In English, like any other language, you have two kinds of skills – productive and receptive. Productive skills are what we use when we are speaking and writing, because then we have to remember words in order to perform these actions. Receptive skills are what we use when we are reading and listening, because when we are doing these activities we just have to recognise and recall the words. Therefore, the vocabulary involved with receptive skills is passive, and the vocabulary for speaking and writing is your active vocabulary. In all languages, people’s passive vocabulary is larger than their active vocabulary. That is why you can read hundreds of books and understand thousands of words, but you may not actually use all of them. However, when you are trying to remember a word in a foreign language, you are using your active vocabulary.
There are many ways to improve your active vocabulary. In this video, Rebecca explains the following exercise, which is a very good example of how you can practise and expand it:
First, you need to choose a specific vocabulary theme. For example, you can choose three themes – education, religion, and business. Then, divide each theme into three categories. For instance, in the education theme you first want to think of examples of “people” related to this field, then of “places” and finally of “actions”. Some examples from the education theme which fall into the category of “people” may include teacher, student or school principal. For the category of “places”, examples include school, college, and university. Finally, for the category named “actions”, you could come up with the terms study, teach or learn.
Try to think of at least three examples for each category pertaining to a specific theme. Even though it seems like a really simple exercise, as you try to remember words with your active vocabulary, you will find out that it is difficult to think of too many examples in a particular area. This will help you diagnose what your weaknesses are and which points you need to improve. Go ahead and try to expand the exercise, so you can make it even more beneficial for you, according to your points of improvement.
You may ask why it is so important to develop a vocabulary for a particular field. Let’s say you are taking an exam, such as the IELTS or TOEFL, and you have an essay topic assigned to you which is related to education. One of the ways to get a higher grade is by using a varied vocabulary about that topic. This is why improving your active vocabulary for specific topics is quite beneficial.