A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to give a guest lecture to an international group of ELT teachers on professional development courses run by Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education. It was a great excuse to get away from my desk for the day, they were a really friendly, engaged audience and I got to talk a bit more about vocabulary … what’s not to like?!
My session was focused around the important split between receptive and productive vocabulary. It’s a topic I believe is really key in understanding vocabulary development and vital for planning classroom activities. In a nutshell, I argued that if we’re focusing on vocabulary that we would like students to understand receptively (i.e. when they’re reading or listening), then activities should revolve mainly around comprehension. If we don’t expect students to be actively using a word (either just yet or possibly ever!), then it’s a waste of everyone’s time getting them to use it in productive activities. However, if we’re focusing on productive vocabulary that we do want learners to try and use for themselves, then giving them input about how the word is used and plenty of productive practice is essential.
Whenever I talk about this though and give participants language and possible activities to discuss and comment on (not just on this occasion, but during my recent webinar too), teachers have a strong urge to teach everything. They want to practise – and I suspect test! – all the new vocab that comes up, and they’re very reluctant to skip over even the most obscure of words … often words that I, as a proficient L1 English speaker, hardly ever use myself and which their learners are highly unlikely to ever need. Of course, it’s natural to deal with whatever language crops up in class and to explain the meanings of unknown new words, but my point is that not all words deserve equal class time. Low frequency words and words from genres that students are unlikely to produce themselves simply don’t merit taking time and energy away from more useful, high frequency words that learners really need to get to grips with and which need regular reinforcement and recycling. Honestly, I promise you, your learners can live without stroll and stalk as part of their active vocabulary!