Teaching Vocabulary: Journals

When ESL learners are asked to discuss their weaknesses in English, many will mention “lack of vocabulary” as an important concern.  Contrary to what most students believe, a teacher cannot actually “teach” them new vocabulary.  A teacher can present and explain words from classroom activities, but the responsibility of actually learning new words lies mainly with the students.  Vocabulary journals are one popular approach that teachers use to help students with this challenging aspect of language learning.

How to Use Journals – Teaching Vocabulary

Students may have had little or no experience with vocabulary journals, and should receive some guidance from the teacher in setting them up and using them.  Generally speaking, there should be a clear rationale for choosing words to include in the journal.  Students cannot include every new word they encounter; they might select words based on established frequency lists, an identified special interest, or in the context of a specific learning activity such as reading or listening to a television program.  As well, students should strive to develop as much word knowledge about each entry as they can.  Form-meaning association is only one aspect of word knowledge.

Avoid Translation – Teaching Vocabulary

Other important aspects include other senses (meanings), word forms, collocations, synonyms, antonyms, grammatical properties (such as count/non-count for nouns, transitive/intransitive for verbs), and pronunciation.  Although L1 translations may help students with initial form-meaning connections, they don’t help them acquire these other aspects of word knowledge, or with using vocabulary productively.  Therefore, students should be cautioned about the limitations of learning vocabulary by translation only.  Finally, students can be encouraged to study the words in their journal following a structured self-study schedule.  This means studying the words in their journal regularly, gradually increasing the time between reviews.  Each time they review a word they can also add further information to the entry.  They can also be encouraged to keep their journal handy during classes and make use of their words in speaking and writing activities.

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Related reading:

The Fundamentals of Vocabulary Instruction

How to Introduce New Vocabulary

How to Improve English Vocabulary Using Dictionaries