How to Activate Passive Vocabulary With Advanced Students #ELTchat Summary 29/10/2014

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How to Activate Passive Vocabulary With Advanced Students #ELTchat Summary 29/10/2014

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#ELTchat is a group of ELT professionals discussing topics of interest every Wednesday at 12pm or 9pm on rotation. Every Saturday, one of the moderators puts up a blog post on the #ELTchat Blog asking teachers who follow #ELTchat to propose some topics for the next charts. #ELTchat followers can go to that post and suggest topics in the comments under the blog post. On Sunday evening, the moderators review the topics and create an online poll. #ELTchat followers are then invited to vote on the topics until Wednesday morning (

This week’s topic, was “How to activate passive vocabulary with advanced students.” Click here for the transcript of the discussion.


As always, we started by defining passive vocabulary. These are some of the definitions provided:

-Vocabulary that learners can recognise but not use; ‘items’ with which learners do not struggle receptively (so they now the meanings, uses, etc.) but cannot use productively. (@angelos_bollas)

-Those items that you understand but can’t recall for production; vocabulary is there – you have encountered it when reading and listening but don’t use it in writing, speaking (@HanaTicha)

@Marisa_C informed us that vocabulary that can be mentally processed (even if this is limited to recognition) is not passive. So, she suggested the use of an alternative distinction: receptive vs. productive vocabulary.

Contributors to the discussion seemed to like this distinction and examined the ways through which they can help learners’ transition from receptive to productive vocabulary.


How do we select which vocabulary needs activating and who decides? (@Marisa_C)


After agreeing to an acceptable definition/distinction, the discussion focused on deciding which vocabulary is to be activated and who makes the decision. There was an agreement among #eltchat members that activation of passive/receptive vocabulary is much easier in ESP/EAP settings. What about General English classes, though?

-The needs of the learner but also frequency rates (@HanaTicha)

-Need for corpus use. (@Marisa_C)

-Depends on its “usefulness” in real life. We can use ‘difficult words,’ but what if they are not really used? (@sunnicron)

-Every time a learner struggles to recall a word, there is need for activation (@angelos_bollas)

-Depends on learners’ interests (@patrickelt); when there is a real, genuine need for a word, then the learners are likely to ‘activate’ it. (@StudyBundles)


How do we activate?


During the last 30 minutes, my newsfeed was full of great ideas on helping students learning, memorising, recognising, and recalling lexical items. I have included a selection of the contributors’ ideas, here:

-Lots of group work, exposure to texts for discussion (@rapple18)

@Marisa_C brought in the theory of encounters and @rapple18 confirmed that students need at least six encounters with targeted words in order to acquire them.

-Methodical recording of vocabulary (@HadaLitim)

-Through meaningful exposure to vocabulary (@cherrymp)

-Idiom charades: Students mime all individual words then whole idiom (Marisa_C)

-Emphasis in writing; written texts tend to be more lexically rich (@sunnicron)

-Lots of reading and listening exposure as a springboard for writing/speaking (@rapple18)

-Setting up personalised, ‘real life’ situations where the target vocabulary is required to complete the task. (@StudyBundles)

-Recycling in a number of different ways and contexts (@MarjorieRosenbe)

-Delayed copying and producing: students look and then take their eyes off the text and either say or write what the saw a few seconds ago. (@HanaTicha)

-Ranking/priority activities: involve students in decision making using selected items (@Marisa_C)

-Providing suggested lexis for task completion (@angelos_bollas) and using a checklist that students have to tick as each word is used (@StudyBundles)

-Dictogloss: a great activity for recall and use (of words and grammar, too) (@Marisa_C)

-Old, classic but still highly effective is the flashcard collection, or the more contemporary Quizlet. (@HadaLitim)

-Mind maps, lexical sets, categories, word families (@fionaljp)

-Students can create own sentences using target lexis (@Marisa_C)


Useful links provided by #eltchat contributors

This is an earlier version of a paper that appeared as M.A. Bravo, G.N. Cervetti, E.H. Hiebert, &P. D. Pearson (2006). From passive to active control of science vocabluary. In D.W. Rowe et al.(Eds.), 56th Yearbook of the National Reading Conference
pp. 264-275). Oak Creek, WI: NRC.
This is an online game that helps learners recycle/recall vocabulary (vocabulary is used without context, but still it is helpful)
Scott Thornbury’s blog.
Another online tool
English Language Teaching Global Blog by Oxford University Press.