Le Castellet, © Marva A. Barnett

"Syntactic and Lexical/Semantic Skill in Foreign Language Reading: Importance and Interaction"
Marva A. Barnett
In The Modern Language Journal 70 (1986): 343-349.
Winner of the 1987 Paul Pimsleur Award for Research in Foreign Language Education awarded by ACTFL.


In studies of the second/foreign language reading process, a number of factors are pertinent, including perception of print, reader's background knowledge and interest in the text, individual facility with various reading strategies, and knowledge of language, including grammar control and vocabulary range. This experiment with second-year university-level students of French reading original short stories examines the role of vocabulary and grammar for these readers. Is it true, as certain theorists have maintained, that vocabulary is the most important factor for success in foreign language reading comprehension? How much do readers depend upon syntax to get meaning from a text?

The study shows that, as expected, both syntactic and vocabulary proficiency affect reading comprehension. Still, unduly stressing vocabulary-building or inferencing skills may very well not help those students who lack adequate syntactic knowledge. Both sets of skills appear to be necessary to these English speakers' reading comprehension of French, and they interact with each other, independent of difficulty level of the texts. Recommendations for further study and consideration of pedagogical applications are included.