Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-8kt4b Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-17T21:51:57.677Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Incidental vocabulary learning in a natural reading context: an eye-tracking study

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2017

Michigan State University, Second Language Studies Program
Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Center for Applied Linguistics
Michigan State University
University of Central Arkansas
Michigan State University
Michigan State University
California State University, Northridge
Address for correspondence: Aline Godfroid, Second Language Studies Program, B253 Wells Hall, 619 Red Cedar Road, East Lansing, MI


This study responds to the call for more ecologically valid psycholinguistic research (Spivey & Cardon, 2015) by examining how readers incidentally acquire multifaceted vocabulary knowledge while reading a long, authentic text. Using eye tracking, we explore how the processing of unfamiliar words changes with repeated exposure and how the repeated exposure and processing affect word learning. In two sessions, native and non-native English speakers read five chapters of an authentic English novel containing Dari words. After reading, participants received a comprehension test and three surprise vocabulary tests. Growth curve modeling revealed a non-linear decrease in reading times that followed an S shaped curve. Number of exposures was the strongest predictor of vocabulary learning (form and meaning), while total reading time independently contributed to the learning of word meaning. Thus, both quantity and quality of lexical processing aid incremental vocabulary development and may reveal themselves differently in readers’ eye movement records.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


*This project resulted from a graduate-level seminar LLT 841 Eye-Movement Registration in Second Language Acquisition Research that took place in Fall 2014 at Michigan State University. The authors would like to thank Mostafa Papi, Jiwon Song, and Lorena Valmori for their help with data collection, Ji-Hyun Park, Megan Smith, and Le Anne Spino-Seijas for their input on the study design, and all the members of the MSU Second Language Studies Eye-Tracking Lab for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


Alin, A. (2010). Multicollinearity. WIREs Computational Statistics, 2, 370374.Google Scholar
Anderson, S. E., Chiu, E., Huette, S., & Spivey, M. J. (2011). On the temporal dynamics of language-mediated vision and vision-mediated language. Acta Psychologica, 137 (2), 181189.Google Scholar
Bisson, M. J., van Heuven, W. J. B., Conklin, K., & Tunney, R. J. (2014). The role of repeated exposure to multimodal input in incidental acquisition of foreign language vocabulary. Language Learning, 64 (4), 855877. Scholar
Bruton, A., López, M. G., & Mesa, R. E. (2011). Incidental L2 vocabulary learning: An impracticable term? TESOL Quarterly, 45 (4), 759768.Google Scholar
Cop, U., Drieghe, D., & Duyck, W. (2015). Eye movement patterns in natural reading: A comparison of monolingual and bilingual reading of a novel. PLoS ONE, 10 (8): e0134008. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0134008.Google Scholar
Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671684.Google Scholar
Cunnings, I. (2012). An overview of mixed-effects statistical models for second language researchers. Second Language Research, 28 (3), 369382.Google Scholar
Dussias, P. E. (2010). Uses of eye-tracking data in second language sentence processing research. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 149166.Google Scholar
Elgort, I., & Warren, P. (2014). L2 vocabulary learning from reading: explicit and tacit lexical knowledge and the role of learner and item variables. Language Learning, 64 (2), 365414. Scholar
Ellis, N. (1994). Vocabulary acquisition: The implicit ins and outs of explicit cognitive mediation. In Ellis, N. (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 211282). London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Field, A. (2013). Discovering statistics using IBM SPSS statistics (4th ed.). London: Sage.Google Scholar
Folse, K. S. (2006). The effect of type of written exercise on L2 vocabulary retention. TESOL Quarterly, 40 (2), 273293.Google Scholar
Frenck-Mestre, C. (2005). Eye-movement recording as a tool for studying syntactic processing in a second language: A review of methodologies and experimental findings. Second Language Research, 21 (2), 175198.Google Scholar
Frishkoff, G. A., Perfetti, C. A., & Collins-Thompson, K. (2011). Predicting robust vocabulary growth from measures of incremental learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 15 (1), 7191.Google Scholar
Gass, S. (1999). Incidental vocabulary learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 319333.Google Scholar
Godfroid, A., Boers, F., & Housen, A. (2013). An eye for words: Gauging the role of attention in incidental L2 vocabulary acquisition by means of eye tracking. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 35, 483517.Google Scholar
Godfroid, A., Loewen, S., Jung, S., Park, J.-H., Gass, S., & Ellis, R. (2015). Time and untimed grammaticality judgments measure distinct types of knowledge: Evidence from eye-movement patterns. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 37, 269–269.Google Scholar
Godfroid, A., & Spino, L. A. (2015). Reconceptualizing reactivity of think-alouds and eye tracking: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Language Learning, 65 (4), 896928.Google Scholar
Godfroid, A., & Uggen, M. S. (2013). Attention to irregular verbs by beginning learners of German. Studies in Second Language Studies, 35 (2), 291322.Google Scholar
Godfroid, A., & Winke, P. (2015). Investigating implicit and explicit processing using L2 learners' eye-movement data. In Rebuschat, P. (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 7390). Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
Horst, M. (2005). Learning L2 vocabulary through extensive reading: A measurement study. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 61, 355382.Google Scholar
Horst, M., Cobb, T., & Meara, P. (1998). Beyond A Clockwork Orange: Acquiring second language vocabulary through reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 11 (2), 207223.Google Scholar
Hosseini, K. (2007). A thousand splendid suns. New York: Penguin group.Google Scholar
Hu, M., & Nation, I. S. P. (2000). Vocabulary density and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 23 (1), 403430.Google Scholar
Hudson, T. (2015). Presenting quantitative data visually. In Plonsky, L. (Ed.), Advancing quantitative methods in second language research (pp. 78105). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Hulstijn, J. (2003). Incidental and intentional learning. In Doughty, C. & Long, M. H. (eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 349381). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Hyönä, J., & Niemi, P. (1990). Eye movements during repeated reading of a text. Acta Psychologica, 73 (3), 259280.Google Scholar
Joseph, H. S. S. L., Wonnacott, E., Forbes, P., & Nation, K. (2014). Becoming a written word: Eye movements reveal order of acquisition effects following incidental exposure to new words during silent reading. Cognition, 133, 238248.Google Scholar
Krashen, S. (1989). We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the input hypothesis. Modern Language Journal, 73, 440464.Google Scholar
Larson-Hall, J. (2017). Moving beyond the bar plot and the line graph to create informative and attractive graphics. The Modern Language Journal, 101 (1), 244270.Google Scholar
Laufer, B., Elder, C., Hill, K., & Congdon, P. (2004). Size and strength: Do we need both to measure vocabulary knowledge?. Language Testing, 21 (2), 202226.Google Scholar
Laufer, B., & Goldstein, Z. (2004). Testing vocabulary knowledge: Size, strength, and computer adaptiveness. Language Learning, 54 (3), 399436.Google Scholar
Laufer, B., & Hulstijn, J. (2001). Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language: The construct of task-induced involvement. Applied Linguistics, 22 (1), 126.Google Scholar
Laufer, B., & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, G. C. (2010). Lexical threshold revisited: Lexical text coverage, learners’ vocabulary size and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 22 (1), 1530.Google Scholar
Lawless, J. F. (1987). Negative binomial and mixed Poisson regression. Canadian Journal of Statistics, 15 (3), 209225.Google Scholar
Leow, R. P. (2015). Explicit learning in the L2 classroom. A student-centered approach. New York, NY: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Liberman, A. M. (2005). How much more likely? The implications of odds ratios for probabilities. American Journal of Evaluation, 26 (2), 253266.Google Scholar
Metzner, P., von der Malsburg, T., Vasishth, S., & Rösler, F. (2016). The importance of reading naturally: Evidence from combined recordings of eye movements and electric brain potentials. Cognitive Science. Doi: 10.1111/cogs.12384Google Scholar
Mirman, D. (2014). Growth curve analysis and visualization using R. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.Google Scholar
Mohamed, A. (2017). Exposure frequency in L2 reading: An eye-movement perspective of incidental vocabulary learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition. doi: 10.1017/S0272263117000092Google Scholar
Murre, J. M. J. (2014). S-shaped learning curves. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21 (2), 344356.Google Scholar
Nagy, W. E., Anderson, R. C., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24 (2), 237270.Google Scholar
Nagy, W. E., Herman, P. A., & Anderson, R. C. (1985). Learning words from context. Reading Research Quarterly, 20 (2), 233253.Google Scholar
Nakata, T. (2015). Effects of expanding and equal spacing on second language vocabulary learning. Does gradually increasing spacing increase vocabulary learning? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 37 (4), 677711.Google Scholar
Nation, I. S. P. (2012). Vocabulary Size Test information and specifications. Available from Scholar
Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Learning vocabulary in another language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: University Press.Google Scholar
Nation, I. S. P., & Beglar, D. (2007). Vocabulary size test. BNC version. 1–14k. Available from Scholar
Nation, I. S. P., & Webb, S. (2011). Researching and analyzing vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage.Google Scholar
Naumova, E. N., Must, A., & Laird, N. M. (2001). Tutorial in biostatistics: Evaluating the impact of ‘critical periods’ in longitudinal studies of growth using piecewise mixed effects models. International Journal of Epidemiology, 30 (6), 13321341.Google Scholar
Pellicer-Sánchez, A. (2015). Incidental L2 vocabulary acquisition from and while reading: An eye-tracking study. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 38 (1), 97130.Google Scholar
Pellicer-Sánchez, A., & Schmitt, N. (2010). Incidental vocabulary acquisition from an authentic novel: Do things fall apart? Reading in a Foreign Language, 22 (1), 3155.Google Scholar
Pigada, M., & Schmitt, N. (2006). Vocabulary acquisition from extensive reading: A case study. Reading in a Foreign Language, 18 (1), 128.Google Scholar
Pitts, M., White, H., & Krashen, S. (1989). Acquiring second language vocabulary through reading: A replication of the Clockwork Orange study using second language acquirers. Reading in a Foreign Language, 5 (2), 271275.Google Scholar
Raney, G. E., & Rayner, K. (1995). Word frequency effects and eye movements during two readings of a text. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 49 (2), 151173.Google Scholar
Rayner, K. (1977). Understanding eye movements in reading. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1 (4), 317339.Google Scholar
Roberts, L. (2012). Psycholinguistic techniques and resources in second language acquisition research. Second Language Research, 28 (1), 113127.Google Scholar
Rott, S. (1999). The effect of exposure frequency on intermediate language learners’ incidental vocabulary acquisition and retention through reading. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21 (4), 589619.Google Scholar
Saragi, T., Nation, P., & Meister, G. (1978). Vocabulary learning and reading. System, 6, 7078.Google Scholar
Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11 (2), 129158.Google Scholar
Schmitt, N. (2008). Review article: Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12 (3), 329363.Google Scholar
Schmitt, N. (2010). Researching vocabulary: A vocabulary research manual. London, UK: Palgrave.Google Scholar
Schmitt, N. (2014). Size and depth of vocabulary knowledge: What the research shows. Language Learning, 64 (4), 913951.Google Scholar
Sonbul, S., & Schmitt, N. (2013). Explicit and implicit lexical knowledge: Acquisition of collocations under different input conditions. Language Learning, 63 (1), 121159.Google Scholar
Spivey, M., & Cardon, C. (2015). Methods for studying adult bilingualism. In Schwieter, J. W. (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of bilingual processing (pp. 108132). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
von der Malsburg, T., & Angele, B. (2017). False positives and other statistical errors in standard analyses of eye movements in reading. Journal of Memory and Language, 94, 119133.Google Scholar
Waring, R., & Takaki, M. (2003). At what rate do learners learn and retain new vocabulary from reading a graded reader? Reading in a Foreign Language, 15 (2), 130163.Google Scholar
Webb, S. (2005). Receptive and productive vocabulary learning: The effects of reading and writing on word knowledge. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27 (1), 3352.Google Scholar
Webb, S. (2007). The effects of repetition on vocabulary knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 28 (1), 4665.Google Scholar
Webb, S., & Chang, A. C.-S. (2015a). How does prior word knowledge affect vocabulary learning progress in an extensive reading program? Studies in Second Language Studies, 37, 651675.Google Scholar
Webb, S., & Chang, A. C.-S. (2015b). Second language vocabulary learning through extensive reading with audio support: How do frequency and distribution of occurrence affect learning. Language Teaching Research, 18, 667686.Google Scholar
Williams, R. S., & Morris, R. K. (2004). Eye movements, word familiarity, and vocabulary acquisition. The European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 16 (1–2), 312339.Google Scholar
Winke, P. M., Godfroid, A., & Gass, S. (2013). Introduction to the special issue. Eye-movement recordings in second language research. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 35 (2), 205212.Google Scholar
Wochna, K. L. (2012). Comparing incidental learning of nouns and verbs using eye movements (Unpublished master's thesis). University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL.Google Scholar
Zahar, R., Cobb, T., & Spada, N. (2001). Acquiring vocabulary through reading: Effect of frequency and contextual richness. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57 (3), 541572.Google Scholar
Zipf, G. K. (1935). The psycho-biology of language: An introduction to dynamic philology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar