The Involvement Load Hypothesis
Vocabulary research and ESP
The Involvement Load Hypothesis was conceptualised by Hulstijn and Laufer (2001) as a way to measure the level of involvement in a vocabulary-learning task. This hypothesis is a useful framework for materials design and classroom activities in particular, but can be applied to wider vocabulary curriculum as well. Need, search and evaluation are the three elements of this hypothesis. To Hulstijn and Laufer (2001), the more need, search and evaluation in a learning task, the higher the involvement load. An activity with a higher involvement load leads to better retention of vocabulary than a lower involvement load activity. The need element can be moderate or strong, depending on whether the need comes from outside the learner, perhaps imposed by a teacher (moderate) or comes from the learner (strong). The search element means that the learner has to find the meaning of a word perhaps through looking it up in a dictionary. For evaluation, learners have to consider how a word might fit into a particular context or decide whether to use one word or another (Hulstijn & Laufer, 2001).
The Involvement Load Hypothesis has been operationalised in several vocabulary studies such as Hulstijn and Laufer’s (2001) research which compared three tasks: (1) reading comprehension with marginal glosses, (2) reading comprehension plus ’fill in’ and (3) writing a composition and incorporating target words. The group who wrote a composition had the highest vocabulary load and scored better on a post-test than the other two groups. In a follow-up study, Folse (2010) found better vocabulary retention from learners filling in gaps in repeated fill-in-the-blank exercises than from having students write original sentences with words. This finding supports the already well-established important role of repetition for vocabulary learning. Folse (2010) controlled the time on task, whereas Hulstijn and Laufer (2001) did not. It should be noted however that these studies have focused on low frequency lexical items in English classes, rather than on specialised vocabulary in English.
What can this hypothesis offer classroom activities for specialised vocabulary? The Involvement Load Hypothesis suggests that vocabulary-learning tasks can be analysed to see whether they include the three elements of need, search and evaluation. Tasks and classroom materials can be manipulated to increase the amount of involvement load. For example, if a classroom activity does not involve searching for the meaning of a word, then this element can be added. If students are not required to evaluate specialised vocabulary in any way, then this element can be added.