How do you make a note of new language? Most of my students like to write down the important language that comes up in class in their notebooks. They diligently copy the vocabulary, plus any examples that I give, and sometimes they even add a translation or a little picture to help them memorise it.
All of this brilliant. I applaud them when they do this.
But, unfortunately, it just isn’t enough.
Imagine you make a note of some wonderful language that is related to your job. This note helps you to use it during the class to talk about your roles and duties at work. Then, six or seven weeks later, you want to use this vocabulary again, so you get out your notebook and try to find the language.
It is difficult to find the vocabulary because you have made so many notes. You flick through the pages, going backwards and forwards desperately hunting for a clue as to where this useful information might be. Sometimes you might find it, but only after spending a lot of time searching for it. At other times, you’ll just give up.
The reason for this is that the only organising principle behind these notes is chronological. It is difficult to remember when you made your notes. You know it was related to work, but not when in time you made them. And this is the clue to organising your notes better.
A lexical set is a group of words or phrases that are all related to each other in some way. Often, this relationship is through the topic, for example phrases related to work might be one lexical set. Another lexical set might be language associated with shopping or sport or houses or anything at all.
You could also think about a lexical set in terms of the word it itself, for example the many different ways to use the words ‘have’ or ‘get.
The idea is to put words together that are linked to each other. This means that if you want to find a word associated with your work, you go to a page that has lot of other words all related to that topic. This is much easier than hunting through your old notebooks for a word you think wrote down at some point last year.
To start your Lexical notebook you will need:
A ring binder
Alternatively, you can do all of this on your computer, but for now I am going to show you how to do it in the old fashioned way.
Put all of your paper in your ring binder. In the middle of the first page write ‘Work’ and then write any useful words and phrases that are associated with this topic. Of course, if work isn’t important to you then you can choose something else. The actual topic is not important, so long as it is interesting to you. The same is true of the language you decide to write on each page; the only criteria is that it should be important to you.
Once you have done your first page, start another one for sports, food, cars…anything that is useful for you.
Maintaining you Lexical Notebook
After each class, or after you have read a newspaper or book or talked in English in a video-conference, write any new language on an appropriate page. If you have learned language for a new topic, then start a new page.
After a while you might find that your page for the topic of work is getting very full. No problem. Take the page out and reorganise the language. You might decide that you now have language for ‘Negotiations’, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Introductions’, so start three different pages for each of these new topics by transferring the language you already have.
This system works due to a number of reasons:
- We think that our brains work like this. Scientists believe that the way the brain stores language is in groups. Language associated with work is all in the same place with connections between them, so that when we remember one word associated with work, it is easier to remember others. If our brains do work like this, then organising our notebooks in a similar way will help the brain to make connections.
- When you add a new word to a page you have the opportunity to read the language you have previously made a note of. This is a great chance to revise previously learnt vocabulary.
- When you reorganise the vocabulary, as in the example above, you are actively working with it again so you have the opportunity to revise and recycle language. The more often you can recycle language the better the chance you have of recalling it when you need it.
- It is easier to find language, therefore you are more likely to use it. If you know it is going to be difficult to find a word in your chronologically ordered notebooks then you will rarely even bother to look in it. Be honest, when was the last time you looked through one of your old notebooks?
True, it takes a bit of time to maintain your notebook. But from experience I have found it only needs about 5-10 minutes a day, but provides amazing results. If you are spending a fortune on classes and two or three hours a week in the classroom, surely an extra 10 minutes a day is well worth the time?
Stephen Greene has been a language teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer for 20 years with experience of teaching in Poland, Taiwan, London, Russia and Brazil. Before travelling around the world he came from Birmingham in the UK. He holds an MA in Linguistics, as well as a Diploma in Teaching to Speakers of Other Languages from Trinity College, London. He writes about his experiences of teaching at tmenglish.org and what life is like bringing up a bilingual son in Curitiba, Brazil at headoftheheard.com.