Vocabulary diaries for language learners

As Scott Thornbury (in How To Teach Vocabulary) and Paul Nation and Peter Gu (in Focus On Vocabulary) point out, learners need to use vocabulary items six or seven times, in different contexts or ways, for these to begin to enter long-term memory storage. Furthermore, as I wrote in this post, various studies suggest it’s a good idea to revise items at particular key stages (24 hours after initial study, then 48 hours after that, then a week later, and so on) to help this transfer to long-term memory to take place.

It can be very difficult for us teachers to keep track of such a varied revision schedule. In fact, it may well be impossible to get all the revision work done in class, either because our learners don’t have enough classes each week to keep to the optimum schedule, or because they’re on continuous enrolment courses (in which case they will all be on different schedules anyway, and have lessons for sometimes wildly different lengths of time).

For these reasons, it’s normally essential to make sure our students take on responsibility for their own vocabulary revision work. Yet this often leads to its own problems of unmonitored and so inefficient, chaotic or non-existent revision sessions and recording of lexical items studied in class, perhaps undertaken without much (or any) knowledge of how memory works, how to take notes, and so on. A diary combining an organised and principled way for students to note down and revise new words and phrases, along with plenty of space for them to write their own thoughts in, may well help alleviate these various problems. I have a template here with notes explaining how the various parts of the diary page work: there’s a picture showing what each bit of the template does below – have a look and see what you think. In case you or your learners want to try it out, I have blank versions here (in .pdf format for printing) and here (in Microsoft Word .doc format, for editing). I also have blank versions in “portrait” page orientation – which I don’t find as good, as there seems less useful space for recording vocabulary – here (.pdf) and here (.doc), and a portrait version of the instructions here.

Notes for using my vocabulary diary template

Some benefits of using a vocabulary diary like that above would be:

  • it’s very flexible, with plenty of plain white space for a variety of different tasks – again, such variety is both motivating and aids the process of remembering vocabulary
  • it’s a “private space” for learners to reflect on what they’ve learnt and their goals or plans for the coming day, week, month, or year
  • it’s a template for self-directed study
  • it reminds students when and what to revise, to help transfer lexical items into long-term storage
  • through regular use, learners will be developing good vocabulary-revising habits, and good study habits in general
  • the template provides, with its directions for use, a good model for recording vocabulary, which is not very stressful or difficult to maintain
  • it’s a record of each learner’s linguistic progress and achievements in English, or recorded in English
  • it can help students set realistic learning goals, and attain them
  • it allows for many ways of personalising vocabulary acquired in class or elsewhere
  • various of the ways it can be used encourage students to notice English in the world around them, outside the classroom
  • it’s designed to help learners continuously improve their lexical range and what they can do in English; this can also be very motivating

A few downsides of using the above template might be:

  • it requires daily updates by the learner, which they may not always be motivated or able to do
  • it could be too time-consuming, and interfere with other homework tasks
  • the identical layout of each page may become boring to use after a while
  • learners, their teacher or the school may not be able to afford to print out enough blank templates

However, here are a few ways of addressing these downsides: firstly, and as ever, variety of interaction is key – I list a variety of ways students could use these kinds of diary below (a fairly similar, though slightly smaller list is given in the template’s notes, above), and there are many more possibilities – in itself, the diary offers plenty of scope for different, interesting tasks and interactions with English. Secondly, most of the activities listed below could be started, ended, or entirely done in class, which should add to the motivation to begin a task or to see it through. Thirdly, it seems that specific memory tasks (such as learning ten words a day) get easier the more they are done, and vocabulary items becomes simpler to recall the more we have revised them; because of this, with practice, it needn’t take long (no more than thirty minutes) to complete that day’s revision schedule. Fourthly, as individual students use it, they will undoubtedly find different ways of adapting or improving it to suit their needs, and they can change its design accordingly – in fact, sharing their adaptations could be a lesson in itself. And fifthly (and finally!), there is no need to use my template at all – students could simply draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and use the left (or the right) side for vocabulary notes and a revision schedule, and the right (or the left) side for more creative tasks using this vocabulary, and to record the date.

So how could these vocabulary diaries be used? Here are a few things students could record (and of course there are many other possibilities):

  • a conversation they heard in English, perhaps with a different and more dramatic ending
  • a picture of something they’ve seen that day, and a description of it in English
  • a drawing of a scene (maybe a kitchen or a restaurant), labelled in English
  • small pictures of between six and eight words and phrases they wrote the day before, and a short story underneath, written using these words or phrases
  • notes about their day, using some of that day’s noted words and phrases
  • the lyrics and/or pictures representing the lyrics of a song they want to learn
  • their thoughts about a news article, interview or book they’ve read, seen or heard
  • their thoughts about learning English – what do they want to learn this month? What do they find easy and difficult about English? Are the plans and goals they set themselves too easy to accomplish or too difficult?
  • the most unusual or interesting facts they’ve learnt that day, recorded in English, and perhaps three things they wish were true (but aren’t) underneath
  • a very short film review (say, 50 – 100 words) in English, using words and phrases noted that day. This review might be translated into their first language below, then translated back into English from the first language
  • a list of five things they’d like to be able to do in English, and a plan showing how they could achieve this

If you’re interested in trying out these vocabulary diaries with your students, one way of introducing them in class would be as follows:

  1. Start a general discussion on vocabulary learning with your students, finding out things like:
    • how much time they spend each day revising words and phrases learnt in class
    • whether they focus on pronunciation in their revision
    • how they revise new words and phrases
    • how many times they spend revising each word and phrase
    • how they go about remembering difficult spellings
    • whether they think their revision techniques are effective, and how effective they are
    • the problems and difficulties they face in learning new vocabulary
  2. find out how many students keep a diary, and how many (if any at all) keep a diary in English
  3. hand out copies of the blank diary template above, one per pair of students. Ask them to look through it and decide how they could use it to improve their English – encourage them to think of as many different ways as possible.
  4. Board their ideas.
  5. Perhaps discuss what problems there might be with using the template, and board and discuss these.
  6. Perhaps find out how many of your students would like to try using one for a week – there’s no reason why you couldn’t set up an experimental group of those who are willing to try it out, and ask them to report back to the class at the end of the week. If they find it useful, it could be adopted by the whole class.
  7. Give out and go through the template with instructions for use (one copy per student). Ask your students, on their own, to tick between 3 and 5 activities – from the list on the right of the template, and anything else from the list on the board – which they’d like to try this week. Any non-diary-testers could also complete this task, and set their own homework based on it.
  8. At the end of the week, and (if you use an experimental group of willing students) after they’ve discussed and shared their findings with the class, find out how many students are happy for you to see and respond to, or mark, their vocabulary diaries – remembering that they may well contain personal notes. If your students find the diaries are helpful, try to find ways of encouraging them all to continue using them, using some of the activity ideas above as well as your own and your students’ ideas.

2 thoughts on “Vocabulary diaries for language learners

  1. Although it has limited characters, tweeting about the word (perhaps multiple tweets over the course of a day – dividing up the categories listed above) might provide incentive for students to take more ownership for their learning & revisit new vocabulary. I’ve created a Twitter account specifically for when I see particular vocabulary words used in authentic speech or written text. Students could tweet to a teacher or group account so that everyone can be involved with the conversation about vocabulary.

  2. Yes, that’s a really good idea – I also often ask my students to google the word and see what comes up in the search results (like an informal concordancer). Have you heard of a program called Wordnik? You might like it – links words with their definitions, example sentences, how it’s currently being used in tweets and pictures that have been labelled with the word. It’s really nice! You can try it out here if you like: http://www.wordnik.com/

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