Vocabulary Notebooks – Ways to make them work
by Robert Ledbury

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)

This is a practical text that anyone interested in promoting the effective use of vocabulary notebooks would do well to refer to. Nation (2001) has a similar list of principles which include the following additional point: “students should be excited about the progress they make in their vocabulary learning”. An advantage of a mandatory and carefully designed programme such as that described below is that students can become very motivated by the progress they make as it can raise their awareness of how their knowledge of vocabulary is improving. The following training schedule is adapted from the Schmitt and Schmitt article mentioned above.

Reader task

Read through the training programme below and identify each aspect of word knowledge (mentioned in principle 5 above) that is mentioned.

VOCABULARY NOTEBOOKS –a sample training programme


Day 1

  • Introduce Ss to the idea of the vocabulary notebook as an important course objective, as an important way of improving vocabulary (and passing Exams!).
  • Tell students what materials they need (A suitable notebook, coloured pens, highlighters, a good dictionary)

Day 2

  • Introduce 10 new words to learn from Offline 1*.
  • Ss write L1 translations/L2 synonyms on front page and the new word on the back. Show Ss an example.
  • Ask Ss to choose 10 new words from previous lessons and add them to their notebooks in the same way.

Day 3

  • Using good learner’s dictionaries show students how to find phonemic script and part of speech for 10 of the words.
  • Ask Ss to write this information in their notebooks for all 20 words.

Day 4

  • Ask Ss to write an example sentence from Offline 1 text or a learner’s dictionary.

Day 5

  • Collect in the students’ notebooks to check that the information they have written is correct.


Day 1

  • Introduce this week’s 10 words from the Offline 1 wordlist
  • Give students a worksheet that shows students how to form derivatives from the new words.
  • Tell Ss to write the new words, the L1 translations/L2 synonyms and derivatives in their notebooks.

Day 2

  • Ask Ss to identify 10 new words of their own from Offline 1 texts/Offline 1 word list to learn.
  • Ask them to write them in their notebooks with L1 translations/L2 synonym and derivatives in their notebooks.

Day 3

  • Tell Ss to add derivative information to this week’s words and all of last week’s information (L1 translation/L2 synonym, part of speech, phonemic script) to this week’s words.

Day 4

  • Remind Ss to continue working with their vocabulary notebooks.
  • Remind Ss that they can add new words form their grammar and writing lessons.

Day 5

  • Collect in the students’ notebooks to check that the information they have written is correct.

*Offline 1 is a reading skills/vocabulary development course that draws on the General Service List and Academic Word List and published by Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.


Day 1

  • Introduce this week’s 10 new words from the Offline 1 word list.
  • Give the Ss a worksheet that shows them how to choose the right meaning of a word. See Offline 1 p44-45
  • Get Ss to write the words in their notebooks

Day 2

  • Ask Ss to choose 10 new words of their from Offline 1 texts/Offline 1 word list to learn. Ask Ss to bring in their notebooks tomorrow.

Day 3

  • Ss practice teaching and testing each other on new words from their notebooks.
  • Ss record/copy example sentences for the 10 new words.

Day 4

  • Remind Ss to continue working with their vocabulary notebooks.
  • Remind Ss that they can add new words form from their grammar and writing lessons.

Day 5

  • Collect in the students’ notebooks to check that the information they have written is correct.


Day 1

  • Introduce this week’s 10 new words from the Offline 1 word list.
  • Give the Ss a worksheet that draws their attention to the importance of collocations (word partners).
  • Refer Ss to Offline 1 p47
  • Get Ss to write the new words in their notebooks together with their word partners.

Day 2

  • Ask Ss to identify 10 new words of their from Offline 1 texts/Offline word list to learn.
  • Ask students to find collocations in a learner’s dictionary or Offline 1 texts.

Day 3

  • Ask students to search for word partners for words previously recorded in their notebooks.

Day 4

  • Remind Ss to continue working with their vocabulary notebooks.
  • Remind Ss that they can add new words form their grammar and writing lessons.

Day 5

  • Collect in the students’ notebooks to check that the information they have written is correct.

The schedule above exposes students to the following aspects of word knowledge of eighty words over a period of four weeks: form and spelling, translation, pronunciation, sample sentence (and therefore related grammar), derivatives, meaning(s), and collocations. Principle 5 above refers to the fact that students need to be aware that in addition to meaning, students must be aware of the form (spelling etc.) of the word its pronunciation (sounds and stress), related grammar (verb patterns, prepositions), collocations and different connotations. Notice how students not only learn a great deal about each word they meet, but also revisit each word several times thereby satisfying the requirement of principle 10.

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.

In the classroom

Classroom time will need to be set aside to train students in the use of vocabulary notebooks. In addition, classroom activities can be designed in order to raise students ’ awareness of aspects of word knowledge and the value of revisiting new words to add more information about them.

Activity 1

Take a word into class and revisit it periodically, adding to the information about the word and building a classroom poster. The following example took place with a class of pre-intermediate level university students over a three week period.

Day 1

proud (adj)

gururlanmak (–a Turkish verb! typically Turkish students translate new words to the verb form–tell class next day)

Day 2

(to be) proud of sb/sthg

gururlanmak (recalling the English word receptively and we need “to be” and “of”)

Day 3


(to be) proud of sb/sthg

(recalling the English word productively)

Day 4


/ /

(the phonemic spelling)

Day 5

pride (n)

/ /

(the noun form)

Day 6


When I pass the Proficiency Exam I will be proud of myself. (a sample sentence from the class)

Day 7


I am proud to be a member of this class.

(proud + to infinitive from a student’s dictionary)

Day 8


I am proud that one of my students is at IUE.

(proud + “that”)

Day 9


Oh she won’t come, she’s far too proud.

(new meaning from student’s dictionary)

On days 1 to 4 recall is achieved and demonstrated to students by folding an A4 sheet of paper length ways. The new word is written on one side and the meaning is hidden underneath. By the end of two weeks students were fed up with this word proud, but they did not forget it and they new a great deal about it. They also learnt that when checking the meaning of a new adjective in the dictionary it is a good idea to check for related prepositions. The classroom poster serves as a model, and students can be set “research a word” homework that can be displayed in class for classmates to see.

Activity 2

A “vocabulary corner” can be set up in the classroom that includes notes on how to maintain a vocabulary notebook such as tips and sample pages either invented by the teacher or from previous students’ work. This again serves to show students that their notebooks are connected to the classroom.

A “word(s) of the week” section can be established that includes five headings: verbs, nouns, adjectives, phrasalverbs and collocations (or word partners). A shoe box with slips of paper or cards can be used for students to add new words to the word corner at the end of each week. The cards can be kept in the box and used for revision before tests, for vocabulary recycling activities and as Friday afternoon fillers. A similar activity can be found in Dictionaries by Jon Wright , an indispensable resource for teachers who are especially interested in vocabulary development.

An essential prerequisite for the successful use of vocabulary notebooks is the allocation of classroom time to vocabulary development and awareness raising. Training students in the use of vocabulary notebooks should be an integral part of the learner training strand of the curriculum. This will inevitably involve training teachers as well as encouraging cooperation between teachers who share classes. Students will benefit in a number of ways. Their ability to use a learner’s dictionary and their awareness of what a good learner’s dictionary can offer them will improve. Students’ word attack skills, their ability to guess meaning of unknown words from context and their constituent parts, will also improve. Whilst 100% “take up” may not be a realistic expectation, the application of principles such as those outlined above will ensure that many students will learn to appreciate the importance of learning and storing vocabulary systematically.

References .

Nation, I.S.P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in a Foreign Language. C.U.P

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

Wright, J. (1998) Dictionaries


Robert Ledbury has been involved in English language teaching in Turkey since 1987. He worked in various language schools in both İzmir and Ankara, including a period as Director of Studies at English Fast, Ankara. Between 1994 and November 2001 Robert worked for Oxford University Press as an Educational Consultant. During this time, as well as giving ELT related seminars and presentations all over Turkey, he regularly worked as a teacher trainer on Ministry of Education in-service training courses. Robert's qualifications include the UCLES Diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults (DTEFLA), and the MSc in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Aston University. He joined İzmir University of Economics in March 2002. robert.ledbury@ieu.edu.tr

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