Discourse structure and word learning

Pragmatics and Society 2 (2):260-281 (2011)
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The extant literature on discourse comprehension distinguishes between two types of texts: narrative and expository. Narrative discourse tells readers a story by giving them an account of events; the narration informs and/or persuades the readership by using textual elements such as theme, plot, and characters. Expository discourse explains or informs the readership by using concepts and techniques such as definition, sequence, categorization, and cause-effect relations. The present study is based on two experiments. In Experiment 1, we compared the two discourse types to examine if college students would be better at extracting the meanings of novel words from one of the two types of discourse structure than from the other. The findings indicated that participants were significantly better at inferring the meaning of novel words from narrative compared to expository discourse. In Experiment 2, we examined the number of situation models that a reader is required to mentally construct, as a possible characteristic that influences the difficulty of learning new word meaning within narrative discourse. Contrary to intuition, fewer novel words were learned in a single-situation, as opposed to a multi-situation model condition, suggesting that the additional inferencing needed to construct multiple models also promotes word learning. Results are discussed with respect to how the structure of written discourse can facilitate word learning in a reader’s native language. Implications for education and assessment are also discussed.



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Brent Strickland
Institut Jean Nicod

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