Lexical notebooks or vocabulary cards?

Few would doubt that students should leave a lesson with some kind of transcript of it: be it a notebook or, if technology allows, pages from an Interactive WhiteBoard (IWB) emailed to your students – in order to be able to go over the material covered in class.

Leo Selivan

As far as vocabulary learning is concerned, it is important to record new language in a way that is memorable and manageable. To this effect, I have always encouraged my students to keep a lexical notebook to record new lexis which comes up in class.

Lexical notebooks

A lexical notebook is different from a vocabulary notebook where you merely write new words in alphabetical order alongside their L1 translations. The idea behind a lexical notebook is to organize new lexis in a way that would closely resemble the way it occurs in the real language. For example, if the expression doesn’t ring a bell comes up in class I encourage my students to record it exactly the way they encountered it, ideally in a full sentence:

The name doesn’t ring a bell

rather than stripping it down to make it look like a dictionary entry

not to ring a bell

The same rule applies to words. Students are naturally drawn to new words in a text and unfortunately often ignore the surrounding language. But as we know, words are not used in isolation and therefore it is extremely useful to record new words together with their lexical partners (collocations) and in grammatical patterns they occur in (colligation), in other words, record chunks of language as opposed to isolated words. For example, if encountering the word strict for the first time in a reading text or video we watch, students will often write it down with a translation alongside and may pay no attention to its collocate (strict rule) or pattern (under the strict rules of). For that reason, I remind my students to record it exactly as it appeared

under the strict rules of

or, time permitting, even the whole sentence where this new word occurred:

She was brought up under the strict rules of her religious parents.

This format of recording new vocabulary is also consistent with the claims made by applied linguists (for example, Schmitt & Schmitt, 1995) who argue that when learning vocabulary new knowledge should be integrated with old knowledge.

Ideally, lexical notebooks should be organised by topics, such as work, health, appearance etc. In the Work section Intermediate students may write language like this:


was called in for an interview

go on maternity / paternity leave

I am a fast learner

doesn't have any qualifications (degrees, diplomas, certificates...)

doesn't meet the requirements = not suitable

steady/demanding/stressful job

As you see, there are no strict rules as to how entries should be made. Students will normally make their own choices whether they need translations or definitions. But one important rule is never write single words. Apart from topics, you can also have pages dedicated to different situations (IN A HOTEL, IN A RESTAURANT), key words (Expressions with UP, POINT or WAY), differences between two confusable words (for example study / learn with examples for each) or grammatical patterns (Verbs followed by –ing, questions with Have you ever…?)

The main principles

Different ways of recording lexis in lexical notebooks have been demonstrated by Shaun Dowling in his article on this website. To sum up, bear in mind the following principles:

* Less is more
It’s better to focus on fewer words but provide full information about them, including collocations, grammatical patterns and possibly example sentences. There is no need to record every single new word especially if these will be of little use to students productively.

* Words, like people, need space
Some space should be left after each entry where students can subsequently add other similar examples, e.g. under
under the strict rules of
students can later record

My father is very strict

* Lexical notebook is like a diary
Closely related to the above principle is this suggestion: start a new topic on a different page. This way you can add new language to each section as you go along. For example, if the topic of a subsequent lesson is FOOD and a useful piece of language emerges related to work, it would be prudent to go back and record it in the WORK section.

To remind students of the importance of organizing by topic I always use an example of a diary. When you want to make a note of a doctor’s appointment you don’t write it when you make it but on the day when you actually have it. Likewise, vocabulary should be recorded in way that aids retrieval. For example, you want to use an expression or chunk and don’t remember it – you can look it up in the relevant page of your notebook.

* Words, like people, need company
As already mentioned above, words, save for a handful of exclamations, are never used alone so students should be discouraged to record individual words.

* Leave used language alone
This dictum comes from Michael Lewis’s book Teaching Collocation (2000) where the advantages of recording new language exactly in the form in which we find it is extensively discussed.

Doubtless lexical notebooks have a lot going for them: they help raise students’ awareness of the lexical nature of language, draw their attention to how language is used and, some claim, can be used to foster learner independence (see Woolard, 2000),

Disadvantages of lexical notebooks

While it is fairly easy to see why they are an effective way of recording lexis, lexical notebooks are not without their disadvantages. One disadvantage is time. Recording whole chunks of language is time consuming and students may not see its direct benefit. Students are somewhat reluctant to go back and add a new item to an already existing topic or a new collocate to the previously recorded word – they prefer to record it in a linear fashion (by date) instead of revisiting and elaborating on the earlier entries. As a result, they may have expressions or collocations with the same key word scattered all over their notebook rather than consolidated in the same place.

Also, surprising as it may seem, some students get a bit carried away when it comes to recording things in their notebooks: they will jot down a certain chunk or expression over and over again every time it pops up in class. For example, when a previously learnt vocabulary item comes up in a revision activity and students cannot remember it, they will record it again instead of looking it up in the notebook. I’ve seen students who would end up with the same bit of language written down four times in different part of the notebook – this isn’t exactly organization we talked about earlier.

Despite my admonitions that it’s better to write it down once and know where it is (using the same analogy with a doctor’s appointment in your diary) my students (particularly older ones) explain that it helps them remember it. While I personally believe that copying things down over and over again helps spend the ink rather than remember vocabulary I couldn’t find any cognitive research to back up my claim.

Another obvious shortcoming is that lexical notebooks do not provide the active recall practice necessary to commit new vocabulary to long-term memory. While lexical notebooks help learners make meaningful links between words and connections between new and old knowledge, active recall has been shown to aid memorization and is considered a necessary component of effective learning.

Word cards

Word cards, also known as flash cards, are small cards with the English word on one side and the L1 translation on the other. In recent years, with the increased interest in vocabulary acquisition in general, word cards have been undergoing somewhat of a resurgence in popularity. In the heyday of the Communicative Language Teaching, which emphasised implicit, incidental learning, word cards and rote learning in general were looked down upon and discredited as mechanistic and behaviourist. These days, top researchers in the field of vocabulary acquisition, such as Paul Nation (2001) and Norbert Schmitt (1997), claim that word cards are beneficial for vocabulary learning with Nation (2005) stating that:

"Using cards […] is an excellent way of quickly increasing vocabulary size. Forget all the criticism you have heard about rote learning and translation; research has repeatedly shown that such learning is very effective."

Also, you can find a lot of websites, Quizlet being probably the largest, which allow you to make your own word cards and “play” with them.

Curious to see whether it would work for me, I tried using word cards with two groups of students. The first group was doing a very short intensive course and the second - a longer course with lessons once a week. Students were furnished with an envelope and a bunch of cut up card and off they went. With the first group it worked wonders. Not only did they see the benefit of keeping a record of all the new or useful language they encountered but we also used the cards for a variety of revising activities.

From word cards to lexical cards

Switching to word cards did not mean that I compromised my principles and started to present words in isolation, stripped of context. I had to make some adjustments to the simple flash card idea - word on one side / translation on the other. In my cards, learners recorded words on one side and collocations on the other, with translation as an option depending if the students didn’t know the word at all or half-knew it (knew the meaning but not the use)

  very cruel, showing no mercy





 Throw away those old magazines - be ruthless!






 guy / man

 There's nothing decent on (on TV)





 carry out




  A lot of research (researches) shows...











  have difficulty finding

I also found that such cards work especially well with nouns because you can adjective and verbs the noun collocates with in two columns on the back.

Lexical cards: advantages and disadvantages

Clearly this way of recording vocabulary has advantages too. Even though you cannot organise new items by topics it is easy to find your way around them. Students would rarely make the same entry twice or three times – the main disadvantage of lexical notebooks mentioned above – and it’s easier to get your students to expand their knowledge of new items by adding more collocates, examples etc. Cards are easier to carry around and flick through when you have a spare moment. While students cannot do much with lexical notebooks apart from occasionally going through them, lexical cards lend themselves to a number of revising activities (See some ideas here).

Unfortunately, when I tried using the lexical cards on a longer course, the students’ enthusiasm did not seem to last as the growing piles of cards became harder to manage. But the main advantage of using cards for recording vocabulary is that this format is not suitable for all vocabulary items. While the process of recording individual words, such as ruthless and difficulty, is pretty straightforward, how does one record language chunks, particularly new combinations of already known words, such as

The long and the short of it
I couldn’t get back to sleep
I don’t know how to put it but…
I should get going.
It goes without saying that….
How long are you planning on staying?
Don’t get me wrong
When we first came over here…
I haven’t really thought about it

One way is to record them as you would record individual words: the whole chunk on one side and translation on the other. But then you can’t do all the recycling activities described above. Another way around this problem is recording the key word on one side and the whole chunk on the other. But what is the key word in don’t get me wrong: is it “get” or “wrong”?


Although the importance of note-taking is recognised, it would be interesting to see some research of the effects of different types of note-taking on vocabulary learning. Till then, whatever method you use, students and teachers should bear in mind that words are not learnt / taught in isolation. Recording new words with their translation and/or definition helps learners with just one aspect of word knowledge - meaning, this is only a tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is a huge mass of other aspects to be learnt about the word and how it is used.

My experiment with lexical cards proved successful to some extent and I will definitely implement it again, especially on short courses. In the meantime, I’ve gone back to lexical notebooks as a default.

Useful resources

Flashcard maker for making your own printable flashcards

An article on using flashcards with young learners

Quizlet - online flashcard maker

Evernote – an easy-to-use app for taking notes which can be used as a lexical notebook
An article on using Evernote for language learning

An article with practical ideas on starting lexical notebooks:

A blog post by Dale Coulter on lexical notebooks with examples:


Laufer, B., Meara, P., & Nation, I.S.P. (2005) Ten best ideas for teaching vocabulary. The Language Teacher 29 (7), pp 11-14. Available on http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/issues/2005-07_29.7

Lewis, M. (2000). There is nothing as practical as a good theory. In M. Lewis (Ed.), Teaching Collocation (pp 10-27). Boston: Thomson-Heinle

Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: CUP

Schmitt, N. (1997). Vocabulary learning strategies. In: N. Schmitt & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy (pp 199-227). Cambridge: CUP

Schmitt, N. & Schmitt, D (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. In ELT Journal 49 (2), pp 133-143

Woolard, G. (2000). Collocation - encouraging learner independence. In M. Lewis (Ed.), Teaching Collocation (pp 28-46). Boston: Thomson-Heinle


Submitted by mura on Sat, 06/09/2012 - 09:41

hi leo


i like how you mixed the lexical notecard with flashcard. regarding yr students experience the mobile versions of things like Quizlet and Anki (which i prefer due to its open source nature) allow the practicality limits you mention to be ameliorated somewhat.




Submitted by leosel on Sat, 06/30/2012 - 09:37

In reply to by mura

Thank you for your comment, Mura

I am not familiar with Anki but will check it out now!


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