Oxford: a guest lecture

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?!


The Saïd Business School, Oxford

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!

3 thoughts on “Oxford: a guest lecture

  1. Ms Lucy Tilney

    Very good point, Julie. I can quite understand why you feel it’s important for teachers to identify the difference between teaching receptive and production vocabulary.

  2. Rob Playfair

    Hi Jules,
    Sounds like an interesting talk, thanks for the summary.
    A couple of questions I’ve struggled with about receptive-productive knowledge :
    -How do you decide whether students will need the word receptively or productively?
    -presumably (?) knowledge of a word moves from receptive to productive and students may be at different points in that knowledge, how do you assess where they are with their word knowledge?
    Thanks again for the post!

    1. lexicojules Post author

      Hi Rob,
      Yes, there are no hard-and-fast rules and quite a few factors to consider.
      As a rule-of-thumb, higher-frequency vocabulary (as per any of the published word lists, such as the Oxford 3000 or NGSL) is more likely to end up as productive vocabulary and lower frequency words will more likely stay as receptive. Although that will obviously vary depending on the student’s needs and interests (so in an ESP context, for example, certain low frequency words might be essential even from a fairly early level).
      And as you say, a lot of vocab starts off as receptive then migrates to productive. At very low levels, that process might be quite quick – when you have very little vocab, you need to use whatever you have to communicate at all. As students hit intermediate level though, the gap between receptive and productive tends to widen. As students read more, they pick up a wider receptive vocab, but they tend to stick with the familiar words they know, which can express most basic ideas, when they’re speaking or writing rather than risk using words they’re less sure of. How far their productive vocab then progresses will be rather down to their needs and motivations. The kind of words they might read in professionally written texts (journalism or literature, say) are less likely to ever really be useful to them though for production unless they’re going to become professional journalists or novelists writing in English.


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