Print texts have had marginal, index glosses or definitions added to them for many years, either in L1 or L2, or both, to enable readers to better understand the localized meaning of individual words and thereby also the global meaning of composite textual passages. When reading online, however, sufficient research has not yet been done to clearly answer our central research question in this paper with any degree of confidence: “How can any online text be made more immediately comprehensible and its vocabulary more accessible to language learners from any L2 background?” This study aimed to initiate and provide further direction and impetus to a more thorough investigation of this yet insufficiently understood area of research, since it is crucial for helping to improve online content or language learning, as well as cross-cultural communication in general.
Improving text readability is not a trivial issue, since uncomprehended texts cannot result in meaningful language-learning. Thus, if language learners cannot understand reading passages, in print or online documents, such difficult or unglossed texts will be of little help to them, either in their second language acquisition (SLA) or in meeting other communication needs in their target language (TL). Reading authentic text is too difficult for many language learners due to their lack of sufficient vocabulary and/or background knowledge (Harmer, 1991), especially those whose background language has few cognates with the target language (Loucky, 1996). Teachers may instead turn to edited or translated texts to help learners appreciate the richness of authentic works. A better approach would be to enable students to read such texts in their original form, by providing them with vocabulary assistance and supplementary material needed to enhance and empower their reading comprehension.
Abundant studies in reading and second language vocabulary acquisition (SLVA) confirm the critical role of lexical development not only in L2 reading, but in all areas of language development. Research on readability in up to eleven languages (Rabin, 1988), and by DuBay (2004, pp. 57-58), for example, has shown that many readers have limited reading abilities due to low vocabulary and literacy levels. This is even more the case when they are trying to read a second language, as longitudinal measurements taken at seven Japanese colleges have shown (Loucky, 1996). The crucial role of lexical development has become increasingly recognized and researched in the mainstream of ESL/EFL, SLA and CALL fields. While welcome news, this leaves wide open the challenging gap of integrating these varied pieces of SLVA research, to better optimize online reading labs and approaches as a large field still in need of much confirmation and refinement through better application of SLA findings in CALL-enhanced classes.
More important than merely speculating about how students can use CALL software or E-learning websites, therefore, is to carefully examine how these tools actually promote language learning by showing specific affordances they have and contributions they can make especially to vocabulary and reading comprehension development, as well as to other literacy skills (in L1 and L2, as well as computer literacy). Thus, in evaluating any online learning program Fischer (2007) correctly stresses how essential it is that “we empirically support those claims by providing some degree of assurance that students’ use of the program (or its components) advances the cause of their language-learning efforts” (p. 410). Without question educators should monitor and evaluate any CALL program to clearly show students how to use its component tools, in order to determine how they are actually using particular functions of any program to promote their second language acquisition (SLA). Thus Chapelle’s (2001) six standards including a program’s “language-learning potential” (p. 55) must be kept in mind when designing or evaluating any CALL program, including any vocabulary learning glossing engine or translation dictionary it may include.