Join Our Mailing List

Moving Words from the Receptive to the Expressive Lexicon Assists in Vocabulary Development Among Students

One important task of vocabulary development is moving words from the receptive to the expressive lexicon

The receptive vocabulary refers to how many concepts/words a child understands… through listening, through signing (or fingerspelling) or through print.  The expressive vocabulary represents those concepts/words that a child can communicate through talking, signing (or fingerspelling) or in writing.  It is not enough to simply build receptive vocabulary; nurturing the transfer of words from the receptive to the expressive vocabulary is recognized as one of the components of vocabulary development (Gunning, 2010).

Transferring words to  the expressive vocabulary

Targeting words that have high utility for the expressive vocabulary is the first step in assisting in the transfer.  Which words will be useful for the child to know and to use in communicating with others?  Teachers and therapists can identify and select those words that have importance and utility, have instructional potential and are words for which the students already have conceptual understanding but just need a precise word (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002).   Once a child indicates a growing receptive understanding of the target/word concept teachers can ask for an “active response”  asnd encourage students to repeat new words or explicitly identify “the new words we are learning” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002).  When children produce new vocabulary targets,  there is a greater chance that the targeted words will find their way into the expressive lexicon for later, independent use.  Teachers who hold children accountable for recognizing new words but also for producing them appropriately, are actually supporting their students’ vocabulary growth.

What might receptive/expressive transfer look like in YOUR classroom?  One favorite read aloud for the Pre-K or Kindergarten classroom is If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Numeroff.  One of the unfamiliar vocabulary words that can be found in this book is the word “notice.”  You may decide that this word has high utility for the children in your classroom and so you decide that you will target it for both receptive AND expressive use by your students. 

Step 1.  When reading, you purposely guide your students to take careful look at the illustration that shows Moose looking closely at the loose button on the sweater he has just borrowed.  Perhaps you will explain that when someone “notices” something, it is because it catches your eye; it is something out of the ordinary or something a little different from what you expect. 

Step 2.  Then, you expand to using a real life example from the classroom…the children all noticed when you put up a new bulletin board display.  Or they noticed that the plants on the windowsill were turning toward the sun.  You will ask them if they can think of an example when they noticed something at home, because it was a little bit different from the way it usually is.  You continue to use the word notice in other contexts throughout the next few days.

Step 3.  In order to encourage the preliminary transfer of the word notice to the expressive vocabulary, you might have the children produce the word as they create statements that indicate their attention to details in another illustration in different story context.  In the informational text Penguins by Jenny Market, there are beautiful photographs of penguins in their natural habitat.  Perhaps the children will notice the iceberg in one picture, or notice the difference in pictures that show some penguins are upright while others are on their bellies.  By offering a carrier (In this picture, I notice_____) you can explicitly direct the children to describe what they see in the picture and use the new word “notice.”

“In this picture, I notice that the egg is on the penguin’s feet!”

This is a great way to set up responses to the illustrations AND practice the expressive use of the new vocabulary target.  Once the transfer begins, you can look for other opportunities to prompt the expressive use of the word notice.  Parents who know the vocabulary that is being targeted ( in this example, the word notice) can assist in its generalization to home and community use, thereby strengthening its place in both the receptive and expressive vocabularies.  With their assistance, you will be a step closer to the end goal of students  independently, spontaneously and appropriately using new words in authentic communicative exchanges.  Repeat this process as necessary!

FAQ:  How do I encourage transfer of words from the receptive to expressive vocabulary? How can I help children use new vocabulary expressively?


Beck, I, McKeown, & Kucan, L. (2002).  Bringing words to life. New York:  Guilford Press.  Exciting and engaging vocabulary instruction can set students on the path to a lifelong fascination with words. This book provides a research-based framework and practical strategies for vocabulary development with children from the earliest grades through high school. The authors emphasize instruction that offers rich information about words and their uses and enhances students' language comprehension and production. Teachers are guided in selecting words for instruction; developing student-friendly explanations of new words; creating meaningful learning activities; and getting students involved in thinking about, using, and noticing new words both within and outside the classroom. Many concrete examples, sample classroom dialogues, and exercises for teachers bring the material to life. Helpful appendices include suggestions for trade books that help children enlarge their vocabulary and/or have fun with different aspects of words.

Gunning, T. (2010)  Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students (7th Edition).  Boston:  Allyn & Bacon.  Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students 7e emphasizes methods that have been validated by research and practice, while delivering the basics of all major aspects of reading and writing.  The Seventh Edition continues to be one of the most comprehensive, practical texts on the market, and includes a new focus on Response to Intervention and assisting struggling readers and English language learners. Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students provides readers with step-by-step guidance for teaching reading and writing, including sample lessons for major literacy skills and strategies. Reflecting the author’s ongoing work with schools coping with the demands of No Child Left Behind, the seventh edition includes teaching tips and materials that are more practical, effective, and, extensive than ever.

Markert, J. (1996).  Penguins.  Columbus, OH:  Newfield Publications.  Describes penguins including their different types, their habitat, food, how they move, their babies, and the dangers facing them.

Numeroff, L.  (1991).  If you give a moose a muffin.  New York:  Scholastic Inc.  If a big hungry moose comes to visit, you might give him a muffin to make him feel at home. If you give him a muffin, he'll want some jam to go with it. When he's eaten all your muffins, he'll want to go to the store to get some more muffin mix.  In this hilarious sequel to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, the young host is again run ragged by a surprise guest. Young readers will delight in the comic complications that follow when a little boy entertains a gregarious moose.

Senechal, M. (1997).  The differential effect of preschoolers’ storybook reading on acquisition of expressive and receptive vocabulary.  The present study was conducted to assess the effect of didactic techniques used during storybook reading on young children's acquisition of new vocabulary introduced in storybooks. Thirty children for each group of three- and four-year-old children were read one storybook individually. The study included three storybook reading conditions: single-reading, repeated-reading and questioning. In both the repeated-reading and the questioning conditions, the storybook was read three times. Children in the questioning condition were asked, during each reading of the storybook, to label target items with the novel words. Listening to multiple readings of a storybook facilitated children's acquisition of expressive and receptive vocabulary, whereas answering questions during the multiple readings was more helpful to the acquisition of expressive than receptive vocabulary. These findings suggest that, under certain conditions, didactic techniques used by adults have differential effects on preschoolers' receptive and expressive vocabulary.