Saturday, May 4, 2013

Vocabulary Notebooks

(As part of a recent focus on vocabulary learning, I just finished reading Vocabulary Myths.)  

One of the vocabulary learning strategies suggested in Folse's book (p. 102-106) is for students to keep a notebook especially for word study.  Of course, I've seen this suggestion many times before and tried a couple of times to encourage it without much success!

The first time, I made up a worksheet with space for 3 words on each side of the page.  The idea was for students to keep a stack of empty worksheets in a 3-ring binder and fill them out with words that they especially wanted to study.  As I went through the process of completing an example (is it a noun? a verb? an adverb? an adjective?), I saw that eyes were glazing over. My worksheet was far too detailed and keeping a vocabulary notebook was definitely beginning to look like a painful chore.  Oops!
courtesy of miguelavg
Another time (with another group), I suggested a vocabulary notebook again.  This time I went too far in the other direction, proposing that students keep the notebook in any form that pleased them.  We explored various possibilities (word maps, drawing pictures, using colored pens, etc.) and the students made some entries for homework (very lovely, I might add) but they didn't keep up with it.

After reading Folse's advice, a few things became clear to me.  First, if it isn't perceived as useful, learners won't do it on their own.  Second, I can't expect students to start a new habit by just telling them about it once or twice.  To start things off, I need to provide a simple, concrete example format, tell them why it's set up the way it is, show them how to use it, set aside time in every lesson for maintaining it, and call on learners to share what they've written regularly.  (I will name 3-4 words that should go into the notebooks, leaving learners to decide for themselves what others -- if any -- they want to include.) Once the notebooks are established as part of our class culture, I could invite learners to explore how they might personalize them.  Perhaps I could give that as a homework assignment and we could then weigh the pros and cons of their ideas as a group.

Folse's suggestions make that possible.  He advises making a very simple entry for each word: the word, a translation, a synonym/antonym/connecting word, and a brief example (a collocation).  He proposes organizing these 4 bits of information on two lines in two columns and leaving a lot of extra space for later additional information.  That's it!  With this setup, learners can use two pieces of paper to cover up all but one piece of information and then quiz themselves on the other three pieces, checking their answers by shifting one or the other of the pieces of paper. This is simple and practical.  It gives the learner a specific way to do productive retrieval exercises and it leaves room for the learner to personalize as he or she sees fit.

I have a feeling my third try with vocabulary notebooks will be helpful to at least some of my learners!


  1. Just what I needed Kathy. I have suggested vocabulary notebooks in the way you did (both ways) and like you got the same end. I'll try this out. Thanks for sharing and I hope you have the time to write more often. I miss your posts.

    Rose Bard
    YOur fellow explorer

  2. Nice to see you too, Rose! So much going on, that I have been more of an "observer" than a contributor on the Internet lately!!