Beyond the Word: Issues in Glossing Syntax and Discourse Features in L2 Reading Texts

William J. Comer, University of Kansas

The glossing of unfamiliar words, idioms or syntactic constructions in foreign language reading texts is virtually a standard feature of textbook reading passages across the whole spectrum of teaching methodologies. In the past 15 years, with the advent of computer technology that allows fast and efficient incorporation of multimedia elements and hypertext linking, glossing has become a firmly established feature of FL electronic reading texts as well. In CALL (computer assisted language learning) environments, the type of glosses that FL readers can access has broadened significantly: a single word or phrase in an on-line text can be linked to an L1 or L2 equivalent, an L1 or L2 definition/explanation, a static graphic, an audio cue, a video clip, an animation, or a linguistic or interpretative commentary. With CALL’s expansive capabilities to gloss texts, there has been a concomitant increase in research examining the efficiency of types of glosses on reading comprehension (Aust, Kelley and Roby, Chun and Plass, Stoehr), the role of glosses in the learning of incidental vocabulary (Hulstijn, Hollander and Greidanus), readers’ use of glosses (Galloway, Davis and Lyman-Hager).

Some studies have shown that glossing of vocabulary alone (Comer and Keefe) or readers’ primary use of vocabulary glosses alone (Davis and Lyman-Hager) is not enough to ensure that intermediate level readers can successfully generate the text’s overall factual meaning (main points and significant details) from word-level vocabulary glosses. Clearly, readers’ awareness of and ability to associate meaning with certain syntactic constructions, cohesive devices, pronoun forms are also critical in comprehending a text, and these issues have recently started to attract greater interest among SLA researchers (e.g., Fraser).

This paper will begin with a brief survey the current state of research on glossing of reading texts in a CALL environment. It will then address the means available in an HTML environment to gloss certain kinds of syntactic constructions, discourse level cohesive devices, pronominal reference in preparing FL reading texts for the web. Among the kinds of syntax and discourse-level issues that are frequently misread by intermediate students of Russian are word order inversions (Object-Verb-Subject type), linking pronoun forms to referents, processing extended participial constructions, separating subordinate clauses and parenthetical phrases from the main thought. Using certain features of HTML, such as cascading style sheets and user-defined markup tags, a teacher can highlight these difficult features of reading texts and draw readers’ attention to them by adjusting their typographical appearance in the document. For example, instead of resorting to an L1 hypertext note telling the reader the antecedent of a pronoun form, the user could click a specific link to see all the pronouns related to a specific antecedent appear in the same color together with the antecedent. In addition to the discussion of ways to gloss these features, this paper will propose a broad research plan that will examine the efficiency of these kinds of syntactic glossing and their relative benefit for intermediate level readers of Russian.

Select Bibliography

Aust, Ronald, Mary Jane Kelley, and Warren Roby. 1993. “The Use of Hyper Reference and Conventional Dictionaries.” Educational Technology, Research and Development 41: 63–73.

Chun, D. M., and J. L. Plass.1996. “Effects of multimedia annotations on vocabulary acquisition.” Modern Language Journal 80: 183–197.

Comer, William and Leann Keefe. forthcoming. “How do Dzhon and Dzhein Read Russian? On-Line Vocabulary and its Place in the Reading Process.” In: The Learning and Teaching of Slavic Languages and Cultures: Towards the 21st Century.

Davis, James N. and Mary Ann Lyman-Hager. 1997. “Computers and L2 Reading: Student Performance, Student Attitudes.” Foreign Language Annals 30.1: 58–72.

Fraser, Catherine C. 2000. “Linking Form and Meaning in Reading: An Example of Action Research.” In: Form and Meaning: Multiple Perspectives, ed. James Lee and Albert Waldman. Boston: Heinle and Heinle. 283–303.

Galloway, David J. 1999. “Restrictive Glosses and CALL Comprehension: An Exploratory Study.” Presentation at AATSEEL Conference.

Hulstijn, Jan H., Merel Hollander and Tine Greidanus. 1996. “Individual Vocabulary Learning by Advanced Foreign Language Students: The Influence of Marginal Glosses, Dictionary Use and Reoccurrence of Unknown Words.” Modern Language Journal 80: 327–339.

Stoehr, Louise. 1999. The Effects of Built-in Comprehension Aids in a CALL Program on Student Readers’ Understanding of a Foreign Language Literary Text. PhD. diss., U of Texas.