ESL Vocabulary Notebooks: A Powerful Tool for Learning and Retention

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

ESL Vocabulary Books for Retention

“While without grammar, very little can be conveyed,

without vocabulary, nothing

can be conveyed.”

- David Wilkins, Linguist

This post is a guest blog post by Nadiah Ammar, a CELTA certified instructor with a Master’s in Multicultural Studies in Education and ESL. She has been teaching adult English learners for the past ten years in the Middle East and the US. Currently, she is an adjunct professor in the ESOL department at San Jacinto College.

It is a Sunday afternoon, and you are enjoying your day off. You are watching an episode of Friends, an American sitcom, and you hear Ross say, “When you get tough with people, you get whatever you want”. Maybe, you don’t know what get tough means, but then you see him talk to Joey, his friend, in a strong and assertive way. You kind of get the meaning from the context, but once the show is over, it is impossible to remember what was said exactly. Did he say “be tough” or was it “get rough”? You feel frustrated for a few moments trying to remember, then you give up, and the phrase is gone.

Does this scenario sound familiar? How many times has this happened to you? As a language learner, you are hit with new words ALL the time. You never know when it might happen. It could be at the supermarket as you do your grocery shopping, at a business meeting, or even as you are reading this article. So, what can you do about this problem? The best tool you could use as a language learner is a vocabulary notebook.

What is a vocabulary notebook?

A vocabulary notebook is a written record of new words or phrases that YOU want to learn and remember. It includes all the information you need to know about a word, so you can really learn it and make it part of YOUR vocabulary. You can add translations of words. You can draw pictures or diagrams to illustrate meaning. Sometimes even analogies help clarify the meaning of a word.

What are your options? You could use an actual notebook, or you could be a little creative and use index cards or a binder with movable pages. The advantages of using an actual notebook is that you are less likely to lose it as opposed to index cards that can disappear or pages that might fall out of a binder. However, index cards and movable pages provide flexibility. If you want to categorize new words or put them in groups according to themes, you will be able to do that easily.

How do you set up a vocabulary notebook?

In order to set up a vocabulary notebook, you need to include all the essential pieces of information necessary to really know a word and make it part of your working vocabulary. Of course, the most obvious is the meaning of the word and how it is used in writing and speaking. Learning about the root of a word and what affixes (prefixes and suffixes) mean will give you a deeper understanding of the new term. For example, when you are learning the word “annual,” you will notice that the root anni/annu means year. From that, you can conclude that any word with that root is related to the meaning of the word year like anniversary, biannual, and annuity.

Additionally, getting familiar with the word’s synonyms and antonyms help you make connections and improve retention. The most challenging aspect of a word is its collocations. A collocation is a particular combination of words or what other words usually come together.

Let's look at an example.

Let’s take start as an example of a common word used in business and think about what it means to know this word. The dictionary definition of start is to do the first part of something, to begin to work on something, or to cause something to begin. It can be used as a verb or a noun. It has numerous collocations, which sometimes give it slightly different meanings. Below is an example of a vocabulary notebook entry for this word.

Remember, your notebook can look any way you want it to look. The important thing is that it makes sense to you.

Vocabulary Notebook entry

As you learn more information about a word, you can go back and add it. You can organize your words by theme or topic. If you need to write an email, memo or business proposal, refer to your notebook, so you can use the appropriate words to convey your message. Vocabulary notebooks are also an excellent tool for reviewing before an exam.

Why should you use a vocabulary notebook?

Keeping a vocabulary notebook may seem like a lot of work, but it pays off in the long run. Research says that maintaining a vocabulary notebook makes you a more independent learner. This is because you evaluate your own learning and take responsibility for your progress. Only you choose the words to include in the notebook.

It also helps you better retain the words because you can easily revisit them numerous times and you will have a deeper understanding of the terms because you included enough detail like meaning, use and collocations. Last but not least, it improves your attitude as a student. Being more independent means more confidence which in turn will make you more motivated to learn.

Don’t wait another day! Begin your vocabulary notebook right now. Decide which format you prefer and go for it. Within weeks, you will notice the difference. It might be challenging at first like all new habits, but soon you will be a pro! You are on your way to being a lifelong independent learner.


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Ozturk, E. E., & Ozkan, Y. (2017). The Motives of Pre-Service English Language Teachers for Utilizing a Jargon Book in a Methodology Course. PASAA: Journal of Language Teaching and Learning in Thailand, 53, 85–111. Retrieved from

Taveggia, D. E. (2013). Adapting a vocabulary notebook strategy to the needs of community college english language learners (Order No. 3559060). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1353110644). Retrieved from

Tri Hoang Dang. (2013). A Phenomenological Study of EFL Students’ Perceptions of Vocabulary Notebooks as a Vocabulary Learning Strategy. Language in India, 13(9), 437–447. Retrieved from

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