Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Teaching and Learning

First Advisor

Everson, Michael E

First Committee Member

Schrier, Leslie L

Second Committee Member

Plakans, Lia M

Third Committee Member

Wesely, Pamela M

Fourth Committee Member

Johnson, David C

Fifth Committee Member

Shen, Helen

Sixth Committee Member

Vispoel, Walter P


L2 (second or foreign language) research indicates that vocabulary knowledge is not only the “single best predictor of text comprehension,” but also a strong indicator of listening, speaking, and writing proficiency (Alderson, 2000, p. 35). Understanding the development of vocabulary knowledge, including both vocabulary size and vocabulary depth, or quality of vocabulary knowledge—is therefore essential to the building of an overall insight into L2 proficiency.

This study aims to explore the developmental status of vocabulary depth among postsecondary CFL (Chinese as a foreign language) learners of higher proficiency levels who have studied Chinese for over four years. In particular, it focuses on these learners' identification of two types of word association—synonym and collocational associations and how factors such as association type and target-word frequency impact association identification. The process and strategy use that are involved in the inference of word association are also explored.

For these purposes, this study employs a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Cross-sectional data were collected through a paper-and-pencil test of Chinese word associates from seventeen learners within five postsecondary CFL programs in the U.S. Each participant worked on two test booklets assessing synonym and collocational associates respectively for the same 44 adjectives selected from the three word frequency levels of below 1000, between 1000 and 5000, and above 5000. A two-factor within-subjects ANOVA revealed both significant main effects for association type and word frequency on association identification and a significant interaction between the two. Simple effect analysis and pair-wise comparisons further revealed that association identification became increasingly stronger with the increase of word frequency for collocational association, yet remained non-impacted by frequency before reaching the mid- to high-frequency transition for synonym association. Meanwhile, CFL learners' collocational knowledge was significantly higher than synonym knowledge at mainly the medium- and high-frequency levels. These reslts indicate that synonym knowledge seemed to lag behind in development as familiarity with words increased, but began to catch up at higher-frequency levels.

Interview data collected from six CFL learners show that they employed a wide variety of knowledge sources, such as radical knowledge, morphological knowledge, contextual clues, sound information, or L1 in inferring word association. Inference success seemed to be influenced not only by their preexisting word knowledge, but also an integrated and flexible use of linguistic and contextual information in the inference process.

Implications of these findings are discussed in relevance to curriculum and pedagogical development of CFL teaching and the understanding and definition of CFL proficiency in general. This study fills a gap in CFL vocabulary research by building a tentative measure of vocabulary depth and bringing greater insights into the developmental status of higher-level CFL learners in synonym and collocational association as well as the process that is involved in inference of word association.

Public Abstract

This study investigates how Chinese vocabulary knowledge is developed among learners of Chinese as a foreign language at postsecondary level. In particular, it focuses on learners’ ability to identify two types of association among words—synonym association or words that share the same or similar meanings and collocational association, or words that form a collocation or frequently appear together in a phrase.

A Chinese Word Associates Test was developed for this purpose. Quantitative data from seventeen participants’ test performance and qualitative data from six participants’ post-test interviews were collected.

Results of the study indicate that learners in the study were stronger in performance with synonym association than with collocational association. They were also stronger in performance with words that are more frequently used than those that are less frequently used. Moreover, the performance gap between the two association types depended on the level of word frequency, with a significant difference only at high and medium word frequency levels, but not at low frequency. The performance gap among the different levels of word frequency depended on the association type—for collocational association, the more frequently a word is used, the higher was learners’ performance; for synonym association, a significant improvement in performance was only present when word frequency transitioned from medium to high frequency.

Due to the limitations in test design and the small number of participants, the performance differences observed in this study might not be truly representative of differences in association knowledge. However, results of the study do provide useful implications on how to develop association knowledge in a more effective way, and how to incorporate association knowledge as an essential aspect of CFL (Chinese as a foreign language) proficiency.


publicabstract, CFL, collocational association, synonym association, vocabulary assessment, vocabulary depth, word frequency


xii, 166 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 160-166).


Copyright 2016 Tingting Chen