Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer and lexicographer based in Bristol, UK. Her main interests are in vocabulary teaching and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). She worked on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and Oxford EAP (C1). She was also involved in developing and writing the new Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books. When she’s not at her desk, she enjoys speaking at ELT events and teacher training.
When it comes to helping students with academic vocabulary, the range of words and phrases they might encounter in the course of their academic studies is huge and can be somewhat daunting. So when we were putting together the new Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books, we decided quite early on that the most useful area to focus on would be productive vocabulary: that is the words and phrases that students are actually likely to use in their own writing.
For all learners, indeed all speakers of a language, their productive vocabulary – the words they actively use regularly – is a subset of their receptive vocabulary – the words they recognize and understand passively. As teachers though, we often forget this distinction and vocabulary lessons can end up a mixed bag of new words and those that are already familiar, words that students are likely to use and those they may only come across occasionally. Concentrating on just the vocabulary that students are most likely to use in their writing can help to tune out some of the ‘noise’ and create more realistic, focused vocabulary-learning goals. In this post, I’ll share just three of the criteria we used to help achieve this aim.
1. Realistic models
It’s often said that the best way to improve your vocabulary is to read as much as possible. For students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), it’s true that reading and noticing the vocabulary used by academic writers is important in developing their receptive vocabulary, but published academic texts may not always provide the best model for studying productive vocabulary. Published texts written by professional academics, such as textbooks or academic articles, are a different genre from the type of texts typically produced by university students as part of their coursework. So it’s perhaps not surprising that recent research has shown that even good student writers use a much narrower range of academic vocabulary than ‘expert’ academic writers (Durrant, 2016). That’s not to say that they’re somehow substandard, the requirements of the two genres are just different. So studying a published academic text won’t necessarily provide a realistic, or even a useful, model for the student wanting to improve the vocabulary they use in their own writing. Examples of good student writing will display a much more appropriate range of vocabulary that an EAP student might realistically hope to emulate.
2. The receptive to productive shift
We often tend to think of vocabulary teaching as being all about new words, but actually, much of the lexis that will help learners to improve their academic writing is likely to already be part of their receptive lexicon. As language users, we naturally tend to stick to the words we’re most familiar with when we’re speaking or writing, because we feel confident and comfortable with them. For many learners, encouraging them out of that comfort zone just means pushing them to use words and phrases that are already familiar from their reading. Extending a student writer’s productive vocabulary range isn’t always about introducing ‘difficult’ words, it’s often apparently simple words and expressions (on the whole, by far, in terms of, etc.) that will help improve their writing style and make their texts more readable.
3. Activities for production
After we’ve identified what vocabulary items to focus on, the next step is to design practice activities. It’s natural to start by checking comprehension, but if we want learners to start using lexis, we soon need to move onto more productive practice. This is where we run into the distinction between controlled productive vocabulary – words which learners can produce when prompted, say within a gap-fill activity – and free productive vocabulary – which they produce spontaneously in their own writing (see Laufer, 1998). If learners are to expand their free productive range, they need plenty of opportunities to get a feel for how to use words and phrases in context; playing around with phrasing, collocation and different forms of a word in a ‘safe’ environment where it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes, not in that high-stakes, assessed essay. Short writing tasks that encourage experimentation can help bridge that gap between the gap-fill and the essay.
Durrant, P. (2016) To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing? English for Specific Purposes 43
Laufer, B. (1998) The Development of Passive and Active Vocabulary in a Second Language: Same or Different Applied Linguistics 19 (2)
**There are extra practice activities to accompany the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books available online, including a number of short free writing tasks.