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Open Access Knowledge and Scholarship

Date of Award


Culminating Project Type


Degree Name

English: Teaching English as a Second Language: M.A.




College of Liberal Arts

First Advisor

Choonkyong Kim

Second Advisor

Edward Sadrai

Third Advisor

Maria Mikolchak

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Keywords and Subject Headings

MWU, Idiom, ESL, Deceptive Transparency, Figurative language


Multiword units (MWUs) make up a large portion of the language used by native and highly proficient speakers of English in both spoken and written discourse (Erman & Warren, 2000; Pawley & Snyder, 1983), yet second language vocabulary instruction often focuses on the meaning of single words in isolation. This is an insufficient way to teach vocabulary because many MWUs are figurative in nature and therefore “deceptively transparent” (Laufer, 1998) – the meaning of the words as a unit is different from the meaning of the individual words. Because of this, second language learners experience difficulties in learning and even recognizing MWUs when they encounter them in a text (Martinez & Murphy, 2011; Kim, 2016). The purpose of this study was to investigate the nature of ESL learners’ understanding of figurative MWUs and what semantic features of these MWUs might contribute to their comprehensibility – MWUs that described an action were compared with those that describe a situation. Using a test method designed by Laufer and Goldstein (2004), this study took the form of two tests – a Passive Recall test followed by a Passive Recognition test. The goal was to see at what depth of knowledge Arabic L1 ESL learners knew the correct meaning of the given MWU. It was found that in the Passive Recall test the participants scored lower, on average, when presented with MWUs that describe a situation than on those that describe an action. However, in the Passive Recognition test, there was no statistically significant difference between participants scores when the MWU was an action or a situation. From these findings, it is clear that ESL learners cannot simply be said to not know MWUs. Instead, these findings show that ESL learners have a complex understanding of figurative MWUs. Additionally, these findings confirm the need for ESL learners to receive instruction in MWUs.


My sincerest gratitude to my participants who generously gave their time and energy voluntarily to be a part of my research. I would also like to thank those who assisted me in my pilot testing and recruitment processes. Additionally, this work was made possible with the wisdom, guidance, and time of Dr. Kim and the other members on my committee. I could not have done this without the help of many. It truly takes a village to raise a thesis.



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