Lower- and higher-level processing in foreign language reading: an examination of the inhibition and compensation hypotheses for Chinese learners of English

Doctoral Studies Completed Theses – 2014 Archive

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Feifei Han

PhD thesis, conferred 2014

This thesis investigates two hypotheses - the inhibition and compensation hypotheses - in foreign language reading. The two hypotheses are derived respectively from the Verbal Efficiency Model and the Compensatory Encoding Model. The inhibition hypothesis maintains that inefficient word recognition and limited working memory may hinder readers’ strategic processing, such as lexical inferencing strategy use, text comprehension, and incidental vocabulary learning through reading. In contrast, the compensation hypothesis postulates that readers’ reading comprehension and incidental vocabulary learning through reading are not affected significantly by slow word recognition and small working memory when there are no time constraints imposed on their reading, as readers are able to apply strategies to compensate for lower-level processing inefficiency.

In order to test the two hypotheses, two studies were conducted. Study 1 was a large-scale quantitative study, which had 402 Chinese university students as participants. It examined whether varying time pressure in reading conditions would affect the relationship between two indicators of lower-level processing (i.e. word recognition efficiency and working memory capacity), foreign language reading comprehension, and incidental vocabulary learning through reading. Study 2 was a small scale mixed-methods study, in which 30 Chinese university students took part. It explored whether the participants were able to apply reading strategies as a way to compensate for inefficient lower-level processing, so that their foreign language reading comprehension and incidental vocabulary learning through reading would not be influenced much when they read without time pressure.

The results of study 1 suggested that while lower-level processing tended to inhibit foreign language reading comprehension in the timed reading condition rather than in the untimed reading condition, it inhibited incidental vocabulary learning through reading more in the untimed reading than in the timed reading. The results of study 2 revealed that the participants with inefficient lower-level processing were able to apply reading strategies, such as language-oriented strategies, re-reading, and pausing, to compensate for inefficient processing, and their foreign language reading comprehension was comparable to those with efficient lower-level processing. Similarly, the readers with inefficient lower-level processing used lexical inferencing strategies more frequently, and their performance on the incidental vocabulary learning tasks was comparable to the readers with efficient lower-level processing.

The findings of this thesis provided much evidence for the compensation hypothesis than for the inhibition hypothesis. The joint results from the two studies indicated that, as predicted by the Compensatory Encoding Model for first language readers, Chinese learners of English were able to employ reading strategies as a compensatory mechanism to overcome their inefficient English word recognition and limited working memory in English reading. It was also found that the relationship between lower-level processing and foreign language reading comprehension is somewhat different from that between lower-level processing and incidental vocabulary learning through reading in terms of inhibition and compensation.

Supervisor: Dr Marie Stevenson