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Access to a Dictionary for Better Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary Command: A Study of Indonesian College Freshmen Reading Discipline-Related Texts in English
Kurnia, Nani Setyono
Moeliono, Anton M.
Applied English Linguistics Program Graduate School Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia
Theses - Master Thesis
Nani Setyono Kurnia Master Theses.pdf
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Indonesian college students have been reported to be weak in English. There is great concern that this weakness obstructs the absorption of foreign literature on their field of study written in English. To read academic texts in a foreign language (FL) with good comprehension presupposes several things, among others: adequate command of the FL, a sound general reading ability, and enough background knowledge. Previous studies have revealed that the application of good reading ability in FL reading (either transferred from such good ability in the native tongue reading or learned from a training in FL reading) only works when the reader has passed a certain threshold of competence in the FL. Proficiency in the FL is thus very important for the successful exercise of good reading ability. It has also been shown that language proficiency plays a bigger part in determining reading comprehension than does background knowledge.
The vocabulary component of language proficiency proves to be the best single predictor of reading comprehension. Readers also feel that the greatest need is for vocabulary. It does not mean, however, that syntax is less important than vocabulary. It is easier for readers to realize that they face an unknown vocabulary item than to realize their ignorance of a syntactical pattern. That is why in the process of comprehending a text they tend to ignore the structural information or even to impose a false structure to match whatever idea they have inferred from the text's lexical items.
If the processing of vocabulary items is as decisive as discussed above, students with limited mastery of English may benefit from the use of dictionaries in their attempt to understand the English reading material of the course they are pursuing. The present study investigated whether or not access to a dictionary while reading led to better reading comprehension and post-reading vocabulary knowledge.
Data were collected from a 100-minute session with freshmen in the Psychology Department of a private university in Jakarta. The students were randomly put into two reading conditions: with and without access to a copy of the English-Indonesian Dictionary compiled by Echols and Shadily. Sixty-five students participated in the study, 30 read with the dictionary, 35 without. Two English texts were used, 247 and 249 running words in length, both taken from psychology textbooks. The students were instructed to read each text (15 minutes for text I and 20 minutes for text II), return the text to the proctor, and to write in Indonesian whatever they could remember from the text. Before reading the first text and after writing the recall protocol of the second text they completed a vocabulary test. In the vocabulary pretest which consisted of 50 chosen text items and 27 other items, the students marked each item for either familiarity or unfamiliarity and supplied, in Indonesian, all the meaning(s) of those items claimed to be familiar. The vocabulary posttest consisted of the same 50 targeted items in a multiple-choice format. The students had to mark the correct Indonesian meaning of those items from the provided four options or choose the "don't know" option.
Due to wide prior familiarity, problematic supplied definitions in the pretest, and distractors weakness in the posttest, 12 items were not included in the analysis. The scores on the remaining 38 targeted items were used as the pre-reading and post-reading vocabulary measures. A simple prepositional analysis based on pausal units was used to score the recall protocols. The scores on text I and text II protocols were combined, generating a single measure of reading comprehension. Analysis of covariance was conducted to test the significance of the difference in post-reading vocabulary and reading comprehension between the group which had access to the dictionary while reading and the group which did not, the pre-reading vocabulary measure as the covariate.
The results showed that, differences in pre-reading vocabulary knowledge being taken into account, both reading comprehension and post-reading vocabulary knowledge were significantly better in the group who read with access to the dictionary. Class observation, examination of spontaneous notes made on the texts sheets, and cross-checking these notes with the protocols as well as with the answers on the vocabulary tests brought the following additional findings.
All students in the ditionary-access condition consulted the dictionary, but the extent of consultation varied widely. Some students consulted the dictionary only a few times whereas others kept on flipping the pages of the dictionary even after the reading time was over. Even though dictionary use was not monitored in detail and with certainty, obvious differences between those who read with a dictionary at hand and those who did not in terms of the spontaneous notes they made on the text sheets gave solid confirmation that most of the notes were the results of dictionary consultation. There were some interesting points related to this look up endeavor.
The study gave further support to the existence of lexical confusion caused by deceptively familiar looking items. Most students had claimed to have known the item likely to mean similar or to be fond of, a confidence which could explain why scarcely any of the students seemed to have looked up this item in the dictionary and very few eventually chose the correct option probable in the vocabulary posttest. This finding underscores the importance of verifying the correctness of our guesses and of keeping in mind the possibility of different meanings. Consulting the dictionary, however, did not always lead the dictionary user to the right information. Some students lacked the necessary skill of dictionary consultation. The meaning of a lexical item often needed to be negogiated; an explanation or an equivalent provided by the dictionary was sometimes not directly applicable. Reading all the examples, comparing them with the context in which the item appeared could direct the user to the accurate meaning. The user must also be aware of the limitations of a dictionary. Space considerations may compel the compiler to skip some information or even to skip an entry altogether.
Reading an entry through could not only give users more options and more information to negotiate an item's meaning, but also lead users to the correct meaningful chunk they might previously have been unaware of. Those who found the meaning of attend to from the dictionary, for instance, might initially have meant to look up attend instead of attend to.
The findings discussed so far suggest that Indonesian college students should be encouraged to make use of dictionaries in their effort to comprehend academic texts written in English, and for maximum benefit, the necessary skill of dictionary consultation needs to be developed.
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