W. E., & Scott, J. A. (2000). Vocabulary processes. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 3., pp. 269-284). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nassaji, H. (2003). Vocabulary learning from context: Strategies, knowledge sources, and their relationship with success in L2 lexical inferencing. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 645-670.

Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Learning vocabulary in another language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

National Institute of Health. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services.

Paribakht, T. S., & Wesche, M. (1999). Reading and “incidental” L2 vocabulary acquisition: An introspective study of lexical inferring. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 195-224.

Peña, E. D., Bedore, L. M., & Zlatic-Giunta, R. (2002). Category-generation performance of bilingual children: The influence of cognition, category, and language. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 45, 938-947.

Peregoy, S. F., & Boyle, O, F. (2000). English learners reading English: What we know, what we need to know. Theory into Practice, 39(4), 237-247.

Pressley, M., Levin, J. R., & McDaniel, M. A. (1987). Remembering versus inferring what a word means: Mnemonic and contextual approaches. In M. G. McKeown & M. E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 107-127). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Prior, A., Goldina, A., Shany, M., Geva, E., & Katzir, T. (2014). Lexical inference in L2: Predictive roles of vocabulary knowledge and reading skill beyond reading comprehension. Reading and Writing, 27(8), 1467-1484.

Proctor, C. P., Silverman, R. D., Harring, J. R., & Montecillo, C. (2012). The role of vocabulary depth in predicting reading comprehension among English monolingual and Spanish-English bilingual children in elementary school. Reading and Writing, 25, 1635-1664.

Read, J. (2000). Assessing vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. (2014). Size and depth of vocabulary knowledge: What the research shows. Language Learning, 64(4), 913-951.

Schmitt, N., Jiang, X., & Grabe, W. (2011). The percentage of words known in a text and reading comprehension. Modern Language Journal, 95(1), 26-43.

Sénéchal, N. M. (2006). Testing the home literacy model: Parent involvement in kindergarten is differentially related to grade 4 reading comprehension, fluency, spelling, and reading for pleasure. Scientific Studies of Reading, 10, 59-87.

Takanishi, R., & Menestrel, S. L. (2017). Promoting educational success of children and youth learning English: Promising futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Tannenbaum, K. R., Torgesen, J. K., & Wagner, R. K. (2006). Relationships between word knowledge and reading comprehension in third-grade children. Scientific Studies of Reading, 10, 381-398.

Verhoeven, L. (2011). Second language reading acquisition. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, E. B. Moje, & P. P. Afflerback (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, (Vol. IV, pp. 661-683). New York: Routledge.

Walters, J. (2004). Teaching the use of context to infer meaning: A longitudinal survey of L1 and L2 vocabulary research. Language Teaching, 37, 243-252.

Westermann, G., & Mani, N. (Eds.). (2018). Early word learning. London: Routledge.