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Learning vocabulary – passive vs. active

 Learning and building students’ vocabulary to develop fluency and eventually mastery of the studied language requires a lot of effort, time and practice. It involves a lot of hard work and patience and it is not always fun! It can be boring!

Every learner has a passive (receptive) vocabulary and active (productive) vocabulary. The passive vocabulary comprises of words which we decode and understand when we hear them in speech or read them in a text. The active vocabulary is made up of the words that we can produce and use when speaking or writing. Our passive vocabulary repertoire is much bigger than our active one and this is completely normal and expected whether it is in our native language L1 or in our second language L2. However, moving words from passive vocabulary into active vocabulary also takes a lot of effort, time and practice!

My students often find the receptive skill of listening a real challenge, especially when they have to listen to recordings. The speed of the utterances, the variety of accents/voices/ages/genders and the inability to see the speaker to help them with the small nuances that support the decoding of the message(s) can be extremely testing and at times demotivating. 

Language is a versatile tool which transforms with its perceived purpose. For example, when watching clips, my students can understand the gist and develop their passive vocabulary through comprehensible input and other clues provided via visuals much easier. For the receptive function, it is all about Comprehensible Input (CI).

However, comprehension is not enough when students want to express themselves through speaking or writing. For this to happen the words need to travel from their passive lexicon into their active lexicon so they can retrieve them when needed and produce comprehensible utterances quickly. For this transfer to happen students need abundant opportunities to speak and write in TL. They need to be able to think of a word quickly (semantic retrieval), they need to be able to use it accurately in a sentence – have a syntactic awareness associated with it’s function in a sentence as well as to know whether the word is appropriate for the purpose of the communication at hand – Nation’s (2013) – form – meaning – use (we all had our students choosing the wrong word for the wrong context – I had once student talking about ‘Der Grundstück’ – the plot of land when talking about the plot of a film).

So… how can we make the process of learning and expanding students’ vocabulary more effective?

It is not a surprise that students that have larger vocabulary can perform better whether it is in assessments or in spontaneous situations, they demonstrate more confidence and are less worried about taking risks and having a go. This doesn’t mean that what they produce is 100% accurate. We can communicate a lot with a rich vocabulary whilst still making grammatical errors, however, we can not communicate a lot with perfect Grammar and small vocabulary repertoire.

In second language acquisition it is important to consider the relation between implicit and explicit acquisition. Many researchers believe that most learning happens implicitly (Krashen, 1982 – CI), other practitioners suggest language skill is better developed through explicit instruction, modelling, practice and feedback.

*Steve Smith (researchEd article, 2019) advises teachers to ‘hedge their bets’ by ensuring they do two things in their lessons:

  1. Exploit natural acquisition mechanisms by using as much TL as possible in meaningful & interesting ways in all 4 skills.

  2. Exploit the gradual acquisition of skills using certain amount of explanation & structured practice of high-frequency areas of vocabulary and grammar

* Gianfranco Conti provides the best examples of marrying these two principles. For each year group, he uses a set of core items (universals) – chunks, patterns that are taught via implicit lesson routines such as texts and production tasks accompanied by SB scaffolds which facilitate the process of embedding them into LTM (see reference to full article below). 

Introduction and embedding of vocabulary:

To introduce new vocabulary, at my school, we use sentence builders (a là Conti). We spend around 6 weeks (4 or 5 lessons a fortnight) on a unit of work. This involves extensive modelling of the pronunciation of the new words/sounds and structures followed by abundant opportunities for practice in order to manipulate it in the form of modified output. To see more information on our modelling phase, see for a detailed post here and for receptive processing phase here. Vocabulary is also regularly retrieved in class via MWB. 

Sentence Builder – yr.9

Each of our sentence builders is linked to a Quizlet set and Carousel Learning set enabling students to practise the new structures (in chunks, so vocabulary is learnt in context) outside of the classroom as well. Thus it is retrieved and reinforced to ensure that it is embedded in students’ LTM. Grammar is being taught explicitly at later stage, however, students often spot differences and patterns and ask curious questions, which we address immediately, when they inquire about them (Lexicogrammar).

Carousel Learning has been developed from the idea of the Retrieval Roulette (Adam Boxer) and the algorithm allows for interleaving of the topics/questions – this can be a random choice or the teacher can decide what question should be quizzed. It gives you – the teacher a thorough analysis of which questions/topics students knew and struggled with. If you already have your Retrieval Roulettes/spreadsheets they can be easily imported in.

Quizlet set 

Carousel Learning

We check students’ learning every lesson via Retrieval Practice mostly using Retrieval Roulettes/grids (10 questions – mixture of words/sentences/chunks/Grammar points – L1→L2/L2→L1). If I have a group that is performing really well, sometimes I ask them to pre-learn some chunks/sets (flipped learning).

A new platform/website created by Martin Lapworth (creator of Textivate) called SentenceBuilders has been recommended by many colleagues as an effective tool which supports students in their learning of the SBs. The SBs are based on Gianfranco Conti’s Sentence Builders books and the website is a collaboration of the two creators. The German section is being populated so I am hoping to test it soon myself.

Recently, I have watched a webinar organised by Linguascope, where @richwestsoley was presenting about AnkiApp.

An app, I have been familiar with, but haven’t used that much myself. After watching the webinar, I am convinced that it is an amazing tool for my higher achievers and more independent/autonomous learners. The app is very efficient in terms of spaced practice.

As a bit of a caveat, personally, I think it is more suitable for more mature learners (AS/A-Level) as students need to be able to judge their learning honestly – they need to judge how confident they were with their answer. Based on this answer the algorithm decides when the card comes up again (spacing effect).


Why is the app so good? (shared by Richard West Soley via Linguascope)

  • Desktop (FREE) – web version works in phone browser too

  • Uses algorithm to space your learning – great for spaced practice

  • Can mix individual words and full phrases in context

  • Can be used with students: export your decks and share them with your class

  • Public decks are also available

For effective communication we need vocabulary – passive-active/receptive-productive/high frequency-content… From experience, for vocabulary to ‘stick’, it is important that words are learnt in context and not in isolation!

There have been many discussions about high frequency vocabulary (NCELP/Ofsted MFL review), especially about the most frequent 2000 words. However, what should be the high frequency words for students at schools? Are they based on the spoken or written language? Who is to decide?

We can say a lot or a little using just high frequency vocabulary. We also need the content vocabulary. How do we choose the content vocabulary? To make language learning appealing to our learners the content needs to be relevant and of interest to them – the learners…


James A. Maxwell: Making every MFL lesson count, 2020


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