Research L1 reading comprehension. However, we know far



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The Impact of Working Memory on Chinese EFL Learners’
Reading Comprehension Abilities


Working memory (WM) is a temporary storage and processing
system that performs multiple functions in a wide range of cognitive behaviors.
It consists of several subcomponents, of which central executive presents as an
overarching system. Comprehending a text needs a variety of lower and higher
levels of cognitive abilities, including decoding, making inferences, integration,
and linguistic skills such as syntactic and semantic representations. Previous
literature revealed that WM plays an inseparable role in language learning, and
increasing attention in educational psychology has been paid chiefly to the
relationship between executive functions of WM and L1 reading comprehension.
However, we know far from enough the impact of sub-components of WM other than
executive functions on different levels of reading comprehension abilities in
L2 context. The purpose of this study is to explore the impact of WM capacity
on Chinese EFL learners’ reading comprehension abilities and how sub-components
of WM are involved in cognitive processing in reading comprehension. It also
aims to investigate effects of improvement in WM capacity on L2 reading
comprehension development. The research will adopt quantitative approach.
Participants will be 3 groups of Chinese EFL learners selected from primary,
secondary schools and universities representative of varying second language
proficiency. Separate individual and in-group tests will be administered to
elicit data for correlation and regression analysis. Results are expected to
unravel the predictive effects of WM components on L2 reading abilities and
delineate the impact of WM as an intervention measure on the development of L2


Scholarly Context

Working memory construct and language learning

In 1974, Baddeley and Hitch identified three subsystems of
WM, phonological loop, visuospatial sketchpad, and central executive, and later
added a fourth-episodic buffer, which contributed to the explanation of
cognitive processing in the brain (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Baddeley, 2000).
There is substantial evidence to the hypothesis that WM is related to language
processing in both native and second language learning. Over the years,
increasing studies in L2 contexts have confirmed the contribution of WM in L2
learning (Alptekin & Erçetin, 2009, 2010, 2015; Harrington & Sawyer,
1992; Yang, Shintani, Li, & Zhang, 2017). It is claimed that WM needs to be
incorporated as a component of language aptitude. For instance, cognitive
psychologists Miyake and Friedman (1998) indicated that WM could be a critical
element of L2 aptitude in relation to L2 proficiency outcomes. In addition, Wen
(2016) conducted a meta-analysis of WM studies in L2 context from 1990s and
revealed that research has focused primarily on the acquisition of vocabulary
and syntax. It is therefore of paramount importance to conduct studies on level
of discourse, for instance, written texts in order to reveal impact of WM on L2


Cognitive processes of reading comprehension

The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986;
Hoover & Gough, 1990) is that reading consists of two sole components,
decoding and linguistics comprehension. To specify, decoding refers to the
ability to derive phonological representations from printed inputs and trigger
relevant entry in mental lexicon. Linguistic comprehension is the ability to
derive semantic information, sentence and discourse meanings. Reading can also
be explained from the perspective of information processing, which describes
internal information flow throughout reading process. It is concerned with
speed of verbal coding and lexical access, short-term memory capacity, and
processes of working memory. These opinions have been supported from an array
of research that attempts to model reading comprehension from different
empirical approaches (Gough, Hoover, Peterson, Cornoldi, & Oakhill, 1996;
Hannon & Daneman, 2001; Ouellette, 2006).

It is worthwhile to investigate how reading develops in
second language learners from perspective of working memory capacity as WM may
put restraint on the development of L2 reading comprehension. Previous research
has concentrated on the development of cognitive strategies, motivation, and
beliefs for enhancing reading proficiency (fluency, rate, and accuracy)
(Carrell, 2011; Kern, 2011; Matsumoto, Nakayama, & Hiromori, 2013). Further
research can be conducted from developmental perspective of WM, which can be
employed as an intervention strategy to maximize instructional effects of
reading in a second language and help learners achieve fluency and accuracy in
understanding information and coherence in written texts.

Interrelation of WM and reading comprehension

Cowan (2014) defined WM as “the retention of a small amount
of information in a readily accessible form to be used in cognitive tasks”. It
is involved in the cognitive processing of written text by working as a channel
that connects new information with what is triggered from long-term

memory    (Cain,    Oakhill,    &   Bryant,    2004).   Reading    comprehension,    as   a     highly

cognitive-demanding activity which requires mental
representation, inference, and information processing, is correlated with
working memory.

Increasing interest has been observed on
executive functions of WM and reading comprehension

(e.g., García-Madruga, Vila, Gómez-Veiga, Duque, &
Elosúa, 2014; Georgiou & Das, 2016; Nouwens, Groen, & Verhoeven, 2016).
Central executive is linked to multiple executive functions, such as updating,
inhabition, cognitive flexibility, and higher-order executive functions, for
instance planning (Baddeley, 1996). One strand of research has focused on
executive functions on reading comprehension. For example, Artuso and Palladino
(2016) investigated the relation between WM updating and two levels of reading
skills, reading fluency and comprehension, in typically developing children and
found that letter updating requiring phonological decoding abilities was
related to fluency but not comprehension.


In summary, previous research yields enough space for
further enquiry. The studies in educational psychology are quite suggestive for
research in EFL context. Previous research has neglected to consider the impact
of WM on L2 reading other than executive functions which may lead to
over-generalization of WM influence. Further, it is not clear how the
improvement of WM affects development of reading comprehension abilities.
Besides, existing research has been conducted on widely different L1 contexts,
mostly from educational psychology, awaiting replication and verification from
the field of second language acquisition.

Originality and Significance

The proposed study has potential to make several
contributions to the research and practice in second language learning and
teaching. The outcomes may (i) expand current knowledge of WM in terms of
functions of subcomponents on L2 learners’ reading comprehension abilities,
revealing how WM is involved in cognitive processing underlying L2 reading
acquisition; (ii) verify how and why improvement of WM capacity influences
abilities in L2 reading; (iii) inform approaches of L2 reading instruction and
assessment which responds to variant WM capacity in L2 learners, and shed light
on task design and classroom activities in second language teaching.


Research Questions

Can working memory predict reading comprehension
abilities of L2 learners? If yes, how do subsystems of working memory involve
in L2 reading comprehension abilities?

What aspects of L2 reading comprehension
abilities are prone to be influenced by improvement of WM capacity?

How and to what extent does the predicting
effect differ among L2 learners at different developmental stages?

Research Design

The study will be topic-based, incorporating several
studies to be successively carried out in order to control variables. Written
consent from participants and approval by relevant ethics committee will be
obtained prior to the study.

3 groups of participants with an estimated total of 300
will be selected from primary school, secondary school and university in
Beijing by random sampling. They have learned English as a second language
through formal education. Participants with reading and learning disabilities
will be excluded after taking relevant tests.

They will undergo separate assessments of WM capacity and
reading comprehension abilities. WM measure will reflect performance in respect
of subcomponents of WM. Further review will be made to adapt and devise current
tasks to be able to measure sub-components (for a review, see Conway, 2005).
Reading comprehension abilities will be assessed through adaptation of
authoritative tests and questions will be designed to guarantee separate measurement
of learners’ lower and higher levels of reading abilities. In addition,
participants will receive specific treatment to improve WM capacity in order to
determine impact of WM on reading abilities. This can be managed by a pre-test
and post-test to compare variance in relevant factors.

After completion of measure design, a pilot study will be
conducted in a small sampled group to check reliability and validity. Tests
will be administered by several student volunteers who will receive training on
test administration and scoring under guidance of the researcher. Participants
will be instructed to familiarize with procedures and rules, and then receive
tests individually and in a group. Data will undergo correlation analysis to
examine relationships between multiple variables, and regression analysis to
determine contribution of WM functions on variance of reading comprehension


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