You Win Some, You Lose Some: Lexical Notebooks vs Flashcards

If you read a recent post of mine about lexical notebooks, you could tell that I was keen on using them in the classroom. I had tried them previously in my university in South Korea with mixed but mostly positive results. Students seemed to appreciate them, found them useful, and did a generally good job keeping them.

Unfortunately, things did not work out the same here. Despite me explaining the benefits of lexical journals, they just didn’t take. Students either did not find them useful, did not really do them well, or just didn’t bother to do them. Some made minimal effort, while others did quite a good job. Like Korea, the results were mixed but mostly negative. I actually came away from the last lexical notebook collection (where I check their notebooks for a grade) a little jarred at the results. One student actually showed me a list of words and their translations and told me she preferred to study vocabulary that way. How can I argue with that? “Sorry, but research shows…” I don’t think so.

Lexical notebooks have been somewhat tainted for me now as I realize not every student finds value in them. If I were a student, would I want to use them? When I studied Polish and Korean, did I keep a lexical notebook? The honest answer is “no,” but this has more to do with not wanting to see my own handwriting than not wanting to write pronunciation notes, collocations, or word trees.

Despite the failure of lexical notebooks, I did manage success in my classroom with Quizlet flashcards. I did in fact use flashcards to study Korean, Polish, and GRE terminology – and I used them with success. I am consistently shocked that few, if any, of my students know about flaschards. Unlike lexical journals, there is really little to convince them of. They are easy to make, easy to use, and really effective. They are always with students (because they are on their smartphones), and, with Quizlet’s games, they are fun.

Each week, I make a set of English-English flashcards for my class on Quizlet. These contain the English word and a simple English definition taken from Learner’s Dictionary, along with the pronunciation of the word in IPA. I require my (low level) students to copy the flashcards to their account and add translations for the words, and save the cards as an English-YourLanguage set. This is weekly homework, and they are free to study both. I encourage them to use the different functions of Quizlet, such as the Learn, Spell, and Scatter functions. Sometimes I check my sets or my students’ sets just to see what they have been up to (in the free version, you can see who studied your sets or how students sets were studied). I can also tell which students use the flashcards and which students don’t: students who use the flashcards (1) are the more motivated students, (2) participate more in class, (3) perform better on vocabulary tests, and (4) perform better all around in my class. Whereas none of my students enjoy lexical notebooks, most of them enjoy flashcards.

The point here is you have to go with what students like, and…you shouldn’t endorse any method or technique you personally haven’t used to try and learn a language. Having said that, I do wish to play with lexical flashcards, which is something I kind of have used personally. I’ll save this for a later class, and a later blog post.