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How to Keep a Vocabulary Notebook

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How to Keep a Vocabulary Notebook

Students may need to encounter new vocabulary as often as twenty times before it enters long-term memory, and so simply using a new word a few times in a lesson proves insufficient. Of course it helps when students review the textbook and in-class printables after a lesson, but new words are typically spread across several resources, written in margins as a quick note, and without any context. As a result, students may miss some of the new words; fail to review; misunderstand because a lack of context; or even make mistakes with new words later. A vocabulary notebook can be of great benefit to students because it provides a systematic approach to recording and reviewing new words.

All of my students are encouraged to keep a vocabulary notebook. I often remind students of its importance, especially in the early stages of a course. Because students haven't taken such a proactive step in their language learning, it takes a few gentle nudges for them to start. However, once students begin the process, they almost always immediately see results, which then fuels motivation and further practice.

Of course, simply keeping a list of words doesn't prove up to the task. A more systematic and studied approach works best, especially if the students are to acquire the words as quickly as possible. For my students, I teach the following:

First, students should only write about five new words per day. The literature on vocabulary acquisition reports that at more than seven words, it becomes more difficult to form links, remember, and use the vocabulary. In addition, limiting a daily entry to five words, along with review of previous entries, makes the task manageable. And lastly, along with incidental words in a definition, as well as collocates and word families, five new words can sometimes blossom into ten or more new words.

Next, students should write new entries by hand. Memory retention improves with the physical act of writing the information. Students generally find it easier to add a quick addendum as well, perhaps when receiving correction or feedback from the teacher.

I also discourage students from arranging words into groupings, which students tend to do with an electronic vocabulary notebook. When students dedicate a section to travel-related words, science-related words, or some vocabulary on another topic, the likelihood for confusion increases. Although this may sound contradictory, and it also goes against many of the textbooks which introduce units around a specific theme, research again shows that retention improves when words aren't classified.

In terms of how to set up the vocabulary notebook, students should include the word form, a definition or explanation of their own, an original sentence, synonyms, and, if possible, any collocates or word families. Let's look at each of these in more detail.

It's important for students to write the word form, such as noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Students need to recognize how vocabulary gets used grammatically, and failing to take this step could mean students use a verb in lieu of a noun, a noun in lieu of an adjective, etc.

It's also important for students to write their own definition or explanation rather than simply copy the dictionary. When students try to find their own explanation, whether it be L1 or L2, they will be forced to think more carefully about the meaning. Simply copying a definition doesn't promote any critical thinking skills.

In addition, students shouldn't worry about every meaning and use of a word. Rather, students should record the meaning encountered, such as in class or in a textbook. A dictionary has many obscure and little used meanings, and these get in the way of being able to use the word correctly in a majority of situations.

Moving on to original sentences, an example produced by the student helps him/her connect with the vocabulary. (Again, it doesn't matter if the definition is in the first or target language of the student, although higher-level students should be able to write in English.)

Personalizing the information makes any new words real and meaningful, and so are much more likely to be learned and used sooner. Any sentences which are written, though, should demonstrate the use of the word. For example:

X I feel stressed out.
O I feel stressed out because I have too much homework these days.

Although both sentences are grammatically correct, the latter not only uses the word but it also describes the word.

Synonyms and word families come last in a vocabulary notebook. Both help students reinforce the word, as well as chunk the word with high-frequency collocates. It's important for students to write only a handful of synonyms, and these should be familiar words. The same holds true for collocates.

With all of the above in mind, a vocabulary entry would look like the following:

Vocabulary: outcome ( n )
Definition: the result of a process
Example: The outcome was clear. Scotland voted to remain in the UK.
Synonyms: conclusion or result
Collocates: the outcome of (the election); final outcome

On first glance, the above may seem like a lot of information for the students. However, with a limit of five words per day maximum, as well as the systematic, step-by-step process itself, not much time is required for a vocabulary notebook. More important, the results definitely make the effort worth it.

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