Improving Vocabulary Use in Writing Tasks

A successful piece of writing relies upon choosing appropriate words and using them correctly. In my EAP context, these things can mean the difference between an assignment that passes and one that fails. So how can we scaffold students’ vocabulary development so they not only remember words and their meanings, but also use them in the right place at the right time? This question lies behind a research paper by Lee and Muncie (2006) in which they find that improvement in both vocabulary use, and their students’ essays overall, can come out of an integrated skills approach to vocabulary instruction that involves extensive scaffolding, as well as explicit explanation, reading, discussion and targeted writing activities.


Lee, S. H., & Muncie, J. (2006). From receptive to productive: Improving ESL learners use of vocabulary in a postreading composition task. TESOL Quarterly, 40(2), 295-320.

The Study

There’s been quite a lot of research into vocabulary acquisition (see these two excellent Research Bites on the efficacy of L1 vs L2 explanations and the effects of three different writing activities), but relatively little into ways to help students make the necessary steps from a receptive recognition and understanding of a word to its productive use, i.e. fluency in selecting context appropriate words and using them in grammatically correct ways. With this in mind, Lee and Muncie developed a four-stage process for exploring effective ways to introduce of vocabulary and help students include it in their writing.

The authors worked with a group of 59 international students from different L1 backgrounds and aged between 13 and 16. To introduce a context for the vocabulary, the students were forced to watch the film Titanic (apologies if my personal opinion of that film is given away by my choice of words) and then given a cloze test to determine their knowledge of the study’s target lexis of 34 words and 8 phrases, including ‘indescribable’, ‘perish’, ‘frigid’, ‘maiden voyage’ and ‘make a fresh start’. After this, the students were guided through the four reading, vocabulary and writing activities as follows:

  1. Students were given a reading activity which involved both the teacher and the students reading aloud, elicitation and explicit explanation of all target vocabulary items, and a comprehension exercise—the answers all requiring use of target vocabulary.
  2. Students were asked to write a text of more than 200 words responding to the prompt ‘You were travelling on the Titanic when it sank in 1912. Describe your experience.’ The researchers marked the texts focusing solely on the use of the vocabulary items under investigation and then returned the texts to students.
  3. In a subsequent lesson, the students were asked to respond to the same writing prompt using as many of the target words and phrases as they could. Before doing so, however, they were given this writing frame which aimed to focus students on the situation and emphasise the need for the target vocabulary. The teacher also elicited all of the words in question and asked students to write them onto their own copy of the frame. Texts were marked and returned in the same way as before, with students being asked to correct any mistakes they had made and then return the essays to their teacher.
  4. Two weeks later, the students were given a blank copy of the writing frame, asked to note down as much of the key lexis as they could and then to write a third response to the writing prompt, including as many of the target vocabulary items as possible.


Lee and Muncie analyse their students’ texts in a number of ways—using Lexical Frequency Profile software, comparing them with texts written by ‘native’ speakers of the same age, asking ‘native’ teachers to judge the quality of the essays, and through detailed analysis of the use of target lexis (using paired t-tests to assess the significance of differences between the three versions of the essay task).

The most important finding for practicing teachers is that, of the three texts written by each student, the second was found to contain more of the target vocabulary and was judged as being better written than the other two versions. The first attempt at the writing task was the least accomplished with the third being noticeably weaker then the second in terms of lexical sophistication, but better than the first. Thus, increased, accurate use of target vocabulary in students’ responses to the task correlates with the essays being judged more favourably by potential markers.


While the authors readily admit that their study cannot elucidate the processes which take place as vocabulary is encountered, learned and moves from receptive understanding to productive use, what is clear is that “encountering new or advanced vocabulary in reading and teacher explanation of vocabulary was not sufficient for it to become productive” (p. 310). Moreover, they note that improving vocabulary use is not a simple task and that multiple exposure to target lexis is almost certainly a prerequisite for it being adopted by learners. They also suggest that using an “integrated skills approach, integrating reading, writing and vocabulary, makes vocabulary learning durable and improves writing quality” (p. 314).

My Thoughts

I specialise in teaching EAP so as I was reading this research paper and thinking about writing this post, I focused on how the findings resonated with my own teaching experience and whether they could influence my own teaching practice. In doing so, one phrase kept coming into my mind, ‘It’s all about building field’.

‘Field’ in this sense refers to the situation that is being written about, the activities taking place in this situation and the participants acting in it (Martin & Rose, 2008). As teachers, our role is to help students master the resources needed to build a model of this situation using language—‘building field’.

The authors of this study put a great deal of work into building the field of ‘the sinking of the Titanic’. The students watched the movie, then read about it twice (once in the vocabulary diagnostic and once in the reading comprehension and vocabulary input activity). They also wrote a response to the writing prompt on three separate occasions, received feedback and, for the second and third attempts at the task, were provided with a writing frame that reinforced the main elements of the situation.

What this reinforces for me is the need to really invest in the topics that are chosen for the classroom and to make sure that these topics are given the time necessary for students to have not only a receptive understanding of the language need to understand them, but also to have a productive mastery of that language. The topics must, therefore, be relevant, interesting and—considering the vast amount of scaffolding and time needed for learning to take place—be of direct relevance to the students’ lives or future goals.


Martin, J. R., & Rose, D. (2008). Genre relations: Mapping culture. London: Equinox.

Image by Alex Brown

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Richard Ingold
Teacher | Writer | Editor at Navitas English & English Australia
Richard currently teaches EAP in Sydney, Australia. He also writes about English teaching, language and linguistics and is the editor of reviews for English Australia Journal. He holds a Master of Applied Linguistics from the University of Sydney, where he specialised in discourse analysis using Systemic Functional Linguistics and Legitimation Code Theory.

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