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Master of Arts




Dr. Frank Boers


In recent years, studies examining the effectiveness of audiovisual input and on-screen text for incidental vocabulary learning have proliferated. However, no studies have explored the potential of repeated viewing with an alternation of L1 subtitles and L2 captions for incidental vocabulary learning although both types of on-screen text have been proved to be beneficial for vocabulary acquisition. Given this gap in the literature, we designed the present study, the rationale for which was guided by the notion of desirable difficulty, the role of retrieval from memory, and conflicting findings regarding the benefits of trial-and-error learning. The research questions were whether using an alternation of L1 subtitles, L2 captions, and no onscreen text (henceforth “none”) leads to greater vocabulary learning compared to using only L2 captions repeatedly and whether the sequence of the different kinds of onscreen text makes a difference to learning gains in the case of repeated viewing. The participants (N = 30) were upper intermediate to advanced ESL learners. They were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, which were watching a TED talk video three times with the sequence of 1) none-subtitles-captions (n = 10), 2) subtitles-captions-none (n = 11), and 3) captions-captions-captions (n = 9). Eleven target words were selected from the video. A meaning recall test format was adopted for a pre-test, an immediate post-test, and a delayed post-test. The tests were administered at 1-week intervals. A listening comprehension test was administered after the first viewing to ensure the participants attended to the content of the TED talk video and vocabulary learning could be ascribed to incidental learning. A meaning recognition test was administered as part of delayed post-testing as well. Finally, a questionnaire elicited the participants’ perceptions of the usefulness of the different viewing sequences. The output of mixed-effects logistic regression analysis revealed that incidental vocabulary acquisition definitely happened through the repeated viewing, but no significant difference was found in the effectiveness of the three viewing conditions. That significance was not reached is unsurprising considering the small study sample. However, the descriptive statistics and the questionnaire responses suggested that using a sequence of subtitles, captions, and none may facilitate word learning at the meaning recall level compared to using captions only. The results thus call for more research on the merits of this sequence of viewing a video with decreasing support from onscreen text.

Summary for Lay Audience

Researchers have focused on the potential benefit of audiovisual material such as TV shows, movies, and online video for vocabulary learning. They also have examined how using subtitles shown in the first language and captions shown in the second language contribute to learning. Studies have indeed found that second language learners can pick up new words from watching videos, and that using subtitles and captions can facilitate this learning process. We found that it is common to play or watch the same video more than once both inside and outside L2 classrooms. However, no studies have examined whether using an alternation of subtitles and captions will be more effective than watching the same video more than once with the same type of onscreen textual support. Neither have any studies examined whether the precise sequence of using subtitles, captions or no onscreen text (henceforth “none”) might make a difference. This exploratory study sought preliminary answers to these questions. 30 English as a Second Language (ESL) learners were assigned to one of three groups who were all requested to watch a TED Talk video three times, but under different conditions: 1) none-captions-subtitles, 2) subtitles-captions-none, and 3) captions-captions-captions. They were asked to take a test prior to watching the video, a test immediately after watching the video the third time, and a test one week later. The test was about 11 target words selected from the video. The participants were also asked to complete a listening comprehension test after the first viewing of the video. In addition, they completed a questionnaire about their own perceptions of the benefits of repeated viewing and the usefulness of onscreen text at the end of the study. The findings revealed that repeated viewing indeed fosters vocabulary learning. The findings also tentatively suggest that using a sequence of subtitles, captions, and none may better facilitate word learning compared to a sequence that using captions three times. The findings can inform language teachers and learners on how to use videos like TED Talks strategically for the purpose of vocabulary acquisition.

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