Vocabulary in a second language seems like a relatively straightforward entity to assess. You either know a word or you don’t, right? Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. There are many ways to know a word and not all language assessments measure the same kind of knowledge. So, have a read through this post to ensure you get the right test to help you meet your language learning goals.
Receptive Vocabulary Knowledge
Tests that measure receptive vocabulary knowledge often ask you to identify a word in a reading or listening passage. Receptive knowledge is passive in the sense that you do not need to produce the word from scratch, only understand it when it is presented to you. Often receptive knowledge is the first thing we acquire and therefore, for most second language learners, the size of their receptive vocabulary is greater than that of their productive vocabulary (note, this tends to be true in your native language as well). That is to say, you understand more words than you can produce. Thus, if a vocabulary test provides you with pictures and asks you to label them you may appear to know less words than you actually do because it is testing your productive knowledge!
Productive Vocabulary Knowledge
If you can say or write a word then you have productive knowledge of it. However, with this category there are some added bells & whistles. In its most basic form, demonstrating productive knowledge does not entail perfect spelling or native-like pronunciation. Rather, it is about producing a word that is recognizable as the target term. A spelling test measures spelling and a pronunciation test measures pronunciation. But here is where test makers differ in their approach. Many vocabulary tests do require you to have 100% accurate spelling or pronunciation to get full credit for a word. So, if you happen to be a particularly bad speller and score poorly on an assessment measure as a consequence, fear not! You still have productive knowledge of the words you were tested on.
Vocabulary in Use
Just because you can recognize, write and say a word it doesn’t mean you know all there is to know. It is also possible to measure your understanding of how a word functions in a sentence and the many ways in which it can be used. Therefore, tests that measure this nuanced understanding tell you even more about the quality of your vocabulary, which can sometimes be just as important as size when it comes to certain tasks (e.g. writing essays and business emails). Duolingo is a great free tool to help you build out both the breadth (size) and depth (receptive/productive/use knowledge) of your vocabulary as it provides a dictionary and flashcard maker for storing images, example sentences and audio, a smart spaced repetition review platform and article suggestions so you can re-visit your words in context.