Vocabulary Notebooks: A Graduated Approach Towards Learner Autonomy

Aaron Chao


Vocabulary acquisition will forever remain a central aspect of language learning. Compared to other content areas, however, its depth and scope sets it apart as an aspect of language learning that demands a considerable amount of time, focus and attention.  Words are plentiful. Paul Nation (2006) estimates that an 8,000 to 9,000 word-family vocabulary is needed for comprehension of written text and a vocabulary of 6,000 to 7,000 for spoken text. Words are also demanding. Within the classroom, focusing on just a few aspects of a word can take up a considerable amount of time. In light of this, as well as changes in the landscape of English language pedagogy over the past few decades-especially in regards to learner autonomy, which refers to ‘the ability to take charge of one’s learning’ (Henri Holec, 1981), educators and researchers have recognized the importance of autonomous learning specifically with respect to vocabulary acquisition.
Among the various taxonomies of vocabulary learning strategies, the use of vocabulary notebooks have been frequently mentioned as an effective way to enhance vocabulary acquisition but also encourage learner autonomy (Nation, 1990; Schmitt and Schmitt, 1995; Fowle 2002). Based on current research, I propose a graduated 3-stage approach to using vocabulary notebooks as an effective means of long-term vocabulary acquisition, while encouraging learner autonomy.
Vocabulary Notebooks

It’s important to note that using vocabulary notebooks should be considered more than just an activity or a singular strategy. Rather, it is a means to which multiple learning strategies can be applied, but in a way that meets the needs of the individual more effectively. Vocabulary notebooks are highly personal and allow for the learner to consolidate information using strategies that are effective for them. They can also be incorporated in various classroom activities – as a word source, as a springboard or as a means of sharing information with peers. In doing this, words can be revisited with each encounter allowing for increased familiarity and better retention. Teachers can also review notebooks to check for mistakes and offer helpful suggestions and feedback.
It has also been mentioned that vocabulary notebooks can encourage learner autonomy. The degree of autonomy that the student is given through vocabulary notebooks can motivate the learner towards autonomy while allowing for the opportunity to develop, monitor and evaluate personal learning strategies for vocabulary acquisition. However, the question remains whether vocabulary notebooks can indeed fulfill these dual purposes regarding vocabulary acquisition.
Literature Review

Despite the frequent mention of vocabulary notebooks as an effective means for enhancing vocabulary acquisition and encouraging learner autonomy, there is a dearth of empirical research on their effectiveness. However, current findings are revealing.
In 2002, Moir and Nation examined 10 highly motivated adults, all of whom had a receptive vocabulary of 3,000 to 4,000 words, by having them maintain a vocabulary notebook with words of their own choosing (30-40 per week). Allowing the informants to determine what words would be included was thought to be beneficial in light of the increased relevance of the chosen words. Despite this, however, results from this particular case study showed that there was a lack of personalization in terms of word selection; words that were of low frequency and of little interest to the informants were often chosen. This test also showed that there was a skewed focus on word meaning and, “…a general lack of awareness as to how depth of vocabulary knowledge might contribute to ability to use the items both productively and receptively” (Moir and Nation, pg. 23). Retention and productive use of words suffered as a result.  A 2007 study by McCrostie of 124 first year English major students at a Japanese university produced findings similar to that of Moir and Nation. The students’ word selections reflected a lack of critique of words in terms of frequency and importance while also revealing a preference for certain parts of speech.
However, a study by Walters and Bozkur (2009) on 60 intermediate-level students at a preparatory school in Turkey showed that the usage of vocabulary notebooks did indeed have a positive effect on vocabulary acquisition. Their study showed that the treatment group (that which used vocabulary notebooks) outperformed the control group not only in terms of quantity of vocabulary but also in terms of how productively they were able to use them. In comparing this study with those done by Moire and Nation (2002) and McCrostie (2007), it’s important to note two major differences. For one, rather than allowing the informants to select their own words, the words were pre-determined by teachers. The other major difference is the guidance that students received in terms of vocabulary notebook use. On a daily basis, teachers provided detailed information about words including, “…part of speech, first-language translations, second-language synonyms, antonyms, derivations, and collocations” (Walters and Bozkurt, pg. 406). 
3-Stage Approach

These findings reveal that while vocabulary notebooks can be effective in enhancing vocabulary acquisition, even highly motivated individuals generally do not possess the skills and strategies necessary for learner autonomy, particularly in regards to word selection and the building up of word knowledge. With respect to these skills and strategies, research seems to indicate that learners can benefit greatly from consistent and careful guidance by teachers. Therefore, I propose a 3-stage graduated approach to using vocabulary notebooks as a means of not only enhancing vocabulary acquisition but also as a means of developing the skills and strategies that learners need in order to build a broad and robust vocabulary.
In stage 1, the teacher determines both the content and guides the knowledge-building process. However, the focus is not on how to select words but, rather, on guiding the students on how to think through a word and its different aspects. Careful attention should be paid to how many words and how many features of a word can be handled at any particular time as well as providing opportunities to reencounter words to reinforce and deepen word knowledge. Also, time should be spent explaining the purpose of using vocabulary notebooks as well as guiding students in terms of its usage. For ideas on how to organize vocabulary notebooks, see Schmitt and Schmitt (1995).  
In stage 2, the teacher guides the word selection process. However, the student is given time to practice finding unknown words and selecting those that are more pertinent depending on factors such as frequency, importance, etc. The content can be determined at different ratios between the teacher and student. In terms of the knowledge-building process, students are given some reign to guide themselves. Therefore, less time is spent in class going over word aspects but should still be done on a regular basis as a model for students to reference. Notebooks can also be submitted to the teacher for regular review and feedback.
In stage 3, the student fully determines what words to learn and is the one primarily responsible for the knowledge-building process. Even at this stage, it is important for teachers to continue to provide feedback; however, the student should be independent enough at this stage to be able to use vocabulary notebooks effectively even in the absence of a teacher.

Table 3 Stage Approach to Vocabulary Notebook Use
  Content Process Description
Stage 1
teacher determined
teacher guided
-purpose and organization of vocabulary notebooks is explained.
-teacher determines the words to be learned.
-focus is on guiding the learner through the process of learning the different word aspects. 
Stage 2
teacher/student determined
student/teacher guided
-both teacher and student determine the content.
-student given greater freedom to guide knowledge building process (teacher monitors and evaluates).
-teacher instructs the student regarding word selection process.
Stage 3
student determined
student guided
-student determines the content and guides themselves through learning process.
-teacher monitors and evaluates as needed.  


One caveat in regards to what I have outlined here is that no time frame was specified for this process. As mentioned above, this process serves the dual purpose of enhancing vocabulary acquisition but also encouraging learner autonomy. However, factors such as age and proficiency level-not to mention lesson and course objectives-may affect the amount of attention that can be allotted towards developing a vocabulary base as opposed to developing learner autonomy skills and strategies. This may especially be the case for beginner to intermediate level learners for whom developing a strong foundation of high frequency words may be of utmost importance. Other external constraints, such as standardized tests, may allow for less freedom for students to determine what words to learn. However, even as a supplemental activity, vocabulary notebooks can serve as an effective medium for the acquisition of vocabulary while encouraging learner autonomy. Through utilizing this type of graduated approach, educators can empower learners in a way that will pay dividends in the future.


Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
 McCrostie, J. (2007). Examining Learner Vocabulary Notebooks. ELT Journal 61
(3), pp. 246-255
 Moir, J., & Nation, I. S. P. (2002). Learners’ Use of Strategies for Effective
Vocabulary Learning. Prospect 17 (1), pp. 15-35
 Nation, I.S.P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. Massachusetts; Heinle and
 Nation, I.S.P. (2005). Teaching Vocabulary. The Asian EFL Journal 7 (3), pp. 47-54
Schmitt, N. and Schmitt, D. (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: Theoretical underpinnings  
and practical suggestions. ELTJ 49, 2:133-143
 Walters, J., & Bozkurt, N. (2009). The Effect of Keeping Vocabulary Notebooks on
Vocabulary Acquisition. Language Teaching Research 13 (4), pp. 403-423
Aaron Chao teaches adult EFL at the Yanbian Business Technical School in Yanji, China.

ITBE Link - July 2016