The development of passive and active vocabulary in a second language: Same or different?

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The study investigates the gains in three types of English as a Foreign Language vocabulary knowledge, passive, 'controlled active' and free active, in one year of school instruction. It also examines how these aspects of lexical knowledge are related to one another and what changes occur in these relationships after one year. Gains in vocabulary were measured by comparing two groups of learners with six and seven years of instruction. Relationships among the three areas of knowledge were investigated by comparing them within the same individuals. The results show that passive vocabulary size (as measured by Vocabulary Levels Test) progressed very well, controlled active vocabulary (as measured by the productive version of the Levels Test) progressed too but less than the passive. Free active vocabulary (as measured by Lexical Frequency Profile) did not progress at all. Passive vocabulary size was larger than controlled active in both groups of subjects, but the gap between the two types of knowledge increased in the more advanced group. Passive and controlled active size scores correlated with each other well. Free active vocabulary, on the other hand, did not correlate with the other two types. The results raise several questions about the nature of vocabulary knowledge and the effect of instruction on vocabulary growth.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-271
Number of pages17
JournalApplied Linguistics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Communication
  • Linguistics and Language


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