The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Vocabulary: making the shift from passive to active

On my trip to Poland a few weeks ago, I was quite surprised at how much Polish I understood (at least when it was written down), because of the similarities to Czech. Not that I really speak Czech, you understand. I lived in Prague for a couple of years, but I didn't make very much effort to learn the language (for all kinds of reasons) and I certainly never really "spoke Czech" beyond a few basic functional words and phrases. Evidently though, I did take in quite a bit of vocabulary, albeit in a very passive capacity.

All language learners have a much wider passive (or receptive) vocabulary (i.e. words they recognise and understand) than the range of active (or productive) vocabulary that they actually can (and do) make use of. Generally, as our learning progresses, the words in our passive vocab get transferred to our active repertoire as we become confident enough to use them. Up to a certain level, that process seems to be fairly natural; we need and want to talk about things which pushes us to start using new words. Somewhere around intermediate level though, that process often stalls. You reach a point where you can communicate most basic ideas adequately, so you just rely on the same old, familiar words and phrases you've grown comfortable with. It may be that your passive vocabulary continues to expand as you read more complex texts on a variety of subjects and you 'learn' new words, but whether those words then get put to use is quite a different matter, because they're often not strictly needed to communicate.

A fixation with new words:

It strikes me that our approach to vocab teaching often tends to reinforce this. Especially at higher levels, there seems to be a perception that vocab activities should only contain completely 'new' words, otherwise learners won't feel like they're learning and teachers won't feel like they're teaching. Many's the time when I've been writing vocab activities that I've had items vetoed because they were 'too easy', the students would already 'know' that word, it was covered at B1, or whatever. It's an attitude that bugs me on a number of levels ...

Firstly, just because you've met a word once doesn't mean you know it. Learning vocabulary is a complex and gradual process that involves repetition and recycling; you need to encounter a word repeatedly in different contexts to get a feel for it. Especially at higher levels, you need to understand how a word's used (its register, collocations, colligation) in order to really get to know it. And of course, English is a highly polysemous language; a single word can have several different meanings or be used in different expressions, so you can't just tick a single sequence of letters off a list and say you know it!

And then there's knowing and there's knowing. We really need to consider whether we're focusing on a particular lexical item because we want students to recognise it (as part of their passive vocab) or whether we expect them to actually start using it as part of their active vocabulary. And we need to think about how we can shift words from the passive category to the active. When students say they already 'know' word, we need to challenge them to start using it; to explicitly recognise and encourage that process of shifting from one set to the other.

A balanced vocab diet:
Oh yes, of course revision and recycling are important, I hear you say, but it's about more than just revisiting words in another receptive context (although, of course, that's important). For me, vocabulary activities need to include a smattering of comfortable, known vocab (perhaps working on those tricky points of usage like dependent prepositions), a handful of genuinely new items (so we all feel like we're breaking new ground) and then a healthy dose of that in-between category of words that we want to move from passive to active. And they need to include an appropriate mix of receptive and productive tasks. Especially when we're looking at those passive-active words, we need to encourage students to really use them, maybe choosing a handful of words they haven't used before to include a piece of writing or in an oral presentation.

If a student tells me that the vocab is too easy or claims that they already know a word, then I'll challenge them to use it, I'll dig a bit deeper into their knowledge. In short, I'll show them how they can know more and use it better. A constant diet of more new words on their own is of no use if understanding is only surface deep.

Labels: ,