The effect of reading purpose on incidental vocabulary learning and retention among elementary Iranian learners of English


1 Abbaszadegan Institute for Educational Research, Mashhad, Iran

2 Hakim Sabzevari University, Iran


This study, situated in an EFL context, aimed at discovering the ways purposes behind reading
activities  influence  vocabulary  knowledge  gain  and  retrieval.  Seventy  five  elementary  learners
of  English  were  randomly  assigned  to  three  groups  of  ‘free  reading’,  ‘reading  comprehension’
and ‘reading to summarize’. A modified text was administered to all the three groups. The data
in  both  immediate  and  delayed  post-test  revealed  that  both  vocabulary  learning  and  retention
were  greatly  influenced  by  the  purposeful  reading  activity.  The  Scheffe  post-hoc  test  revealed
that  the  mean  scores  of  the  ‘summarizing’  and  ‘reading  comprehension’  groups  were
significantly  different  from  the  mean  score  of  the  ‘free  reading’  group.  But  the  results  did  not
indicate  any  significant  differences  between  the  mean  scores  of  the  two  groups  of
‘summarizing’  and  ‘reading  comprehension’.  However  the  strength  of  association  for  the
immediate  post-test  and  the  delayed  one  showed  that  a  large  part  of  the  variance  between  the
three groups could be explained by the reading purpose. 


Main Subjects

After  decades  of  neglect  (Meara,  1980),
acquisition  of  vocabulary,  a  critical
component  of  L2  proficiency  (Hafiz  &
Tudor,  1990;  Horst,  Cobb,  &  Meara,  1998;
Pitts, White, & Krashen, 1989), has received
perceivable  attention  in  the  field  of  second
language  acquisition  research.  This  growth
of  interest  in  the  domain  of  vocabulary
development  centers  on  different  themes
including  incidental  versus  intentional
vocabulary learning (Ellis & He, 1999).
Despite  a  bulk  of  research  existing  on  L2
incidental  word  learning  (e.g.,  Brown,
Waring,  &  Donkaewbua,  2008;  Cain,
Oakhill,  &  Bryant,  2004;  Daskalovska,
2011;  Day,  Omura,  &  Hiramatsu,  1991),
relatively few researchers have explored the
impact  of  reading  purpose  on  incidentally
acquiring  vocabulary  knowledge.  It  is  not
yet  clear  how  the  variability  of  reasons
behind  reading  activity  might  affect  the
amount  and  kind  of  vocabulary  knowledge
the learners acquire.  
A  core  theoretical  assumption  behind
constructivism  is  the  centrality  of  reader’s
purposes  or  goals  in  the  learning  situations
(Cambourne, 2002). Reading researchers see
reading  an  intentional  act  (Kulikowich  &
Alexander,  2010)  during  which  strategic
readers  process  text  to  meet  their  reading
goals  (Burton  &  Daneman,  2007;  Rapp  &
The effect of reading purpose on incidental vocabulary learning  65   
Kendeou, 2007).  In the realm of vocabulary
development  through  reading,  empirical
evidence  has  proved  direct  relationship
between the readers’ cognitive processing of
texts  and  the  particular  purpose  behind  the
reading activity which in turn influences the
rate and the amount of information retrieval
and  recall  (Cerdán  &  Vidal-Abarca,  2008;
McCrudden, Maglianob, & Schraw, 2010).  
van  den  Broek,    Lorch,  Linderholm,  and
Gustafson  (2001),  while  assigning  college-aged participants to a read for entertainment
purposes  condition  or  to  a  read  for  study
purposes  condition,  found  that  the  type  of
inferences  generated  during  reading  was
greatly  influenced  by  readers’  goals.
Whereas  the  former  group  generated  more
free  associations  and  more  evaluative
comments on the writing or interest value of
the text, readers of the latter group generated
more  coherence-building  inferences  which
in  turn  resulted  in  a  better  information
retrieval and retention.
A  study  by  Linderholm  and  van  den  Broek,
(2002)  examined  the  extent  to  which  low-
and high-WMC (working memory capacity)
readers  alter  their  cognitive  processes  to  fit
the  reading  purpose  under  the  same  two
conditions of  entertainment or study. One of
the  results  was  an  indication  of  low-WMC
readers’  least  demanding  processes  in  the
reading for the study group. The results also
indicated  that  all  readers  adjusted  cognitive
processes  to  fit  the  reading  purpose.
Linderholm  and  Wilde  (2010),  while
investigating college students’ beliefs  about
comprehension  when  reading  for  different
purposes, found that the students’ actual test
performance did not differ between readings
for  entertainment  or  study  purposes.  They
found  that  although  readers  engaged  in
different  strategies  when  reading  in  a  study
purpose  situation  versus  an  entertainment-focused  reading  situation,  the  rate  of
information  recall  did  not  seem  to  be
significant for the two groups.
Bråten  and  Samuelstuen  (2004)  reported  a
direct relationship between students’ level of
topic  knowledge  and  the  effect  of  reading
purpose  on  reported  use  of  memorization
and  elaboration  strategies  just  for  readers
who  read  the  text  for  the  purpose  of
discussing  text  content  and  not  for  those
who  read  for  the  purposes  of  test  taking  or
summary writing.  
Smith  (1967)  found  that  while  both  good
and  poor  readers  read  for  the  two  purposes
of  reading  for  details  and  reading  for
general  impressions  with  equal  success,
good  readers  could  make  more  adjustments
to reading purpose than poor readers.
Swanborn  and  de  Glopper’s  study  (2002)
revealed  significant  differences  between  the
three groups of free reading, reading for text
comprehension,  and  reading  to  learn  about
the  topic  among  the  students  of  Grade  6.
Their study  also indicated that  good  readers
were  more  successful  in  incidental  word
The previously cited works mostly explored
the  effect  of  learners’  reading  purpose  on
incidental vocabulary gain while the learners
just  received  input  tasks.  However,  what
distinguishes  the  present  study  from  the
prior ones is its examination of the effect of
reading  purpose  in  both  input  and  written
output  tasks  simultaneously.  Moreover,  this
study addresses the learning and retention of
elementary level learners in an EFL  context
where reading is usually the chief source of
receiving  language  input,  while  the
aforementioned  studies  did  not  focus  on
these learners in this special kind of context.  
Research questions
This  study  explored  learners’  incidental
vocabulary learning and retention in an EFL
context  (i.e.,  elementary  Iranian  learners)
under three conditions: a) learners who read
the  text  for  comprehension,  b)  learners  who
had a free reading of the text, and c) learners
who  read  and  summarized  the  text.  Two
broad research questions guided the study:
1.  Does  reading  purpose  have  any
impacts  on  incidental  vocabulary
2.  Does  reading  purpose  have  any
impacts  on  incidental  vocabulary
The participants were 75 female high school
fourth  graders  with  the  age  range  of  17-19
years.  To  select  these  participants,  the
Oxford  Placement  Test  (reference)  was
administered to 99 students who had learned
English  only  in  the  formal  system  of
education  at  schools  and  had  no  experience
of taking part in language learning classes or
institutes.  The  results  of  the  placement  test
showed  that  the  majority  of  participants
(n=75)  were  at  the  elementary  level  who
were  randomly  assigned  to  three  groups  of
free  reading,  reading  comprehension  and
reading to summarize.
Text and the tests
The  input  text  ‘A good night’s work’ was
selected from a graded reader series Reading
Comprehension  4  by  Louis  Fidge.    Eight
readability formulae scored the text as ‘very
easy  to  read’  and  suitable  for  grade  4.
Nearly  all  difficult  words  were  put  into  a
questionnaire  and  administered  to  ten
experienced  English  teachers  to  check  the
degree  of  familiarity  of  learners  with  the
words. Twenty words which were labeled by
the  English  teachers  as  ‘the  students  have
never  seen  the  word’  were  chosen  for  the
study.  To  engage  the  learners  in  noticing,
and  to  assist  incidental  vocabulary  learning,
the  text  was  enhanced  by  bolding  and
Persian  glossing  of  all  difficult  words.  The
post-test questionnaire was a mixture of both
Vocabulary  Knowledge  Scale  (Paribakht  &
Wesche,  cited  in  Paribakht,  2005)  and  its
modified  version  by  Brown  (2008).  As
mentioned  previously,  twenty  words  which
the teachers believed the learners were never
familiar with, were selected for the test. The
test  intended  to  evaluate  the  rate  of
vocabulary  learning  as  the  byproduct  of
reading for different purposes. The same test
but with a different order of items was used
as  the  delayed  post-test  for  checking  gains
of retention rate after two weeks.
The students were divided into three groups:
a)  reading  comprehension,  b)  free  reading
and  c)  summarizing.  In  order  to  determine
the  level  of  the  participants,  an  Oxford
Placement  Test  was  administered.  Based  on
the  tests’  interpretations,  the  three  groups’
level  was  determined  as  elementary.  The
normality  of  the  scores  of  the  three  groups
was  also  checked  through  different
procedures on SPSS.  Performing a one-way
ANOVA,  it  was  ensured  that  no  significant
differences existed between the three groups
prior to the treatment.
Next,  the  text  was  administered  to  the  three
groups  of  learners.  The  learners  were  not
forewarned  about  the  two  vocabulary  gain
tests  that  were  to  be  administered  shortly
afterward  and  with  a  time  interval  of  two
weeks.  One  group  was  asked  to  read  the
enhanced text as they liked. The reading for
comprehension  group was asked to read the
same  text  and  answer  the  questions  which
followed the text. It is worth mentioning that
the  questions  were  only  in  multiple-choice
and  true/false  formats.  No  essay  questions
were  given  to  the  learners  so  that  the  effect
of  writing  and  generation  would  be  more
distinctive  for  the  summarizing  group.  The
summarizing  group  read  the  text  and
summarized  the  story  on  the  blank  sheets
which  were  available  to  them.  Immediately
after  finishing  the  reading  phase,  the
vocabulary  test  was  administered  to  the
learners.  The  test  was  made  up  of  twenty
vocabularies  (six  nouns,  thirteen  verbs  and
one  adjective)  from  the  bolded  and  glossed
words.  The  students  were  tested  both  for
recognition  and  production  of  words.  Using
the target word in the sentence with the true
part  of  speech  was  the  most  preferred
In  scoring  the  test,  choice  A  (I  know  what
this word/phrase means and I can use it in a
sentence)  received  a  value  of  3,  choice  B
received a value 2 if the correct meaning of
the  word  was  given  by  the  learner  and  a
value  of  1  if  the  meaning  was  not  correct.
Choice C was given a value of 1 and choice
D  was  given  a  value  of  0.  Since  word
learning  is  a  gradual  and  incremental
process,  a  second  test  was  administered  to
ensure  the  retention  of  the  learned  words.
The participants’ vocabulary retention gains
were  tested  by  the  same  test  but  with  a
different order within a time interval of two
Having  obtained  the  immediate  posttest
data,  they  were  first  screened  and  extreme
scores  were  discarded.  Table  1  shows  the
descriptive statistics for the screened data of
immediate (learning) post-test.

FR: Free Reading, RC: Reading Comprehension,
Sum: Summarizing, S: Skewness, SE: Standard Error,
SR: Skewness ratio
Ensuring  the  normality  of  the  data  through
Shapiro-wilk  test  and  other  procedures  on
SPSS,  the  parametric  test  of  one-way
ANOVA  (Table  2)  was  used  to  test  H01
which  states  reading  purpose  has  no
statistically  significant  effect  on  incidental
vocabulary learning.

The  probability  level  of  the  ANOVA  in
Table  2  rejects  H01  (P<.05).  That  is,  the
ANOVA  test  shows  that  reading  purpose
had  a  statistically  significant  effect  on
incidental  vocabulary  learning.  The  effect
size  or  strength  of  association  of  0.17,
according  to  Dörnyei  (2005),  indicates  a
large  effect  size  which  means  that  17%  of
the  between  group  variance  is  due  to  the
difference in the reading purpose.  
The  ANOVA  test  showed  the  significant
effect  of  reading  purpose.  Therefore,  to
understand  where  exactly  the  difference
existed,  a  post  hoc  test  of  Scheffe  was

As  the  data  in  Table  3  show,  free  reading
group  is  significantly  different  from  both
reading  comprehension  and  summarizing
groups  (P<.05).  However,  the  difference
between  reading  comprehension  and
summarizing  groups  is  not  significant
The same procedure followed for immediate
posttest  was  followed  to  ensure  the
appropriateness  and  normality  of  the  data.
That  is,  the  data  were  explored  to  discard
possible  outliers.  Table  4  shows  the
descriptive statistics for the screened data of
the delayed (retention) posttest.

Ensuring  the  normality  of  the  data  through
Shapiro-wilk  test  on  SPSS,  the  parametric
test of one-way ANOVA (Table 2) was used
to test H02. Table 5 displays the result of the
One-way  ANOVA  to  test  the  second  null

The  probability  level  of  the  ANOVA  in
Table  5  rejects  H022  (P<.05).  That  is,  the
ANOVA  test  shows  that  reading  purpose
had  a  statistically  significant  effect  on
incidental  vocabulary  retention.  The
magnitude  of  partial  eta  squared  in  Table  5
shows  the  strength  of  association  or  the
effect  size  is .40  which  is  a  much  greater
than  what  Dörnyei  (2005)  regard  a  large
effect  size.  The  unadjusted  effect  sizes  for
the study are also .68 for the delayed and .21
for the immediate posttest.
In  order  to  understand  where  exactly  the
difference  between  groups  existed,  a  post
hoc test of Scheffe was performed

As  the  data  in  Table  6  show,  free  reading
group  is  significantly  different  from  both
reading  comprehension  and  summarizing
groups  (P<.05).  However,  the  difference
between  reading  comprehension  and
summarizing  groups  is  not  significant
The  first  research  question  addressed  the
rate  of  vocabulary  learning  based  on  the
reading purpose. As it was mentioned in the
result  section,  the  findings  of  the  study  did
reveal  statistically  significant  differences
between the three groups (Table 2). In other
words,  the  result  of  this  study  did  indicate
some  impacts  of  reading  purpose  on
incidental  vocabulary  learning.  Concerning
the  second  research  question  which
investigated  whether  the  learners’  reading
purpose  had  any  impacts  on  their  lexical
retention,  the  result  of  the  study  also
indicated  a  statistically  significant  effect
(Table 5).
As the results of Scheffe tests (Tables 3 & 6)
in the result section indicated the two groups
of  reading  comprehension  and  summarizing
yielded a better outcome than free reading in
both immediate and delayed posttests. There
are several reasons which might have led to
this  outcome.  This  outperformance  can  be
due to deeper processing (Craik & Lockhart,
1972) of the text, the more involvement load
(Laufer  &  Hulstijn,  2001)  and  the  more
amount  of  time  which  the  participants  in
these  two  groups  spent  while  reading  and
answering  the  post-reading-comprehension
questions  and  summarizing.  The  cognitive
psychologist,  Eysenck  (cited  in  Mahdavy,
2011),  agrees  that  processing  new  lexical
information  more  elaborately  results  in  a
better  retention  than  processing  it  less
It seemed that the factor of need also played
an  important  role  here.  Two  groups  of
reading  comprehension  and  summarizing
had to re-read the text in order to answer the
comprehension  questions,  or  summarize  the
text.  They  had  to  re-read  to  confirm
understandings,  and  to  clarify  details,  what
free  reading  group  felt  no  need  for.  The
summarizing  group  had  the  opportunity  to
fill  the  gaps  and  the  holes  in  their
interlanguage  (IL)  while  reconstructing  the
text (Swain & Lapkin, 1995) and generating
sentences.  Besides,  while  answering
comprehension questions learners of reading
comprehension  group  might  have  had  to
guess  the  meaning  of  new  words  from
context  or  their  background  knowledge;
what  subjects  in  free  reading  group  seemed
not  to  have  the  chance  for,  neither  might
they have felt the need to do so because they
know  they  were  reading  for  their  own
enjoyment. As noted above, this elaboration
probably increased the chances that the word
and  its  meaning  would  be  available  for  use
at  a  later  time.  In  a  nutshell,  in  both
immediate  and  delayed  post-tests,  free
reading  group  had  the  lowest  vocabulary
acquisition  rate  which  is  in  line  with
Swanborn, and de Glopper’s (2002) finding.   
Contrary  to  expectations,  summarizing  did
not  lead  to  higher  incidental  word  learning
gains  than  reading  for  comprehension.
While this finding might lend partial support
to Laufer and Hulstijn’s (2001) involvement
load  hypothesis  (i.e.  the  effectiveness  of  a
task  is  determined  by  the  involvement  load
it induces irrespective of whether the task is
input  or  output  oriented),  it  might  also  be
due  to  the  fact  that,  in  the  Iranian
educational  system,  students  are  mostly
familiar and somehow skillful in reading for
comprehension  and  weak  in  summarizing.
However,  the  study  did  indicate  a
considerable  difference  between  the
recognition  and  production  scores  of  the
summarizing group and the other two groups
of  free  reading  and  reading  for
comprehension group in both posttests.   
This  group  outperformed  the  other  two
groups  in  the  production  scores.  This  group
also used acquired vocabularies within more
complex and longer sentences. It seems that
because  of  the  effect  of  writing  and
production  this  group  had  a  better  chance
and  bravery  to  produce  and  generate
sentences  instead  of  just  giving  the  Persian
translation of the word, a finding which is in
line  with  Griffin  and  Harley  (1996),
Mondria  and  Wiersma  (2004),  and  Waring
(1997)  who  suggest  receptive  learning  is
more  effective  in  contributing  to  receptive
knowledge,  whereas  productive  learning
may  yield  better  outcome  in  increasing
productive  knowledge,  but  it  contrasts  with
Hashemi  Shahrakia,    and  Kassaian’s (2011)
finding.  It  seems  that  productive  learning
due to the deeper processing brings a higher
awareness  of  vocabulary  use  to  the  learners
of  the  language.  Following  Brown  and
Payne  (1994)  who  see  conversion  of
Applied Research on English Language: 3(1)     61
receptive  vocabulary  into  productive
vocabulary  as  the  final  stage  of  vocabulary
learning,  one  can  feel  the  importance  of  a
writing  course  and  more  specifically
summarizing  in  an  educational  setting.  
Furthermore, the study has also found that it
is  more  difficult  for  foreign  language
learners  to  develop  productive  vocabulary
than receptive one.
The highest rate of incidental word learning
was  found  for  the  word  ‘detective’.  This
could  be  attributed  to  the  higher  frequency
of this particular word form as  compared to
those  of  the  others,  suggesting  that  the
frequency  of  a  target  feature  (Tekmen  &
Daloglu,  2006)  in  L2  input  could  play  a
crucial  role  in  learners’  attentional
allocation.  In  other  words  the  probability  of
learning  a  word  from  context  increases
substantially  with  additional  occurrences  of
the word.  
Apart from the word ‘detective’, words such
as ‘handcuffs’, ‘torch’, and ‘two-way-radio’
are  among  the  most  learned  and  retained
vocabularies.  One  possible  reason  might  be
the  place  and  position  of  these  nouns  in  the
text.  These  words  were  introduced  in  the
first  lines  of  the  passage,  where  the  mind  is
still  fresh.  Therefore,  as  VanPatten,
Williams,  and  Rott  (2004)  argue  there  are
some  input  features  and  learner  factors
which  determine  noticing  and  recalling  of  a
specific word form. Input factors include the
salience of the target form (Schmidt, 2001);
the  ratio  of  known  to  unknown  words
(Laufer,  1992);  meaningfulness  and
communicative  value  of  the  word
(VanPatten,  1990);  the  quality  of
information  processing  (Laufer  &  Hulstijn,
2001);  the  number  of  occurrences  of  the
unknown  word,  the  importance  of  the
unknown  word  to  text  comprehension
(Paribakht,  2005),  and  the  importance  and
significance  of  the  word  to  the  learner
herself; and learner factors include learners’
language  proficiency;  their  communicative
need  (Williams,  2001);  and  individual
interests  and  differences  (Ellis,  2004)  both
in  terms  of  “abilities”  and  “propensities”
(i.e.  learning  style,  motivation,  anxiety,
personality, ..).  
This  study  led  to  the  discovery,  however,
that  many  errors  are  not  traceable  to  the
structure  of  the  first  language,  but  are  the
result  of  intralingual  factors,  such  as
differentiating  the  correct  forms  of  the
words.  The  word  ‘fair’  has  been  wrongly
translated  and  used  32  times  in  the
immediate post-test. This large proportion of
wrong  answers  was  due  to  students
misunderstanding  of  the  word  form.  This
word  was  mistaken  for  18  times  with  the
word  ‘afraid’,  10  with  ‘failure’, three  with
‘fire’,  and  one  with  ‘near’.  None  of  these
errors  shows  any  traces  of  learners’  first
language,  i.e.  Persian  language.  First
language  influence  just  appeared  to  be
strongest  in  complex  word  order  and  in
word-for-word  translations  of  phrases  such
as ‘two-way-radio’ in two groups of reading
comprehension  and  free  reading.  The
summarizing  group  mostly  used  the  exact
text  phrases  or  sentences  with  greatest
accuracy in grammaticality of sentences.
Nevertheless,  the  large  effect  sizes  of  .21
and  .68  for  the  immediate  and  delayed
posttests  denote  that  purposeful  reading  led
to  one-fifth  and  more  than  one-half  of  a
standard deviation improvement in outcome,
respectively.  These  figures  also  denote  that
59% and 73% of the control group would be
below  average  person  in  experimental
group,  correspondingly  (Coe,  2002).These
large  effect  sizes  of  both  immediate  and
delayed  post-tests  extremely  suggest  the
impact  of  having  and  setting  a  purpose  of
reading  on  incidental  vocabulary  learning
and retention.  
Theoretically,  the  findings  of  the  present
study  generally  provide  positive  support  of
the  role  of  readers’  purpose  on  incidental
gain  of  vocabulary  knowledge.  Creating
purpose  in  the  classroom  reading  situation
will  heighten  motivation  and  enhance
readers’  interest  and  performance.
Furthermore,  having  a  purpose  for  reading
will  assist  students  to  choose  the  most
appropriate method of reading. In practice, it
means  by  providing  stimulating  and
appealing  reading  tasks  and  materials,
educationalists  and  course  book  designers
can  increase  students’  motivation  and
interest.  They  can  push  students  toward
autonomous and self-regulated learning, and
make  them  better  metacognitive  strategic
readers.  There  seems  to  be  an  urgent  need
for  including  pre-reading  activities  with
authentic  texts  or  other  reading  selections,
and  for  adequately  cueing  readers  to  the
purpose  (i.e.  given  intentions,  Graesser,
Singer,  &  Trabasso,  1994;  van  den  Broek,
Risden,  &  Husebye-Hartmann,  1995)  for
reading  a  particular  text  in  order  to  better
assist  the  learners’  mind  activation.
Moreover,  the  findings  of  the  study  imply
that  successful  teachers  can  ask  students
some  carefully-selected  questions  before
approaching the reading text so that students
are  urged  to  think,  talk,  or  even  argue,  and
finally  answer.  Teachers  need  to  remind
students  of  the  importance  of  the  big
question of "why do I read this text?"  
Furthermore,  the  low  rate  of  incidental
vocabulary learning and retention in English
as  a  foreign  language  context  (in  the  best
situation,  the  mean  of  the  reading
comprehension  learning  and  summarizing
groups  are  25  and  24  out  of  total  score  of
60) extremely suggests the explicit teaching
of new lexicon on the part of teachers along
with  encouraging  the  learners  toward
extensive  reading.    Narrow  reading
(Krashen, 2004) as well as spaced repetition
and  exposure  of  the  new  lexicon  can  be  of
significance  in  committing  words  to
memory. Summarizing and writing tasks (e.
g.  reading  logs,  diaries  and  portfolios)  can
equip  students  with  a  deeper  level  of  text
processing  and  as  a  result,  a  more  durable
and long-lasting learning.
Although  these  results  are  promising,  and
they  cast  a  new  light  on  the  question  of
incidental  teaching  effectiveness  in  the
context  of  L2  acquisition,  considering  the
situated  nature  of  L2  learning,  it  would  be
intriguing  to  see  whether  similar  results  are
obtained  in  different  situations
complemented  by  a  more  comprehensive
examination  of  the  TL  input  and  with  more
students  involved.  It  would  also  be  crucial
for future studies to examine how individual
differences  interact  with  reading  goals  to
influence the rate of vocabulary learning.
Finally,  it  should  be  noted  that  since  the
participants  in  the  study  were  female
elementary  language  learners,  the  results
may face problems of generalizability.


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