I don't think there is ever a class where a student has not queried a new word. Words pop up all of the time and it seems that the more words students notice inside or outside the classroom, the more likely they are to see their own level of English progress.

Lexical notebooks - vocabulary article

So teaching vocabulary is one of the most important areas for teachers to deal with. The problem with vocabulary is that there seem to be so many words and sometimes it is difficult to know which ones to teach. They are all over the place and don't come in nice little rules like so many grammar items. So, what can we do to help both our students and ourselves learn such a diverse area of language?

  • Ways to help our students
  • How I start
  • Using it on the course I'm teaching
  • What I have to do
  • Autonomy
  • Conclusion


Ways to help our students
The first way is not to "teach" vocabulary, but help learners to "see" words as Lexis. This means seeing words that come in phrases, groups or words that combine together, which then means looking at areas of Lexis such as fixed and semi-phrases, idioms, and collocations. The second is by organising these phrases in order to help our learners actually produce new language through speaking and writing.

One efficient way of doing this is having your learners keep their own lexical notebooks. It aids autonomous learning and, when designed correctly, can give them a long-term strategy for dealing with vocabulary. By keeping a record of their work in this way students can see that their learning does not just stop and start as each semester starts and finishes but continues and improves as they maintain their notebook.

How I start
So, how do we make lexical notebooks? I have found small A5 notebooks (148x210mm) that you find in any supermarket or shop which sells school material. They do not cost very much, are small enough to be carried around, have 200 pages and strong enough to last years.

  • When you introduce the lexical notebook to your students, ask your students at the start of the semester to buy one of these notebooks. This allows them to have a sense of ownership; the books are theirs, not the school's, the teacher's or anyone else's. I have found this means they will take more care of them and use them far more often.
  • If you take a look at the photocopiable pages which accompany this article you can see 3 different sections that I have successfully used (with my Brazilian students), that you should be able to cut out and fit into the first 3 pages of your student's notebooks. Of course you may have to adapt them for your own particular students' needs. So when your students have bought their book, collect them and stick these (or your adapted versions) into each one. Let's have a look at the reasons why we have each one and how they can help the learners.

    Download example pages 57k
  • The first page is a statement, which will help your learners see how important it is to study Lexis. It is very explicit and clearly explains how they can make a shift in their learning by focusing far more on words rather than grammar.
  • The second page has a simple explanation as to how learners should look at vocabulary. Not in single words but in phrases, groups or chunks. I have used the word "collocations" as I have found it much easier for Latin languages, such as Portuguese, to understand this word concept rather than that of the commonly used word "chunk".
  • The third page organises the notebooks in themes. The list shows some of the most frequently used lexical combinations, which can be allocated to different pages or each theme. This helps you and your learners see the main typical word combinations to be concentrated on. Choosing to separate language in themes helps not only contextualisation of these word combinations but gives students an organisational tool that they can use to produce language. If the class theme was for example "the environment", the learner can note down the combinations studied and then use them when they come to speak and write about the subject.


Using it on the course I'm teaching
In a period of study, many courses and course books are designed by themes and so the notebook can follow a course quite easily. Throughout a long-term course of study these themes will reappear and if your students have already studied a theme, they can go back to their notebook and add new word combinations as well as review the old ones.

This means learners see both old and new language and when they go back to a new theme they will naturally notice the progress in their own learning. Their notebooks then become a tool to use outside of class.

What I have to do
Upon receiving my students' notebook, I first stick in these first few pages from the photocopiable sheet, then I write on the first 20 pages (the first two Themes) the word combinations the students must note down in each page. Then as a new theme in class comes up my learners have an example of how they should organise the rest of their book. If you do this students see a model of how each theme is set out, some personal input by the teacher and lots of space for them to continue expanding their learning.

The lexical notebook can be initially compared to teaching someone to ride a bike. You need to guide and secure the students before they are balanced and can pedal by themselves. When they start noticing language and writing down words they are becoming self-sufficient and autonomous. The more autonomous our learners become the much more likely it is that they will become better language learners.

Learning strategies such as lexical notebooks will set them on the road to becoming much more successful in their studies and reach levels they might not have thought possible. By organising their learning I can give students a chance to achieve this. Hopefully a few years later, students will still remember the teacher who wanted to give them a way to really improve their whole English studying. You never know they may even come back one day and say "Thank you".

I hope this article will help you make your own lexical notebooks with your students and bring you success when teaching vocabulary. I am sure by doing this it will help benefit your own personal development and go some way to becoming more understanding towards your students needs.

This article first appeared on the British Council ELT Online Community website at: http://www.britishcouncil.org.br/elt/

Further reading
'Lexical Notebooks' By Shaun Dowling, English Teaching Professional, Issue 28,July 2003
'Teaching Collocations' By Michael Lewis, LTP 2000
'Language Learning Strategies' By Rebecca Oxford, Newbury House, 1990
'Vocabulary' By Schmitt, MacMarthy, CUP 1997

Shaun Dowling, Teacher trainer, Cultura Inglesa, Brasilia



I loved the article and the idea...but I could not download the pages

Hi Daniela

Try right clicking on the attachment 'lex_note' and then choose 'Save Target As' to save it on your computer. 

Hope this helps!

Thanks very much for this article.I agree entirely with you as far as the usefulness of the notebook is concerned but this depends completely on the involvement of both teachers and learners and the way they take advantage of this teaching tool.At the beginning of every year , teachers ask pupils to keep a notebook for writing on the lexis they encounter in every lesson ,but this notebook is soon neglected by both teachers and pupils .Though ,I do believe that it is more the responsibility of the teacher to value this teaching tool by using it in the continous evaluation of pupils.For example , in every lesson the teacher may ask some pupils to explain one word from their notebook .Pupils may answer either by using the word in a meaningful sentense ,giving its definition -synonym,antonym , or as a last possibility translating  the word into L1.The above answers should be evaluated differently , giving more importance to the first suggestion and less importance to the last one so as not to encourage translation.When pupils see that their teachers are giving importance to the notebook they will probably be interested in it and try to use it effectively.

Please can someone tell me why the verbs Do, Make, Have, Take, Go, and Get are particularly focused on and have their own section in the notebook?

I would like to adapt this for my own use in learning French vocab, but would like to know the particular importance of these verbs so that I can find the French equivalents. I.E. if it is because they are modal verbs, though if this is the case, I'm somewhat perplexed at why the verb take is included.

I also figured if I can get my head around using this for my own learning, I will be better equipped to teach my students.


Thanks for your comment. The downloadable notebook is just an example, and can definitely be adapted to your students' levels / needs. The reason the verbs Do, Make, Have, Take, Go and Get are included is because these verbs collocate (go together) with lots of different words to form phrasal verbs or fixed phrases. The idea would be that students would record these together (taking a more lexical approach rather than just learning single words). To find out more about this approach, you could take a look at the following links:
I have no idea if there would be equivalents in French (sorry!).
Hope that helps,

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