Active and Passive Vocabulary: What Can Teachers Do?

by Natalia Heckman

(This is part 2 of Natalia’s Seidlitz Blog series on active and passive vocabulary. Read part 1 here.)

“I would not pay a penny to participate in layman’s conversations.”

Did I really say that? 

To this day, I am mortified by this memory because of my ignorance and brazen audacity. 

In my last year at the UHCL, I worked on my bachelor’s in literature and paid for my school out of pocket with the money I earned from waiting tables. By the way, the fact that I am an ultimate penny-pincher is relevant to this story.

I loved my American Literature course, but I noticed that about 30 to 40 percent of each class was spent in group discussions with other students, sharing our opinions about the quotes and lecture notes we took. After about a week, I asked the professor if he planned to keep up that particular routine throughout the semester. He was taken aback by the question, and I hurried to explain, in the most respectful way, that I enrolled in his class after researching his credentials. I wanted to listen to him speak and to learn from him. I added that I would not pay a penny to participate in layman conversations with people (my peers) who knew as much as I did. No offense.

He looked at me as though I’d fallen off some other planet. (Metaphorically, I had. Being a foreigner in the U.S., I constantly felt that way.) Then he laughed, and we had a coffee after the lecture because, according to him, my odd inquiry broke the monotony of his uneventful day. He said the discussions were there for me “to internalize my knowledge.” 

I stayed in his class even though I disagreed with him. I disagreed with the entire method. I felt I was only getting 60 percent of what I had paid for.  

A person’s knowledge of any topic is encapsulated in the terms he/she knows that are relevant to the topic. 

Marzano and Pickering, 2005

I didn’t think about that experience again until 15 years later, when I moved from class to class as a secondary ESL coach, watching students sitting through lectures, listening (or not?), but mostly silent. Should they be given time to talk, or is listening and copying things down from the PowerPoints onto a worksheet enough? Why spend those precious minutes in class on conversations with peers? 

If the only thing they’re doing is listening, will the learning stick? Will the students internalize the vocabulary? Will they transfer the words (that encapsulate knowledge) into their permanent memory and active vocabulary banks?

After consuming information silently, your students will probably be able to pick the right answer on the multiple-choice quiz simply because the process requires comprehension (passive reading vocabulary). However, if asked to write or speak about the topic, they might feel ill-prepared, simply because they have not activated their newly acquired vocabulary through practice.

The receptive/productive duality of word knowledge is discussed at length in academic research; however, our practical application of the findings has yet to find its way into our secondary classrooms.

It’s not about how many times we say the word to the students. It’s about the number of opportunities we create for the students to use the word. 

Carol Salva

As a teacher, I want to transport words from passive to active vocabulary banks by the truckload or in a race car—as many as possible and as fast as possible. So, what do I do? 

Use Academic Tone and Grade-Level Vocabulary 

Model: Every time you feel like sliding into a social language, don’t. God knows, it is tempting to sound cool, especially in a secondary classroom, but students don’t need to hear you talk like their peers do, unless it’s a quick moment of comedic relief. They get enough social language in the cafeteria and on Youtube. Use the same language register you use with your colleagues in a professional setting. Exposure to the academic language is a start!

For example, using academic verbs instead of social phrasal verbs in your instruction will help develop both language registrars. 


Point to the Word Wall and Track the Print as You Speak and Read

Build speech-to-print connection: Jot down new words on your board or butcher paper to build instant anchor charts. At every opportunity, point to the word you say, track the print/text as you sound out the word, or read it chorally with the class. Point to the visuals that represent the word to trigger a memory cue. Carol Salva constantly reminds us how important it is to reinforce the connection between the sounds of the speech and printed words. Dual-coding theory tells us we need non-verbal representation to internalize the vocabulary. 

Provide Multiple Opportunities for Students to Use New Vocabulary

Allot time for structured conversations: QSSSA is one of my favorite structured conversation routines. As you walk around, remind students what vocabulary to use, “I am listening for…” List the exact words you want to hear in these structured conversations. 

Set aside time for students to use new vocabulary in writing: Using the word in fill-in-the-blanks (cloze) style exercises and sentence stems leads to independent writing. Always set expectations for specific vocabulary you want to see in student-created writing.  

You don’t really know the word until you know how it behaves grammatically. 

Dr. Conti

In Retrospect

In U.S. schools, every class is a language class. There are no exceptions. My university professor knew I needed to verbalize my learning. He gave me time to digest information and process it verbally through low-stress conversations with my peers. By doing that, he provided an opportunity to develop the vocabulary I needed to participate in academic discussions and advance my academic language development.

Isn’t life ironic? As a secondary ESL specialist, I became a passionate believer in and an adamant proponent of the very same concept that I questioned as a university student. Well, there is no growth without the freedom to change our minds! 

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

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

Conti, G & Smith, S (2019) Breaking the Sound Barrier Monee, IL 

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