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 attended a presentation at a conference on the topic of teaching academic vocabulary. The presenter described her process of teaching academic vocabulary words: First, she introduces a list of about 6 to 8 words to her students (presumably, words they are unfamiliar with). Next, she explains the meaning of each word and gives one or two example sentences using each word. Then, she leads students through a series of practice activities to help them learn the new words. She starts with practice activities that give students context for the words (for example, a fill-in-the-blank activity where students read a sentence and write the correct vocabulary word in the blank). After doing a few of these types of activities, she moves on to vocabulary practice activities that require students to use the words on their own. For example, students might be asked to write a sentence using a particular vocabulary word or asked to explain the differences between two similar vocabulary words. According to the presenter, these types of activities are better for students because they are “more challenging.” The presenter said that “taking away the context forces students to come up with their own context for the words,” which “pushes them to learn the words better.”
I think this presenter’s method of teaching vocabulary words is very common. Most textbooks aim to teach vocabulary in the same way: by first introducing a list of words to students and then leading them through a series of practice activities that move from more-controlled to less-controlled. But the presenter’s comment that it was a good thing to remove the context and force students come up with their own context for the words got me started thinking about this idea in a new way. To me, the idea of providing or taking away context for vocabulary words really typifies the difference between a Skill-Building approach to language teaching and a Comprehension-Based approach to language teaching.
According to the Skill-Building approach, students learn a new word by receiving an explanation about the word’s meaning (or receiving a translation into their L1) and then “practicing” using the word by producing output (e.g., by using the word in a sentence). Removing context and forcing the student to use the word on their own is seen as an effective way to help students learn the word.
In a Comprehension-Based approach, however, context is seen as something beneficial and even essential. After all, in real-life communicative situations, language always exists within a particular context. And students need to encounter words in context in order to fully understand the word’s meaning and to know how to use the word.
Although I used to think that my students needed to “practice” their vocabulary words by producing language, I am now convinced that it’s more effective to expose students to the words through input. After students have seen the words numerous times in context, they gradually come to an understanding of the meanings of the words and, eventually, are able to use the words on their own (without being “forced” to by a teacher).
Certainly, explaining the meanings of words to students or providing a translation into their L1 can be very helpful. When I use a word that is new to my students, I try to give a brief explanation and/or translation. But I also know that my explanation of the word is only one step in the process of acquisition.
As teachers, we can do our best to explain word meanings, but it would be impossible for a teacher to fully explain everything a student needs to know about a particular word. Many 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. And even if we could explain all of that to our students, how could any student remember all of that information about every single one of the thousands of words in the language? 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.”
Therefore, having students produce output to learn vocabulary words doesn’t really make sense. If the students don’t even have a full understanding of the meaning of a word, how would they know how to use it correctly? It’s asking them to do something they don’t know how to do yet.
In order to develop a deep understanding of a word’s meaning and how it is used, students need lots and lots of exposure to the word, and they need to encounter it in numerous different contexts. Of course, this is a very gradual process. Vocabulary acquisition—just like language acquisition in general—takes time. As Stephen Krashen has written: “For vocabulary acquisition…we do not acquire the full meaning of words all at once: as we encounter new words in a comprehensible context, we gradually acquire their meanings a little at a time. It has been estimated that each time we encounter a new word, we pick up about 5 to 10% of the meaning. Given enough comprehensible input, this is more than enough.” Krashen has also 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. And his website, sdkrashen.com, contains numerous other articles on similar topics.
There’s also the issue of remembering the meaning of vocabulary words. Research seems to indicate that people remember new words better when they receive gradual exposure to the words through comprehensible input rather than through conscious study and output practice. One example is the study by Chun, Choi, and Kim (2012) in which two groups of students learned new words. One group was given the words in a list with translations into their L1, and they studied the words. The other group simply engaged in extensive reading, and the target words were included in the texts they read. On an immediate post-test, the two groups of students did equally well in remembering the word meanings. However, on a delayed post-test five weeks later, the group that had done extensive reading remembered more than 2.5 times as many word meanings as the group that had consciously studied the list of words. These results indicate a problem with the traditional model of vocabulary study, in which students are expected to consciously memorize words. Although memorizing words seems effective in the short term, the effects don’t last over the long term. As Beniko Mason says, “Consciously learned knowledge is fragile and easily forgotten, but unconsciously acquired language competence is permanent.”
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. The idea that it’s important for learners to “practice” language is very ingrained in us as teachers, and it can be a difficult mindset to break away from. I think it 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.