Lexical Notebooks

Few would argue that vocabulary acquisition is one of the most important skills when learning a second language. The adage goes that you can say more with a lot of words and a little grammar than a lot of grammar a few words. Some important concepts that I have recently learned about vocabulary include:

  • learning vocabulary from a list is perfectly fine
  • learning vocabulary from contextual clue (i.e. guessing its meaning) is awfully hard and requires that you know at least 95% of the surrounding vocabulary
  • learning vocabulary through translation is worthwhile, though the simpler the vocabulary the better it is learnt with pictures
  • learning vocabulary in thematic (green, frog, green beans, grass, trees) rather than semantic sets (green, red, blue, yellow) is more effective

There are numerous vocabulary acquisition strategies and techniques, the most popular being flashcards. Vocabulary journals are also a popular choice, but this is a rather vague term that is open to interpretation by teachers and students alike. Last semester, I came across a specific type of vocabulary journal called a “lexical notebook”.

A lexical notebook is a lot like a vocabulary journal, only it is more lexical. Instead of endless lists of words with part of speech, pronunciation, and original sentences all laid out in a spreadsheet-like paper, lexical notebook are more about quality, not quantity. A lexical notebook may have only two words on a page, but these will contain not only part of speech or original sentences, but information about collocations, colligation (its regular patterns of grammar), useful phrases, related vocabulary, etc. The point of a lexical journal is the write about only a few words, but to include a lot of information about that word. At the bottom of this post, I will include some useful links to reading more about lexical notebook, but to summarize some of its principles:

  • words should be student-selected and of high interest
  • they should be thematically organized if possible (e.g. money, shopping, politics)
  • they should not be written chronologically, and adding words to previously created pages/themes should be encouraged
  • there should be a lot of white space
  • quality not quantity
  • a table of contents may be useful to organize this notebook
  • there could be completely separate sections for collocations with specific verbs, adjective + noun, phrasal verbs, etc.

There is actually a lot of information out there on lexical notebooks, but very few actual students examples. Last semester, I explained the advantages of lexical notebooks, gave examples of what I could find, and made up the rest. I told students that they could include as little or as much information as they wanted, and I told them they should consult my two favorite corpus tools, Word and Phrase and StringNet. The lexical notebooks were optional, but, mid-semester I asked students to show me what they had been doing (if they had been keeping them at all). While some did not keep a journal, and others did a half-hearted job, I was blown away by some students and their effort. I took some pictures but I have only been able to located four examples. Although these may not be the best examples, I would like to share with you now some of my students’ lexical notebooks, followed by a brief explanation of what they did.

Example 1

2014-05-02 15.42.24


Here, the student focused a lot on the grammar that was being taught in the class. She organized it by theme (yellow highlights: habits, preposition phrases), and used red to highlight important grammatical examples.  She used blue underlines to indicate vocabulary and used a blue circle to indicate a preposition. She also used a lot of Korean to explain grammatical points or provide important translations. The blue post-it note provides additional grammar info. For an example like this, my advice would be to skip a few pages between themes so that more can be added.

Example 2

2014-05-02 15.42.35This is a simple example of words, their Korean translation, and an example sentence.

Example 3

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This is probably my favorite example. Here, the words are on the left and include a phonetic transcription. The part of speech and an English definition are included on the right. A Korean definition is also included. Synonyms are written in purple. An example sentence is included in black. There is plenty of white space and room to write more. It is also organized by theme.

Example 4

2014-05-02 15.43.15This is actually the same student as above, just another theme and another page.

So, as you can see, there are numerous ways to organize a lexical notebook, but the principles outlined above are likely to make them more useful and effective. The challenge is to not only convince students to keep them but to also convince them to review them and keep adding to them even after your course has ended.

Do you keep lexical notebooks or vocabulary notebooks? Can you provide any student examples? I’d love to see them! Let me know in the comments.