One Book to Bring Them All and Bind Them – making the case for vocabulary notebooks

The school I am teaching at has been using vocabulary books for years. They are organized thematically and offer word lists, translations into L1, short ecyclopedia-style texts where the words are used in and some gap filling activities. My colleagues seem to like them, but whenever I tried to use them in class I found the results underwhelming. The vocab work seemed separated from what we did in the lessons, I couldn’t include vocab that had emerged in class and there were a lot of items in there that students already knew. They were not flexible enough for our lessons and certainly not flexible enough for the highly diverse individual vocabularies of my students.

Another thing I have tried out is topic vocab lists. They are a tad more flexible than books as the teacher can modify them and you can leave blank spaces were students can insert the words they need and are interested in. However, they still don’t solve the problem of redundancy and they are not very portable.

The internet offers a wide range of computer solutions for our problem, that seem to allow for easy individualization and flexibility. Unfortunately PC’s or laptops are not portable enough and not all of them have smartphones, yet. Another important downside for me is the fact that all these devices offer way too much distraction potential for students.

Flashcards are often recommended in teacher manuals and they offer great flexibility. If well and tidily kept a flashcard box is a powerful learning tool sitting on your desk – sitting and waiting very often. Most of my older students don’t want to carry around a large box of cards. It’s just not very convenient for revision at the bus stop.

I favour the use of a personal vocabulary notebook. You can not only individualize its content but also its appearance turning it into something that expresses your own style – an iNotebook, so to say. This adds an affective quality that can help the learner’s motivation.

A notebook is very portable and students can easily pull it out at the bus stop or whenever they have a little time. It just allows for an easy, casual use.
A notebook filled with blank pages is also very flexible because students can fill it with whatever content they like.

Herein lies the greatest challenge of such a notebook. Confronted with blank pages most students are at a loss. There are myriads of vocab learning strategies out there and to apply the right one and enough of them to every vocab is ridiculously far over the students’ heads. I always cringe at the impressive examples of vocabulary notebooks given by professionals. Have a look at this article on vocabulary notebooks by Diane and Norbert Schmitt. Don’t get me wrong, their examples look terrific, but they require professional skill and experience and A HELL OF A LOT OF TIME! In one of my favourite books on learning vocabulary author Keith Folse states that ”if the vocabulary notebook requires toommuch work, often in the form of too much information or time, students will abandon this, resulting in greatly diminished learning.” (Folse, 104) he suggests a reasonable approach based on the knowledge that ”one of the most important factors in learning a word is the number of times that the learner retrieves it.” (Folse, 103)

I have adapted Folse’s method for my students making some slight alterations that don’t require folding the pages as suggested by Folse. I teach them the method with the help of a PDF manual I made with Keynote. Please have a look at this manual and let me know what you think. If you like it, feel free to use it in class.


Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.


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