Thematic Clustering in Second Language Vocabulary Learning: Scenarios versus Mental Scenes Development

| December 1, 2012
Thematic Clustering in Second Language Vocabulary Learning: Scenarios versus Mental Scenes Development

Keywords: Thematic clustering, vocabulary learning, mental sets, scenarios, L2 word

Luca Rognoni
University of Padua, Italy

Carla Cristina Munhoz Xavier
University of Padua, Italy

Bio Data
Luca Rognoni is a PhD student in English Linguistics at the University of Padua, Italy. He is also a qualified English teacher and he has worked for five years in the Italian schooling system. His research interests mainly centre around intelligibility between speakers of English as a foreign language from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds, the phonetics of the acquisition of English as an L2, both at segmental and suprasegmental level, and nonverbal communication. He is also interested in CALL and in the application of new technologies to the teaching/learning process of foreign languages.

Carla Cristina Munhoz Xavier is a PhD student in English Linguistics at the University of Padua, Italy. She holds an MSc in Developmental Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh (UK). She is also a qualified English teacher and she has taught English to young learners and adults in Brazil. Her main research interests are phonetics and phonology (with special interest in Brazilian learners of English L2), conversation analysis (with special interest in bilingual interaction), and bilingual education.

Thematic clustering has been established to be a facilitating strategy in presenting words in a second language (L2) to be memorized (Tinkham 1997). Indeed, groups of similar words based on psychological association and shared thematic concepts (Al-Jabri 2005) appear to be easier to learn than the ones based only on semantic and syntactic similarity. In this study, assuming the validity of thematic clustering, we explored for the first time the nature of the relations between the lexical items in such groups by comparing two alternative organizing principles: mental scenes (Charniak 1975) and scenarios (Schank & Abelson 1977). In mental scenes, words of different classes are linked together with strong cognitive associations, which are based on a shared thematic feature (Tinkham 1997). The effectiveness of this grouping technique in learning L2 words has already been presented by Tinkham (1997) and Finkbeiner & Nicol (2003). Scenarios, also known as scripts, provide a more dynamic thematic link than mental scenes (Sanford and Garrod 1981; 1998) and consist of standard sequences of events that describe a situation (Riesbeck & Schank 1978). This organizing principle is used here for the first time in a study about L2 word learning. An experiment was devised to compare the subjects’ performance in recognizing the meaning of written pseudo-words under the two conditions. Our hypothesis was that lists of words presented in scenarios could be learned better than lists organized in mental scenes. The results showed no significant difference between the subjects’ accuracy scores, although the very high accuracy scores in both conditions proves once again the effectiveness of thematic clustering in L2 vocabulary learning. The recorded subjects’ preferences for a list or the other were consistent with our predictions about the effectiveness of scenarios. We conclude that although scenarios are generally perceived as more effective, mental sets work better in absence of contextual cues. This is because mental sets can activate deeper psychological connections. The results of this study should be taken into account in designing effective teaching materials and updating traditional teaching practices that are still based on semantic clustering.

[private] See page: 69-80

Download PDF


Category: Quarterly Journal, Volume 14 Issue 4