Learning Vocabulary

Active and Passive Vocabulary

Learning vocabulary improves your ability to communicate in English. You need to have both active and passive vocabulary knowledge. That is, the English words that you will use yourself in original sentences, and those that you will need to recognise when you hear them or see them written down.


Understanding another speaker requires that you have passive vocabulary, that is, enough knowledge of words used by others to comprehend their meaning. This is also called receptive knowledge of English.

In order to create your own sentences, however, you need active vocabulary, that is, words you can understand and manipulate in order to use for your own personal expression. This is called productive knowledge.


Gender in English

English students are usually pleased to discover that nouns in English are non-gendered. However, third person singular pronouns in English can indicate gender. For example, ‘he’ and ‘she’ are gendered, although ‘it’ is not.

When learning vocabulary, it is important that you learn the correct pronouns to fit in with the context of the sentence. The gender of a person must be communicated when using a pronoun.

For example in the sentence, ‘the teacher was strict, but he didn’t set any homework’, the gender of the teacher is clearly shown to be male, by the use of the word ‘he’.

However, the generalised words of plural pronouns, such as ‘everyone’, ‘somebody’, ‘the children’ and ‘the students’, are not gendered.

Word Classes

The class of a word dictates whether or not a word can fit in with a particular sentence structure. Words are classified according to what they do in a sentence, such as: verbs (eat, cry, walk, shout), nouns (cat, person, house, ball), adjectives (red, small, cuddly, clever), adverbs (quickly, loudly) and prepositions (under, over, in, of).

Knowledge of word classes is important when learning vocabulary, so that you know how to use your new words correctly. For more information on word classes please see our comprehensive Language Guide.


Methods for learning vocabulary

Word cards

There are a number of ways to remember vocabulary. Simple word-cards (sometimes called flash cards) can be very useful. The English language word is written on one side of the card and a sentence containing the word, its definition, its synonyms and pronunciation are noted on the other.

In this way you can see the word in context and all its related words together in one place. This is also a handy way to carry your new vocabulary around with you to look at whenever you have the opportunity. This is a practical, tried and tested method for learning vocabulary.

Learning vocabulary with flash cards

Word association

Another effective method of learning vocabulary is the word association technique. If words are stored individually, they are more difficult to remember as they have no context.

But if you write related words down together in commonly used phrases and sentences, they are more readily absorbed into the memory.

Learning vocabulary with word association

Other aids to memorising vocabulary can include cards with pictures, diagrams or colour coding. Words can be remembered by their colour, their position on a page, or their association with other words, pictures or phrases.

Images can link to a word, while words can also be linked to other words. For example, you might link the word ‘car’ with ‘garage’ and ‘mechanic’.


Create a semantic map

This idea of engaging the other senses can also help with developing a kind of semantic map where words are listed which relate to each other. One word can remind you of another word.

By using some of these simple techniques, the task of learning vocabulary need not be so time-consuming or difficult. It can actually be easy and fun!

For more information on vocabulary issues please see our Teaching Vocabulary section and the vocabulary pages in our Language Guide.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *