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Vocabulary Notebooks –
Ways to make them work
by Robert Ledbury
- 1

Learner training and the development of study skills have become an important element of both syllabuses and commercially produced coursebooks. An important aim of this strand of the syllabus is to train students how to learn and store new vocabulary effectively. Students are encouraged to store new vocabulary in a vocabulary notebook in a variety of ways: under topics, under collocations, with (or without) translations, with sample sentences. Topic based lists or spidergrams are often recommended because they aid memory and recall, and may easily be revised or added to.

This is all very sound advice for learners of English, based both on theories of learning and vocabulary acquisition. Why is it then, that despite all the good advice, the experience of many teachers suggests that students do not attach importance to organising their vocabulary learning systematically? This is certainly true of students in my own teaching situation. Why do students continue to regularly note the new vocabulary they encounter in the form of lists of words with a one-to-one translation, often in the back of their class notebook , and in no particular order? Two reasons may be the absence of a vocabulary strand in the curriculum that includes systematic training in the organisation of vocabulary learning, and a failure to set aside classroom time specifically devoted to training students in how to organise vocabulary learning.

This article will describe a set of underlying principles for learning vocabulary as well as draw on practical experiences of training students how to organise their vocabulary learning. A training programme for students, designed to promote the effective use of vocabulary notebooks that will both help students to expand their vocabulary and deepen their knowledge of how words work, will be presented.

Schmitt and Schmitt (1995) outline eleven principles that draw both on theories of memory and language learning, and which provide a framework for training students in the strategies necessary to learn the vocabulary they need.

Eleven Principles for Learning Vocabulary: Strategies for Memorisation

  • The best way to remember new words is to incorporate them into language that is already known.
  • Organised material is easier to learn.
  • Words which are very similar should not be learned at the same time.
            e.g. words like effect and affect
  • Word pairs (native word/English word) can be used to learn a great number of words in a short time.
  • Knowing a word entails more than just knowing its meaning.
            Knowing a word involves knowing its spelling, derivatives,         pronunciation, related grammar, collocations and         connotation.
  • The deeper the mental processing used when learning a new word, the more likely that a learner will remember it.
  • The act of recalling a word makes it more likely that a learner will recall it again later.
  • Learners must pay close attention in order to learn most effectively.
  • Words need to be recycled to be learned.
  • An efficient recycling method involves “expanding rehearsal”.
            This refers to the fact that in order to learn something it is         important to revise soon after the first learning experience.         One hour later, then 24, then a few days then a week and so         on….
  • Learners are individuals and have different learning styles.

(Schmitt, N. & Schmitt, D. Vocabulary Notebooks: theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions, ELT Notebook 49/2 April 1995)

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