In Defense of Contextual Vocabulary Acquisition: How to Do Things with Words in Context

In Anind Dey, Boicho Kokinov, David Leake & Roy Turner (eds.), Proceedings of the 5th International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Modeling and Using Context. Springer-Verlag Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence 3554. pp. 396--409 (2005)
Contextual vocabulary acquisition (CVA) is the deliberate acquisition of a meaning for a word in a text by reasoning from context, where “context” includes: (1) the reader’s “internalization” of the surrounding text, i.e., the reader’s “mental model” of the word’s “textual context” (hereafter, “co-text” [3]) integrated with (2) the reader’s prior knowledge (PK), but it excludes (3) external sources such as dictionaries or people. CVA is what you do when you come across an unfamiliar word in your reading, realize that you don’t know what it means, decide that you need to know what it means in order to understand the passage, but there is no one around to ask, and it is not in the dictionary (or you are too lazy to look it up). In such a case, you can try to figure out its meaning “from context”, i.e., from clues in the co-text together with your prior knowledge. Our computational theory of CVA—implemented in a the SNePS knowledge representation and reasoning system [28]—begins with a stored knowledge base containing SNePS representations of relevant PK, inputs SNePS representations of a passage containing an unfamiliar word, and draws inferences from these two (integrated) information sources. When asked to define the word, definition algorithms deductively search the resulting network for information of the sort that might be found in a dictionary definition, outputting a definition frame whose slots are the kinds of features that a definition might contain (e.g., class membership, properties, actions, spatio-temporal information, etc.) and whose slot-fillers contain information gleaned from the network [6–8,20,23,24]. We are investigating ways to make our system more robust, to embed it in a naturallanguage-processing system, and to incorporate morphological information. Our research group, including reading educators, is also applying our methods to the develop-
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