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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?

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Vicky Loras

Hi Tyson!

This year I teach mainly adults and financial or IT English. They get a lot of vocabulary out of it, sometimes very specialized.They are given word lists as well.

Your last paragraph is exactly what I am thinking about – if we tell students to use the vocabulary only when they are reading relevant texts in order to understand them, no matter what we say, they will be wondering why they cannot use it. And I am very pro-use, even if they make mistakes. How else will they learn to use it, if they do not try to make examples? They do this automatically most of the times: when we come across a word they see for the first time and we explain it in class, the follow-up is almost always “So can we use it for example in a sentence like..?” or “Would this sentence be correct…” I like it when they do this, as they immediately experiment with the word and try to find a context on their own. When they get it right, they both feel more confident and vocabulary retention increases.

I personally believe in any case, that students should learn vocabulary to use both receptively and productively.Most of the times I realize that they wish this as well.

Thanks a lot for this post!

Kindest regards,


Students come up to me all the time to ask me how to expand their vocabulary. I tell them read, read, read. Lately, I’ve been recommending audio books for pronunciation as well. Tone and the right “word choice” are elusive for non-native English speaker at times. And there is often no easy way to say “why” it’s wrong other than context and accepted word choices by “society”. I can’t wait to have more time this term to learn more from you Tyson!


Hi Tyson, thanks for raising an interesting topic.

I’m totally with you on valuing productive practice in EFL/ESL vocabulary learning because production does help reinforce their memory. In my case, some Japanese students tend to easily give up reproducing vocabulary items when they are not sure how to pronounce them (I suspect this might have something to do with Japanese kanji system – a kanji character has several readings and it’s common for us Japanese to understand the meaning of a word without knowing its pronunciation). So I try to give them as many productive activities as possible, which includes not only speaking or pronunciation practice, but also writing practice as homework mainly because the class time is limited.

However, our productive vocabulary is much smaller than our receptive vocabulary, and I’m not sure that all vocabulary items they meet in reading materials should be in their productive vocabulary. For example, I’ve never been able to use the word “bronchitis” in my production without checking a dictionary or asking for completion while I have no problem in recognizing and understanding it. So I believe teachers should consider which items will need to be in their productive vocabulary not just in receptive vocabulary.

Robbyn Yerbic

Wow! Thank you! I continually wanted to write on my site something like that. Can I include a fragment of your post to my website?

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