Learning vocabulary: receptive or productive goal?
In my last post, Vocabulary Profiles & Memorisation, I discussed the importance of addressing the aspects of vocabulary, beyond the mere ‘open dictionary – memorise the first definition you see’ approach students (and teachers) often limit themselves to. I introduced the Vocabulary Profile and Vocabulary Memorisation Techniques activities that I use in my vocabulary lessons at the university. Today, I want to address the last of Emma Harrod’s “Two Week Vocabulary Blogging Challenge“, which for me, comes down to a reflection on the desired learning outcomes when introducing vocabulary in class.
Q: “Should this be an area we encourage our students to experiment with in the classroom and if so, how?”
Coworkers of mine and I have some discussion and debate over the the purpose of teaching vocabulary and what learning outcomes we expect. We teach university age EAP students, who also study a first-year credit course with accompany texts. Each week, we select 20 words from the text that both facilitate understanding but also largely appear on the Academic Word List. The instructor room discussion comes down to one basic question: Is the learning outcome to improve reading comprehension or produce the vocabulary in their writing?
Obviously there’s a difference between preteaching vocabulary needed in order for students to read through a text and understand its main ideas and focusing on vocabulary in a lesson aimed at producing the vocabulary itself. In the first case, the vocabulary is disposable for the most part. In a reading lesson or one which the reading is used as a context introduction, the vocabulary is often not meant to be produced, but rather facilitates the reading itself. That’s not really in question.
When it comes to words on the AWL that appear in readings, should students be encouraged to use these words in their writing too? One school of thought is no. The words, though academic, are not frequent enough and/or are unnecessarily difficult for students to master the use of. The argument here is that diminutive phrasing keeps ideas clear and thus the new expressions aren’t always necessary or in students’ best interests to produce. As a result, as these words appear frequently in the texts student read, they should learn the basics of these words to improve their reading comprehension and speed.
On the opposite side of the coin, we should encourage the production of the chosen AWL vocabulary. After all, the purpose of the AWL is to show what words are the most frequently used in academic sources–texts that students not only read, but will eventually be expected to produce. If we only ask students to passively learn this vocabulary and spend little class time working on its various aspects, when students use it, they often produce awkwardly worded sentences, which can be very difficult to correct succinctly and can take up a lot of time to individually sit with students to help rectify. And they WILL try to use it, whether we discourage it or not.
So the question remains, do you want students to learn vocabulary to improve receptive skills or productive skills or both? In all cases? In the AWL’s case?