Vocabulary notebooks: implementation and outcomes

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1 Vocabulary notebooks: implementation and outcomes Clyde Fowle With the recent focus in applied linguistics on lexical competence, and the impact this has had on language teaching, many language teachers are now aware of the necessity of making vocabulary a central part of their teaching practice. This paper looks at how vocabulary notebooks have been introduced into a secondary school language programme in Thailand as a means of increasing the learners lexical competence, and assisting them in the development of autonomous modes of learning. Possible outcomes are considered, particularly in terms of the development of the study skills and cognitive strategies necessary for independent learning. Context This article focuses on the way in which the introduction of vocabulary notebooks into the English language programme in a secondary school acted as a tool to empower the learners to become more independent in their learning. The context in which this took place was a language centre within a Thai school where the learners had previously experienced teacher-centred classrooms, and were unaccustomed to making decisions about their own learning. The teacher-centred nature of the Thai education system is acknowledged in a British Council report in which Kasbekar states that Teachers are accused of encouraging rotelearning instead of inspiring independent thinking (1997: 63). The language centre has two major aims: firstly to facilitate the language learning of the students attending courses, and secondly to introduce them to a more independent approach to learning in general. Schmitt and Schmitt (1995) argue that keeping vocabulary notebooks is one way of promoting learner independence. We therefore saw the use of vocabulary notebooks as a possible vehicle to more independent learning. It is often argued that changing the learning styles and expectations of young learners is not a straightforward task, as Wenden (1991: 55) acknowledges: as young children students begin to believe that to be a learner is to be dependent. However, we believed that all people have the ability to be self-directing if they are given the right environment and support (Head and Taylor 1997). The vocabulary notebooks have now been in use for over one academic year on a programme of approximately 300 learners aged between eleven and fourteen, from false-beginner to pre-intermediate level. In the context of this article, vocabulary notebook refers to a notebook kept by each 380 ELT Journal Volume 56/4 October 2002 Oxford University Press

2 learner specifically for the purpose of recording new and useful lexical items. Aims Implementation Our primary aim in introducing vocabulary notebooks was to provide the learners with an area of language learning where they could be given a relatively high level of independence that would build their confidence in their ability to act independently of the teacher. Schmitt (1997: 200 1) maintains that although there has been relatively little attention paid to the area of vocabulary learning strategies, it is an area in which learners seem to consciously use discrete learning strategies, such as inferring the meaning of a new word from its context. It was hoped that by providing the learners with a positive model of independent learning we would help to equip them with strategies that would empower them to become more autonomous in other areas of their learning. We also wanted to help the learners to identify on a more personal level with what was being taught in the language classroom, and felt that vocabulary notebooks could also assist in achieving this. A less direct aim was to develop the learners metacognitive knowledge of learning processes through experimenting with di erent ways of working on their vocabulary notebooks (Dickinson 1987). We identified strongly with Puchta and Schratz in believing that the e ort required to implement change in the learning styles and experiences of teenagers should reap ample rewards in a snowball fashion (1993: 1). Puchta and Schratz also realistically maintain that a move towards cooperative independence (op. cit.: 3) requires continued patience and motivation from the teacher/s implementing the change; we therefore saw this transition as an ongoing process. We also believed that vocabulary learning should be central to the language programme, and that our learners needed help to develop the necessary skills for processing and learning new lexical items. This reflects the current acknowledgement of the importance of lexis and lexical competence in applied linguistics, language learning methodology, and language teaching materials (Gairns and Redman 1986, Lewis 1993, and Schmitt and McCarthy 1997). Vocabulary notebooks were seen as one way of helping students to engage more meaningfully with the new words that they were being exposed to in their language learning experiences. We also believed that vocabulary notebooks could complement other classroom activities aimed at increasing the learners lexical competence. As Schmitt and McCarthy (1997: 3) maintain, The more energy a person expends when manipulating and thinking about a word, the more likely it is that they will be able to recall and use it later. 1 The first stage involved reaching a consensus amongst the teachers working on the programme about how the vocabulary notebooks would be implemented, and sharing ideas about how we could best present the concept of the notebooks to the students. We also considered how we could train them in the use of vocabulary notebooks to ensure that they were a vehicle to more independent learning styles. We had a workshop in which ideas were presented and discussed, and issues and concerns were raised. Vocabulary notebooks 381

3 2 We decided on a set of informal guidelines to structure the implementation of the project; these included ideas about how to organize the notebooks. We chose an A Z format at the front of the notebooks, complemented by sections at the back for recording lexical sets, grammatical groupings, etc. We discussed the benefits of various modes of defining and explaining vocabulary, including translation, parts of speech, pronunciation information, English definitions, example sentences, collocations, antonyms and synonyms, and pictures, as well as ideas about organizing the back section of the notebook with word families, mind maps, grammatical groupings, etc. We held the belief that the learners should be exposed to a variety of techniques and, with guidance, be helped to discover which methods best suited their own learning styles. This approach would seem to be supported by Gairns and Redman, who maintain that The more systems a learner makes use of and the greater the exposure to the target items, the easier it will be to retrieve from a variety of sources. (1986: 99). Thus it was hoped that exposing the learners to various methods of recording vocabulary would ultimately empower them, and provide them with valuable study skills. 3 The introduction of the notebooks to the students involved: explaining the concept of vocabulary notebooks as a personal dictionary ; getting the students to prepare a suitable notebook; the teacher using a model vocabulary notebook to introduce the concept; assisting the learners in initial organization of their notebooks, the A Z lettering of pages, and an example lexical set activity for the back section. We also used published materials to assist learners in dealing with new words, for example, Learning Words in A Way with Words (Redman, Ellis, and Viney 1996), and Talking about language and Learning vocabulary in English Vocabulary in Use (Elementary) (McCarthy and O Dell 1999). Many coursebooks also have practical sections on learner training which can be useful in sensitizing students to the personal and a ective nature of vocabulary learning. Dictionaries are excellent models of methods that can be used to record vocabulary. It was also impressed on the learners that they were responsible for deciding which words to include in their vocabulary notebooks, depending on whether the word was new, useful, or interesting to them. Schmitt and Schmitt (1995: 139) argue against spoon-feeding students, to ensure that the acquisition of meaning is a process of discovery that enhances learner independence. 4 In the early stages new lexical items were made very explicit by teachers, and students were guided in selecting and recording words. Often this would mean regularly devoting class time specifically to working on the vocabulary notebooks. This approach also gave some routine and structure to classes, and o ered a good opportunity to change pace. 5 Stronger individuals and groups quickly grasped the concept of the notebooks, and started to become relatively autonomous in recording vocabulary. Within a month, some students had reached a relatively 382 Clyde Fowle

4 high degree of independence. However, others required continued support, encouragement, and guidance from the teacher. 6 Teachers periodically took in notebooks to check and comment on, and some even introduced reward schemes to encourage their learners to take more pride in their vocabulary books. Providing charts with various stickers for di erent kinds of achievement in the vocabulary notebooks seemed to increase motivation levels. 7 Finally, we decided that, as the vocabulary notebooks had become a key part of the programme in the Centre, we should include them in the continuous assessment of the students. Outcomes Vocabulary learning strategies Although the outcomes in terms of vocabulary acquisition have not been measured rigorously, the students have definitely become more actively involved in the learning of vocabulary as a result of the notebooks. They are usually aware of words that they have encountered and recorded in their notebooks, which at least indicates a receptive knowledge of these words, and they are able to refer back to their notebooks and refresh their knowledge of any given lexical item or set. If the strategies utilized in organizing and using vocabulary notebooks are analysed in relation to Schmitt s taxonomy of vocabulary learning strategies (1997: 205) it is evident that many of the strategies he outlines are involved. He classifies the strategies into five groups: Social, involving interaction with others; Memory, relating new material to existing knowledge; Cognitive, manipulation of the language by the learner; Metacognitive, involving decision-making about the learning process; and Determination, i.e. deducing the meaning of a new word by one s self. He goes on to distinguish between strategies used in the discovery of a word s meaning, and those used for subsequent consolidation of understanding. In terms of building up a deeper understanding of a word s meaning, Schmitt and Schmitt (1995) maintain that vocabulary notebooks are particularly useful, since entries can be developed as a learner s understanding evolves. As vocabulary notebooks are essentially a means of recording and consolidating understanding of new items of lexis, I will consider them primarily in relation to Schmitt s Consolidation strategies (1997). However, it is clear that using vocabulary notebooks encourages learners to use discovery strategies such as using dictionaries, inferring meaning from context, and asking for clarification from teachers and other students. Of the consolidation strategies outlined by Schmitt (op. cit.: 207 8) many were built into the implementation of vocabulary notebooks in our programme. They include social strategies of cooperative group learning, and enlisting the teacher in checking work for accuracy. The memory strategies utilized include: studying the word with a pictorial representation, connecting the word to synonyms and antonyms, using semantic maps, using clines for gradable adjectives, grouping words together, using new words in a sentence, studying the spelling of a word, underlining the initial letter of a word (words are often recorded alphabetically), studying parts of speech, and paraphrasing the word s meaning. Of the cognitive strategies outlined, those relating to Vocabulary notebooks 383

5 vocabulary notebooks include written repetition, taking notes in class, and keeping a vocabulary notebook. Finally, the metacognitive strategies include testing oneself, and continuing to study a word over time. It is diªcult to assess exactly what proportion of the strategies included in Schmitt s taxonomy are involved in keeping a vocabulary notebook, as the strategies used vary significantly according to the learners preferred approach. However, it is clear that a significant number of the strategies are likely to be employed simultaneously. It is therefore likely that exposure to such a wide range of strategies will be beneficial to learners. Schmitt maintains (op. cit.: 226) that it seems prudent to introduce young learners to a variety of strategies, including those which they are likely to use more as they grow older. The use of vocabulary notebooks in a school language programme such as ours would therefore seem to provide the learners with a sound foundation for their future learning that might aid the development of their metacognitive skills in particular. Learner independence Because of the dual aims of the implementation of vocabulary notebooks on our language programme, it is also important to look at the outcomes in terms of enhancing learner independence. For this I will use the framework provided by Wenden (1991: Chapter 5), which includes the development of cognitive and self-management strategies, as well as changes in metacognitive knowledge and attitudes. Vocabulary notebooks utilize the vast majority of cognitive strategies outlined by Wenden (op. cit.: 21), including deduction, defining, resourcing (expanding on meaning), elaboration, contextualization, grouping, note-taking, translation, imagery, key word (recognition by association), repetition (silent/verbal), recombination (of language into meaningful sentences), inferencing, and transfer (of knowledge to other linguistic tasks). It is diªcult to think of another area of language learning, accessible to low-level language learners, which so comprehensively integrates such a large number of cognitive strategies. Vocabulary notebooks also provide opportunities for developing selfmanagement strategies. Students are involved in the planning of their own learning from the very beginning, when they are involved in making choices about the organization of their notebook, and the way entries are made. As well as this, learners are involved in setting goals for their own vocabulary learning/acquisition. The selection of items to include in the notebook also requires them to monitor their present knowledge and to make choices and decisions about which words to include, depending on their own perceived needs. Finally, they slowly manage to evaluate the quality and usefulness of their own entries, as they refer back to them and compare them to others. As teachers give feedback on individuals vocabulary notebooks, the learners naturally compare the feedback and the contents of their notebooks with their peers, which enables them to develop their strategies by adopting those used successfully by their peers. Some teachers used examples of good notebooks as a model for other learners to use in improving their notebooks. At the same time, learners begin to develop a more critical awareness of their own 384 Clyde Fowle

6 preferred learning styles, having been given choices over how to organize their vocabulary notebooks. Various types of metacognitive knowledge are explicitly introduced during the implementation of vocabulary notebooks. Students become aware of what tasks involve, and how they should go about them. They then become sensitized to which strategies work best for them individually, and which they find more fulfilling or enjoyable. Generally, they become more aware of what vocabulary learning involves, and more active in the learning process. The fact that they also become more tolerant in dealing with ambiguity in language promotes their long-term independence, and increased self-confidence. As the students attitudes towards themselves as learners evolve, they are able to see that there are viable alternatives to the teacher-dependent mode of learning. This increases their self-esteem, and enables them to value their individual strengths as learners. The change in attitudes seems particularly crucial for this age group, as they are generally selfconscious, and concerned about securing peer recognition. The tasks and strategies involved in using vocabulary notebooks seem to assist in building their confidence as language learners. Transferable outcomes It is still diªcult for us to fully assess to what degree the vocabulary notebooks have made our learners more independent in other areas of learning. In terms of language learning they have certainly gained confidence in their ability to work in supported and structured ways that are not wholly teacher-dependent. They have also become more aware of their own responsibility/ability in assessing their own learning needs and goals, and, in some contexts they are able to consider more e ectively how these may be best achieved. Finally, they now seem to be more conscious of the personal nature of language and learning, and the a ective factors that relate to it. Feedback The following feedback was gained from a questionnaire survey of 19 students and three teachers who have been involved in the use of vocabulary notebooks for over a year, since their initial implementation. Students reflections The table below shows the students responses to the questionnaire. Most of the responses were positive, and related to their perceived lexical learning outcomes, and the strategies they use with regard to their vocabulary notebooks. Vocabulary notebooks 385

7 Question Positive Unsure Negative responses responses responses Do you like using your vocabulary notebook? Do you think that vocabulary notebooks are good in helping you remember new/useful words? Do you think your vocabulary book makes you a better student? Example comments What do you like best about your vocabulary notebook? It has beautiful pictures and many words. It can help me remember words. I can note the new words. I like new and diªcult words. It s a dictionary for myself. I like drawing in it. When I forget the word I can revise the word in it. What don t you like about your vocabulary notebook? Sometimes I can t take it home. (Ten students said nothing, and nine made comments Drawing pictures is hard. about the things they didn t like.) I don t like writing easy words. Short time to note in it. I don t like it having a score. I don t like writing example sentences. How does your vocabulary notebook help you to It helps me understand nouns, adjectives learn English? It helps us know the meaning of words. I can collect new words. It helps me remember diªcult words. When I want to know the meaning of words I ll use my vocabulary book. I can look in it when I forget words. Before the test every time. It makes me more diligent. Teachers reflections The teachers were also generally positive, as the table below shows. However, some felt that in terms of learner independence, the outcomes were lower than they had initially anticipated. How e ective do you feel that vocabulary books have been in assisting student s acquisition of vocabulary? Do you feel that vocabulary books have assisted students in becoming more independent? Teacher 1 Very e ective good for di erent types of learners. Teacher 2 Quite e ective. They need to understand that it is more useful for individual learning needs than a group task. Teacher 3 Overall a good idea. Teacher 1 Definitely. When they hear a new word they record it, and they refer to their books to remind them of the new language they have learnt. Teacher 2 Not as much as hoped. My students still need direction. Teacher 3 It does develop learner autonomy most of my students automatically record words. 386 Clyde Fowle

8 Do you have any other reflections on the use of vocabulary books on our courses? How do you think that your students have reacted to the use of vocabulary books? Any other comments / suggestions? Teacher 1 Encourages students to think of the context surrounding words. Teacher 2 They have been helpful in teaching metalanguage verb, noun, etc. Teacher 3 A very clear model should be presented by the teacher at the beginning. Teacher 1 At first hesitant now enjoy them. Teacher 1 At first hesitant now enjoy them. Teacher 2 They seem to quite like using them and drawing pictures, etc. Teacher 3 Most have taken to them well. Teacher 1 Must allow time, and encourage students to use them. Teacher 2 No comment. Teacher 3 Students should see that the teacher takes vocabulary books seriously. Conclusion It would seem from our experience that the relatively simple task of implementing vocabulary notebooks into the language programme of teenage learners can produce outcomes that are much broader than the narrow linguistic aim of aiding vocabulary learning. In our context they acted as an e ective tool for exposing learners to a wide variety of vocabulary learning strategies, as well as promoting learner independence in ways which were both meaningful for the learners and manageable for the teachers. Another extremely attractive feature is that they are not dependent on high technology or expensive resources, and are thus accessible to all language teachers. The notebooks are nonthreatening for both learners and teachers, and are therefore relatively easy to implement in whole schools or language departments. Although this article has focused on the use of vocabulary notebooks on a single programme, previous studies, such as those by Schmitt and Schmitt (1995), have also shown that they are beneficial. It would therefore seem that with some adaptation to the implementation process they could be successfully used in a variety of contexts, particularly where introducing learners to modes of autonomous learning is another subsidiary aim of the language teaching programme. Final version received June 2001 References Dickinson, L Self-Instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Gairns, R. and S. Redman Working with Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Head, K. and P. Taylor Readings in Teacher Development. Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann ELT. Kasbekar, A An Overview of Thai Education and Training. Bangkok: The British Council. Lewis, M The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications. McCarthy, M. and F. O Dell English Vocabulary in Use (Elementary). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Puchta, H. and M. Schratz Teaching Teenagers. Harlow: Longman. Redman, S., R. Ellis, and B. Viney A Way With Words: Resource Pack 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Schmitt, N Vocabulary Learning Strategies in N. Schmitt and M. McCarthy (eds.). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Vocabulary notebooks 387

9 Schmitt, N. and D. Schmitt Vocabulary notebooks: theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. ELT Journal 49/2: Wenden, A Learner Strategies for Learner Autonomy. Hemel Hepstead: Prentice Hall. The author Clyde Fowle is a regional ELT Consultant/Trainer for Macmillan Education based in Thailand. He was previously Director of Studies of the Assumption Sriracha College-Bell Language Centre. He holds an MA in TESOL from Sheªeld Hallam University. His professional interests include humanistic approaches to language teaching and teacher education Clyde Fowle

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