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Vocabulary Notebooks: Theoretical Underpinnings and Practical Suggestions

This article presents 11 principles from language memory and language research.
Norbert Schmitt
Diane Schmitt
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
University of Nottingham
Nottingham Trent University
Resource Type: 
Skill Level: 
NRS EFL 2--ESL Low Beginning ESL
NRS EFL 3--ESL High Beginning ESL
NRS EFL 4--ESL Low Intermediate ESL
NRS EFL 5--ESL High Intermediate ESL
NRS EFL 6--Advanced ESL Literacy
Required Training: 

None, but as with all descriptions of research and practice, it is best to read and discuss this resource with professional colleagues.


In spite of the recent surge of interest in many aspects of vocabulary learning, little has been written about what constitutes a good vocabulary notebook. This article attempts to address this perceived gap by first deriving 11 principles from language memory and language research which can serve as a guide in the creation of a pedagogically sound notebook. Drawing from these principles, a design for vocabulary notebooks is presented which emphasizes the incremental learning of vocabulary and different aspects of word knowledge. Suggestions are then made for integrating this kind of notebook into classroom activities. A sample schedule is provided to illustrate how notebooks can be introduced into a class.

What the Experts Say: 

The question of how to make adult ESL learning meaningful and active for learners is not a new one, but a culture of “packets and worksheets” persists in our field. These videos illustrate how we can effectively get language and literacy “off the page” and into the hands of our learners in meaningful ways. We are shown both how to link our classrooms with our communities and how language and literacy can be taught with purpose and cohesion even at lower levels.

In “How Much Are the Peppers?” the viewer is introduced to both excellent pedagogy and clear rationales for these choices. These short video clips are useful for the adult ESL teacher to watch independently or for a professional developer to create a workshop that embeds these clips. The clips alternate between an expert rationale (from Heide Wrigley) and footage from real adult ESL classrooms.

Significant features include Wrigley’s principles for teaching adult ESL literacy, listed in the abstract above. The videos demonstrate the Language Experience Approach, moving from the prework in the classroom to an actual shared experience in the community (a visit to a farm), then back to the classroom for language and literacy followup work, and additional time in the community. Even for a new teacher or one new to adult education, Wrigley’s six guiding principles concisely summarize the essential priorities that should be embraced in our work with adult immigrants and refugees.  

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