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Vocabulary Notebooks –
Ways to make them work
by Robert Ledbury
- 3

The new word is recorded on the front of each page of the notebook , together with other related information such as derivatives, pronunciation and collocations. The meaning, the translation and/or dictionary meaning are recorded on the reverse side of the page. In accordance with principle 6 above the student must recall the translation while looking at the new word (receptive), or recall the new L2 word while looking at the translation (productive). A sample sentence can be written next to the new word. Alternatively, the sample sentence can be recorded next to the meaning provided that it is gapped so that the new word is omitted . Key words may be used to trigger recall. The “key word technique” (Nation, 2001 p311) usually involves the student choosing a L1 word that sounds or looks like the L2 word. However, L2 words may also be used to trigger recall. For example the word “Duracell” (the long life battery) can be used to trigger recall of the words durable and duration.

An example of an entry in a notebook may look something like this:





immigrate / emigrate

My friends gave up their jobs in London and emigrated to Canada last year.

migratory birds

migrant workers

Göç etmek


to move to another place to find work (people)

to fly to another part of the world for warmer weather (birds)

Further examples of how the vocabulary notebook can be organised may be found in Schmitt and Schmitt (1995). If a binder is used, words may be categorised according to topic areas (or subject areas in an ESP context) or organised according to level of difficulty: more difficult or new(er) words may be placed at the front.

The vocabulary strand of the textbook mentioned in the above schedule is based, in part, on the Academic Word List (Avril Coxhead, 1998) and students learn a great deal of information about eighty high frequency academic words. The fact is that students are expanding their word knowledge (Nation, 2001 p23-59): their knowledge of how words work, that can be applied to other words they meet especially in academic reading and listening. Students will find it quite daunting, perhaps even tedious, to note down so much information about every word they meet. However, once students have got into the habit of recording the words they meet systematically, it can be explained to them that they need note down only information about a new word they think will be useful to them. The “learning burden” of a word is the amount of effort required to learn it (Nation, 2001 p23). If a word is easy to learn because there is a similar L1 word, for example, or if there are no difficult sounds in the word, they do not need to record everything about it. A sample sentence or a translation may be enough.

Vocabulary notebooks: practical tips

  1. Where possible use a loose-leaf ring binder which allows for adding pages, or changing their order. Students can be encouraged to re-categorise vocabulary, and organise more recent or more difficult words at the front.
  2. The vocabulary notebook should be mandatory for an extended period of time, since it will take some time for students to see the benefits of this kind of study.
  3. Teachers need to occasionally take in the vocabulary notebooks occasionally to check for accuracy. This also benefits the teachers as well, as they can learn quite a lot about students’ progress and problems.
  4. Students need to know, as they get used to the idea of recording vocabulary, that they should be adding words they find on their own, as well as vocabulary from other English lessons with different teachers.
  5. Students need to go through their vocabulary notebooks at regular intervals and do something with the words. This will require teacher encouragement and guidance, and working with notebooks in class. What are some of the things that can be done?
    • Create stories/dialogues with a certain number of selected vocabulary items.
    • Letter of the day/word of the day
    • Student-generated puzzles (crosswords, word-searches etc.)
    • Write a personalised sentence with 2 or 3 target words.
    • Recategorise.
    • Create new categories.
    • Students might like to compare their notebooks to see if they are different.
  6. Coordinate with other teachers working with the same group of students, so that you can all encourage vocabulary development.

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