The conventional wisdom in our society is that speaking or writing in a language is better for language learners than simply listening to it or reading it. In other words, producing output is better than receiving input. I think part of the reason for this is our cultural idea that “active” is better than “passive.” Activities like listening or reading are often considered passive, and speaking or writing are considered active.
However, I would challenge the idea of listening and reading as passive activities. When we are listening or reading, our brains are working very actively in processing language. In addition, our brains are often thinking of new ideas and making personal connections to what we are hearing or reading.
But due to our cultural idea that “passive” activities like listening and reading are inferior to more “active” activities in which people produce language, I think many language teachers assume that they should get their students producing language as much as possible and that the best way for students to learn new vocabulary words is for the students to practice using them in spoken or written language.
Several months ago, I went to a conference where a teacher presented about how to teach students academic vocabulary words. She described her technique this way: First, she introduces a list of vocabulary words to the students (about 6-8 new words). She tells the students the meaning of each of the words and gives a couple of example sentences using each word. Then, she leads the students through a series of activities to practice the vocabulary words. The first few activities she uses are what she called “low-impact” activities—things like having students match the new words to a synonym or having them complete a cloze activity. Next, she has the students do what she calls “high-impact” activities—things like having students write their own original sentences using the words or describe the similarities and differences between two words.
Personally, I would avoid this kind of approach to teaching vocabulary for a few different reasons—first and foremost because it assumes that students learn new words by consciously learning the definitions and doing vocabulary practice activities (when, in fact, the research shows that students usually quickly forget words they learned in this way.) But for now, I want to focus on the presenter’s belief that so-called “high-impact” activities (in which students produce language) are superior to “low-impact” activities (in which students don’t produce much language).
If we think about what the research shows about how people acquire language by receiving comprehensible input, this idea doesn’t really hold up. It doesn’t make sense to have students produce language using their new vocabulary words if they haven’t fully acquired the words yet. If the students don’t even have a full understanding of the meaning of a word, how would they know how to use it properly? This is particularly relevant when talking about academic vocabulary. Many academic vocabulary words have connotations that are difficult to explain to learners. Even translating a word into a student’s L1 isn’t a perfect solution, as there is rarely an exact one-to-one correlation between words in two different languages. Learners won’t be able to gain a full understanding of a word just from a teacher’s explanation and seeing it in a couple of example sentences. They won’t know the subtle connotations of the word, they won’t know what prepositions or other words usually appear along with that word, and they won’t know the level of formality of the word or in what types of contexts the word is used. As the SLA researcher Jeff McQuillan recently wrote: “Memorizing isolated vocabulary words is far from actually acquiring the full range of abilities needed to become fluent.”
Another audience member at the presentation actually brought up this problem. She asked the presenter how to handle a situation where a student writes a sentence using a new vocabulary word but the word is not used completely correctly—i.e., you can tell that the student has a partial understanding of the word but uses it in a way that sounds weird or awkward. The presenter responded to this question by simply shrugging and saying that she just makes a judgment call in these situations—if the word is used in a very incorrect way, she will correct the sentence, but if the word is only used in a slightly awkward way, then she overlooks it. She seemed to think this was just an inevitable issue.
But if students are acquiring words by receiving comprehensible input (rather than by producing sentences using words they don’t even fully understand yet), we don’t really need to worry about this problem. As a student hears or reads a particular word over and over again in meaningful contexts, their brain will naturally pick up what it needs to. Over time, the student will gradually come to understand the meaning of the word, as well as what types of contexts it is used in, what its connotations are, what prepositions and other words typically go with the word, and its level of formality. Stephen Krashen has written an overview of the research on this topic in his article “We Acquire Vocabulary and Spelling by Reading,” published in The Modern Language Journal. His website, sdkrashen.com, also contains numerous other articles on similar topics.
In our first language, the vast majority of the words we know were acquired by receiving comprehensible input. We acquire words by hearing (or reading) them over and over again in many different contexts. After we have heard them enough times to understand the meaning, we start to use them on our own. We are not forced to use words before we have acquired them. I’ve never known a parent who says to their young child, “You need to practice your food vocabulary words, so please say a sentence using the word ‘apple.’” (There are some exceptions, of course. We are occasionally explicitly taught the meaning of words by teachers, parents, or other people. And in school, many of us were required to complete vocabulary practice activities similar to the ones used by the presenter I just described. However, do any of us really remember those words we explicitly learned and practiced? In my high school English class, we had to learn lists of vocabulary words like remuneration, abstemious, and abrogate. We completed many vocabulary practice activities that were intended to help us learn the words. I studied the words and got good grades on my vocabulary tests. Now, however, I don’t remember the meanings of any of those words other than the ones that I encounter often in my daily life as I listen and read.)
I understand the compulsion to have students produce language. I don’t mean to disparage the teacher who made the presentation on teaching academic vocabulary. I used to think the same way, before I started learning about the research on second language acquisition and how the human brain is wired to acquire a language. The idea that it’s important for learners to produce language is very ingrained in us as teachers, and it can be a difficult mindset to break away from.
I think the compulsion comes from a desire to get our students producing language as soon as possible. For teachers—and students, too—it makes us feel good when students are speaking and doing something that we perceive as being “active” rather than “passive.” It makes us feel good because it seems like our students are progressing quickly. And in the short term, students really do appear to be learning their new vocabulary words well. When students produce sentences using their new vocabulary words, we think, “Look! They used the word correctly in a sentence! They know the word!” But will the students really remember those words a few months from now? And even if they remember the definitions, will they be able to use the words accurately in an appropriate context, along with the correct prepositions and other surrounding words? Probably not.
We need to keep in mind that we are aiming to develop our students’ long-term language abilities—not just their short-term abilities to memorize the definition of a word and produce a sentence using the word. The key to our learners’ success is avoiding forced output and instead focusing on giving our students lots and lots of input.