Active vs. Passive Vocabulary: What Is It?

I stumbled into my first English-Russian interpreting job in 1997. In my last year at the Linguistic University of Nizhny Novgorod, someone asked if I wanted to interpret for a British specialist for a day. 

The British specialist, Nancy, was a vet from the UK, and we spent the entire day vaccinating cows at the nearby cattle farm. I was translating while Russian specialists were following Nancy’s (my — oh horror!) directions.

The morning was rough. I understood everything in both languages perfectly, thanks to the realia that enhanced the comprehensible input. I knew exactly what was going on since the entire process was occurring in front of my very eyes. Surprisingly, I knew enough vocabulary to understand both parties — the British vet and the Russian specialist. However, producing comprehensible utterances in either language was a struggle. The right words simply did not come. 

By the way, at that point, after five years at the university, I was not in the pre-productive stage of my language learning journey. In Russia, languages are taught in small groups of 10 to 12, in which speaking is a daily occurrence. However, the vocabulary I needed for that job took forever to find its way from my brain to my mouth.

During lunch, I jotted down a list of Russian terms I heard in the morning. Then I asked Nancy for the technical specification document that came with the vaccine. I spent an hour reading it aloud over and over. That helped. I felt somewhat of a connection forming between my brain and my mouth, and I did a better job in the afternoon.

This experience reinforced my beliefs that:

  • Understanding the gist of the message (comprehensible input) is not enough for communication. 
  • Moving words from Passive Vocabulary into the corresponding Active Reservoir takes time and effort (and practice!).

Passive Vocabulary

Every person has a passive (receptive) vocabulary and an active (productive) vocabulary. The passive (receptive) vocabulary consists of words we recognize and understand when reading a text or hearing them in speech. The active (productive) vocabulary contains words that we can use in speaking and writing. Our passive vocabularies are much bigger than our active vocabularies. It’s normal, and it’s expected.

It all starts with a purpose, and since language is a magical and versatile tool, it constantly morphs depending on that perceived purpose. When we watch TV, for example, we are not preparing to summarize what we just heard or deliver a speech on the subject. Understanding is enough. Our passive vocabulary is typically developed to the point where we can comfortably listen without much effort to get the gist of it. The receptive function of the language serves this purpose. It’s all about comprehensible input. 

However, here is the catch: comprehension is not enough if the students are to demonstrate their knowledge through speaking or writing. Expressive function of the language depends on much more than comprehension! Words need to travel from the passive lexicon into the active lexicon so we can retrieve them on-demand and produce comprehensible utterances quickly. This transfer does not happen on its own. Productive language develops through abundant application practice. Students need opportunities to speak and write to facilitate the transfer.

Active Vocabulary

Active vocabulary is different from passive in many ways. Students need to be able to think of a word quickly — semantic retrieval function. Students need to use the word with accuracy in a sentence, or to have syntactic awareness associated with the word’s function in a sentence. Then there is pragmatics, which dictates how appropriate the word is for the purpose of the communication at hand. 

Active vocabulary grows and expands only through abundant application opportunities. That’s why there are six steps (and not one!) in Marzano’s vocabulary routine. And many of those steps are all about negotiating meaning through application, which means, “Let me try using this word in a sentence and see if it makes sense to you.”

My students stagnate in their language learning. Why?

“If it doesn’t happen at school, it might not happen.”

~ Dr. Lora Beth Escalante

Students stagnate at the intermediate level because advanced levels often require knowledge of academic vocabulary and language structures that are less frequent in everyday social language. 

The only language our English Learners practice consistently is social language — speaking daily with their peers. Academic language lags behind due to less frequent opportunities to practice (which is quite expected, of course). In her book, Motivating ELLs, Dr. Lora Beth Escalante stated that “the opportunities the teacher deliberately and intentionally creates may be their only opportunities to improve their language development” (2018). 


Aziz Faraj, Avan Kamal (2015) Effective Strategies for Turning Receptive Vocabulary into Productive Vocabulary in EFL Context. Journal of Education and Practice ISSN 2222-1735 (Paper) ISSN 2222-288X (Online) Vol.6, No.27, 2015

Dougherty Stahl, K.A., & Bravo, M.A. (2010, April). Contemporary Classroom Vocabulary Assessment for Content Areas. The Reading Teacher, 63 (7), 566�578. doi: 10.1598/RT.63.7.4

Escalante, Lora Beth (2018) Motivating ELLs: 27 Activities to Inspire and Engage Students, Seidlitz Education, LLC Irving, TX 

Pignot-Shahov, V. (2012) Measuring L2 Receptive and Productive Vocabulary Knowledge. Language Studies Working Papers v. 4 (2012) 37-45

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