Issue 29 – The Psychology of Keeping Vocabulary Records

by Oscar Ho (ELED Year 3 student 2020-2021)

As linguist David Wilkins (1972) notes, “while without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed” (p.111). This oft-cited quote explains why it is common for language learning beginners to become easily exasperated when being asked to interact in the target language – a limited vocabulary range in the internal lexicon severely impedes one’s ability to produce comprehensible utterances. While the above scenario best exemplifies the importance of words, vocabulary is nevertheless deemed “the most difficult aspect of language learning […] to master” (Lessard-Clouston, 1994, p.69). Studies have found that most Hong Kong university freshmen, despite having received twelve years of formal English language education, only know less than 3,000 words (Fan, 2000; Chui, 2006), which is in fact insufficient for them to communicate effectively in the academic field (Education Bureau, 2012).

Considering the constraints on lesson time and students’ cognitive load, it is undoubtedly improbable for second language teachers to explicitly teach every single item in the lexicon in class. Therefore, to promote learner autonomy and increase vocabulary learning efficacy, it is crucial for instructors to cultivate their students to become active vocabulary learners (Thornbury, 2002). One effective measure is to train learners to keep a comprehensive record cataloguing new vocabulary items acquired in- and after-class. Lending support from psychological and linguistic theories and empirical research, this essay attempts to delineate how recording strategies are beneficial in the context of acquiring English as a second language (ESL).

Types of vocabulary learning strategies
As with all types of learning, vocabulary learning strategies primarily serve to facilitate memory encoding (Thornbury, 2002), that is, the consolidation of memory into the long-term store. Nation (2013) has categorized the strategies into three general classes:
1. Planning: deliberately formulating a plan on where, when and how to focus attention;
2. Sources: approaches to learn the form and meaning of vocabulary; and
3. Process: “ways of remembering vocabulary and making it available for use” (p.331).

Recording strategies, according to the scholar, are one of the pivotal ‘processes’ in ESL vocabulary learning (Nation, 2013). Nonetheless, with ample planning and appropriate sources, the central question still remains: how do learners identify the lexical items they have to learn? This is when ‘noticing’ comes in, which scholars usually regard as a precursor to effective learning (e.g. Schmidt, 1990; Swain & Lapkin, 1995).

Noticing the ‘gap’ and selecting words
The external environment we perceive is bombarded with different types of stimuli, either useful or useless for our learning (Ormrod, 2014). Likewise, during vocabulary acquisition, learners are exposed to a multitude of source materials, where they have to ‘manually’ select and extract important information for further cognitive processing and manipulation. An essential component in this stage is attention, which is responsible for transferring stimulus representations from the sensory register to our working memory (Goldstein, 2019), otherwise known as short-term memory.

Schmidt’s (1990) Noticing Hypothesis postulates that “noticing is the necessary and sufficient condition for converting input to intake” (p.129), placing an emphasis on attention in learning processes (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). The rise of such attention is due to a contradiction between the learner’s expectations of the language and the new input, consequently creating a ‘knowledge gap’ (Gass, 1988; Lightbown & Spada, 2006). These ‘gaps’, however, are not strictly limited to the receptive senses (i.e. visual and auditory input). They are also present when learners realize they are unable to find an appropriate L2 (second language) word form to verbalize their thoughts (Swain & Lapkin, 1995; Nation, 2013). Regardless of the case, the learner eventually notices the ‘gap’ and attempts to fill it (Ortega, 2009).

Concurring with the theory, Nation (2013) believes that learners must “see the word as an item to be learned” before acquiring the target vocabulary items (p.331). To test the hypothesis, Godfroid and her co-workers (2010) conducted a reading test by asking participants to read a short paragraph that contains a pseudo-word. Without prior notification, a post-test was conducted afterwards to ask participants to identify the meaning of the pseudo-word, which can be inferred from the context. Using an eye-tracking device, the researchers observed that participants who are able to correctly answer the meaning-recall questions tend to fixate longer at the pseudo-word than English words under the control conditions (Godfroid et al., 2010). This finding implies that participants had noticed the peculiarity of the pseudo-word and therefore drew their attention towards it (Godfroid et al., 2010), consequently substantiating that noticing is a necessary condition in vocabulary acquisition.

Nevertheless, not everything present in the ‘gaps’ have to be learnt and memorized at the same time. Especially for ESL beginners, when selecting words to acquire, it is important to prioritize high-frequency words (i.e. words on the New General Service List) and those “fulfil[ling] language use needs” (Nation, 2013, p.446; Browne et al., 2013).

Organization of vocabulary notebooks and word cards
According to the modal model of memory, information only retains in our short-term store (or working memory) for less than 20 seconds (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968; Ormrod, 2014; Goldstein, 2019). Without additional measures, the information will decay and eventually become irretrievable. To prevent this from happening, it is hence crucial for learners to promptly record the lexical item, which also fosters deeper processing and encoding in the later stages of learning as well as facilitating future retrievals (Nation, 2013). Two viable methods frequently considered by ESL learners are keeping vocabulary notebooks and making word cards (Nation, 2013).

When creating vocabulary records, Nation (2013) notes that it is desirable to include all three major dimensions of word knowledge, which are form, meaning, and use. For notebooks, one recommendation is to divide a page into two columns – the left side records both the orthographic form and phonemic transcription of the word; whereas the right includes information relating to meaning and use, for instance, the dictionary definition, example sentences and collocations. Through repeated retrieval practices by “covering [either] part of the entry” (Nation, 2013, p.322), the form-meaning connections will be reinforced, aiding the learning of both receptive (i.e. retrieving the meaning by only looking at the form) and productive vocabulary (i.e. retrieving the form by only looking at the meaning).

One drawback of using traditional binding notebooks to create vocabulary records is that the order of the items cannot be altered easily (Schmitt & Schmitt, 1995; Nation, 2013). Tackling this problem, Schmitt and Schmitt (1995) suggested the use of loose-leaf notebooks, so that words can be freely arranged in terms of frequency and familiarity. Rarer and less familiar words should be located in the front, whereas better-known words placed at the back (Schmitt & Schmitt, 1995). Such an arrangement would ensure that the relatively new words would be recycled and recalled from the long-term memory more often, and as a consequence, they will be less likely forgotten (Ormrod, 2014).

Otherwise, learners can opt for making word cards of preferably “around 5 × 4 cm” in size (Nation, 2013, p.447). While these cards are convenient and easily accessible (Schmitt & Schmitt, 1995), one major concern is that learners cannot incorporate all aspects of word knowledge due to size constraints. Utilizing both sides of the card, Gardner (2013) described the different possibilities for organization: on one side, learners should include the target L2 word and its pronunciation; and on the other, they may incorporate elements such as “the L1 gloss or definitions, pictures, [and] simplified L2 definitions” (p.122). It is worth mentioning that these extensively elaborated meaning-focused cues, which are alternatives to directly copying the definitions offered by dictionaries, are similarly applicable to vocabulary notebooks.

Scholars have also remarked on how to organize word cards in a set. Thornbury (2002) proposes that a set should contain approximately 20 to 50 cards depending on the difficulty of the words, which can be evaluated by factors such as their pronunciation, length, and idiomaticity. This is because our working memory – the cognitive component responsible for information processing – only possesses a limited capacity, thereby limiting the number of cards in a set would ensure optimal performance during study sessions (Ormrod, 2014). Empirical research has also illustrated that spacing the items to be learnt into multiple short study sessions, rather than cramming them all into one single session, would significantly enhance learners’ subsequent performance of word retrieval (Reder & Anderson, 1982; Smith & Rothkopf, 1984). In the context of vocabulary acquisition, assigning all the unfamiliar words into small groups and revising them on a rotational basis would promote the ‘spacing effect’.

Another issue that has to be taken into account when grouping the word cards is to avoid interference (Nation, 2013). When learners include synonyms, antonyms or words with strong semantic relationships in the same set, those items would interfere or cross-associate with one another and consequently increase the learning difficulty by “50% to 100% […] than unrelated words” (Nation, 2013, p.446; Erten & Tekin, 2008; Higa, 1963; Papathanasiou, 2009; Thornbury, 2002; Tinkham, 1993; Waring, 1997). Nevertheless, Thornbury (2002) notes that it is still feasible for words in a set to be thematically linked, as long as the meaning relations of the words are relatively loose.

Elaborative cognitive strategies for making vocabulary records
Levels of Processing Theory
Baxter (1980) explains that dictionary definitions listed in monolingual dictionaries are lexical strings paraphrased from the target word. If a learner decides to create form-meaning connections through memorizing the dictionary definition for all vocabulary items, information processing in the working memory becomes inefficient due to the massive cognitive load (Goldstein, 2019). An overload of sensory input likewise severely impacts the succeeding encoding process, meaning that memories cannot be stably consolidated in the long-term store (Murayama et al., 2015). With that in mind, learners have to incorporate other strategies to facilitate vocabulary acquisition, especially for the encoding of knowledge to the long-term memory.

One of the principles governing the encoding process is Craik and Lockhart’s (1972) Levels of Processing Theory, which hypothesizes that “memory depends on the depth of processing that an item receives” (Goldstein, 2019, p.193). As a follow-up, Craik (1973) defines ‘depth’ as “the meaningfulness extracted from the stimulus rather than in terms of the number of analyses performed upon it” (p.49-50). In the scenario described above, the learner is undergoing shallow processing, where he/she solely focuses on the literal words from the input (i.e. the dictionary definition) without actively manipulating it to create more meaning. In Craik and Lockhart’s (1972) terms, for a more successful experience, learners should undergo deep processing of the materials by paying close attention and carrying out elaborative rehearsals that “focus on [the] item’s meaning and its relationship to something else” (Goldstein, 2019, p.193), for instance, associating it to learners’ prior knowledge of L1 (first language) (Nation, 2013). Subsequently, the target information will be consolidated in the long-term store more effectively (Goldstein, 2019).

Stemming from the above theory, two strategies can be incorporated in the vocabulary records to stimulate deeper processing, namely the use of L1 correspondences and visual materials.

Using L1 correspondences
The Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis states that learners can acquire L2 target structures that are similar to their L1 more easily (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). Elaborating on the theory, Prator (1967) has postulated the Hierarchy of Difficulty based on the differences of grammatical features he observed between any two languages. In his research, he has found that learners tend to acquire the target L2 items more readily when there are no discrepancies between their L1 and L2 (Prator, 1967), such as the presence of contrastive stress in both English and Cantonese phonology. Similarly, in vocabulary acquisition, learners’ first language can aid the understanding of novel L2 vocabulary items if the L1 correspondences are well-learnt and available in their mental lexicon (Nation, 2013). Liu (2008) also explained that the L1 counterparts provide learners with “a sense of certainty” (p.68), which is crucial for the formation of a secure form-meaning connection for the target L2 word.

While L1 parallels encourage learners to process the meaning of a new word more elaboratively, there are, unfortunately, no one-to-one correspondences between the entire L1 and L2 lexicons. In some circumstances, glossing in L1 might even promote negative transfer, leading to misapprehensions and fossilized errors in the long-run (Ortega, 2009). This can be seen in Jiang’s (2002) research on conceptual transfer, from which he found that Chinese ESL learners, in contrast to native English speakers, tend to identify two English words as semantically more related when they have the same correspondence in Chinese. An example in this case would be the verbs ‘hope’ and ‘wish’, which can be rendered as “希望” /hei1 mong6/ in Chinese. While Chinese ESL learners may regard the two words as synonymous (Jiang, 2002), in reality they are different – ‘hope’ means “to want something to happen or to be true” (Cambridge University Press, 2021a), which implies something that has not yet happened; whereas ‘wish’ refers to the state of “express[ing] that you feel sorry or sad about a situation that exists at the moment”, but not in the future (Cambridge University Press, 2021b).

By and large, Jiang’s (2002) findings indicate that language instructors have to adopt explicit instruction to direct learners’ attention to these cross-linguistic differences (Jiang, 2002). As for learners who plan to incorporate L1 parallels in vocabulary notebooks or word cards, they may consider adding some extra annotations next to the L1 word for a more accurate representation of the target L2 word meaning, which also avoids confusion during future recalls and retrievals.

Using images and drawings
There are occasions where an ESL learner might not want to use L1 correspondences as an elaborative recording strategy. One reason, as discussed, might be due to the cross-linguistic differences between L1 and L2: while ‘hat’ and ‘cap’ is translated to “帽子” /mou6 zi2/ in Chinese (Jiang, 2002), it is hard to explain their subtle differences of the two lexical items in a few words. Moreover, there are situations where an L2 word does not have an L1 correspondence (Ur, 2012). For instance, the word ‘insight’ does not have a direct Spanish equivalent and has to be translated to “la perspicacia” (perspicacity), “la percepción” (perception), “la penetración” (penetration) or “la intuición” (intuition) (Tirosh, 2015).

For these cases where L1 parallels are not that beneficial, learners may instead pair the target L2 words with images or drawings (Nation, 2013). Consider the above examples again: it is without doubt that the appearances of hats and caps are so distinct that learners can differentiate them with ease. As for ‘insight’, though being an abstract noun referring to “the ability to have a clear, deep, and sometimes sudden understanding of a complicated problem or situation” (Cambridge University Press, 2021c), learners can creatively use their own drawings to depict its meaning, for example, a picture of a bright light bulb and several exclamation marks inside the iris of an eye. Here, the eye represents ‘sight’ while the objects are inside the eye. The bright light bulb and the exclamation marks, further, symbolize the individual’s sudden “clear understanding” (Cambridge University Press, 2021c).

Although there has not been a lot of research focusing on the effects of images and drawings in ESL vocabulary acquisition, psychologists have found that visual images can effectively promote memory encoding (Goldstein, 2019). In a paired-associate learning experiment conducted by Bower and Winzenz (1970), they asked participants to recall 15 pairs of words (e.g. boat-tree) presented to them in five-second intervals. Participants who were asked to form mental images performed significantly better in the subsequent recall test than those who simply rehearsed the words silently (Bower & Winzenz, 1970). As for research conducted on vocabulary learning, Kopstein and Roshal (1954, as cited in Webber, 1978) found that Russian second language learners could recall meanings better when the target words are paired with photos rather than English equivalents in the training session. Until recently, the idea of drawing in ESL vocabulary learning has been examined by Ou and his colleagues (2018), where they observed that Taiwanese learners who produced their own art to pair with the vocabulary items performed better in a memory recall task than those who simply relied on images. This can be explained by the generation effect, where active production processes resulted in deeper processing and led to “strong[er] encoding and [better] long-term retrieval” (Goldstein, 2019, p.200).

Final remarks

How do students learn vocabulary? Vocabulary items are initially selected through the process of ‘noticing’, which is followed by documenting in records such as vocabulary books or word cards, depending on their preference.

How can students record (and learn) vocabulary better? To strengthen form-meaning connections as well as facilitate long-term memory encoding and future retrievals, deep processing strategies can be incorporated in vocabulary recording, such as associating with L1 correspondences and creating visual elements.

Regrettably, scholars have criticized that ESL vocabulary learning and teaching in the Hong Kong context is highly teacher-centred and dependent on explicit instruction; and at the same time, students are incapable of making good use of the plethora of vocabulary learning strategies that are meant to benefit ESL learning (e.g. Tang & Nesi, 2003; Tang et al., 2016). Again, this explains why students’ English levels do not meet the standards (Education Bureau, 2012), if we consider vocabulary being fundamental to English language learning and the development of the four macro-skills (Wilkins, 1972). With an increasing importance of learner-centredness in the field of English Language Teaching, teachers might want to reconsider their approaches in vocabulary instruction – rather than continue spoon-feeding everything to students, it would perhaps be wiser if students can be cultivated to become active and strategic learners, such that learning can take place anytime and anywhere.


Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In K. W. Spence & J. T. Spence, The psychology of learning and motivation: II. Academic Press.

Baxter, J. (1980). The dictionary and vocabulary behaviour: A single word or a handful? TESOL Quarterly, 14(3), 325-336.

Bower, G. H., & Winzenz, D. (1970). Comparison of associative learning strategies. Psychonomic Science, 20, 119-120.

Browne, C., Culligan, B. & Phillips, J. (2013). The New General Service List. Retrieved from

Cambridge University Press. (2021a). hope. In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved May 3, 2021, from

Cambridge University Press. (2021b). wish. In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved May 3, 2021, from

Cambridge University Press. (2021c). insight. In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved May 3, 2021, from

Chui, S. Y. (2006). An investigation of the English vocabulary knowledge of university students in Hong Kong. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, 16, 1-23.

Craik, F. I. M. (1973). A “levels of analysis” view of memory. In P. Pliner, L. Krames, & T. Alloway (Eds.), Communication and Affect: Language and Thought (pp. 45-65). Academic Press.

Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671-684.

Education Bureau. (2012). Enhancing English vocabulary learning and teaching at secondary level. Retrieved from

Erten, I. H., & Tekin, M. (2008). Effects on vocabulary acquisition of presenting new words in semantic sets versus semantically unrelated sets. System, 36, 407-422.

Fan, M. (2000). How big is the gap and how to narrow it? An investigation into the active and passive vocabulary knowledge of L2 learners. RELC Journal, 31, 105-119.

Gardner, D. (2013). Exploring vocabulary: Language in action. Routledge.
Gass, S. (1982). From theory to practice. In M. Hines & W. Rutherford (Eds.), On TESOL ’81 (pp. 129-139). TESOL.
Gerhard, N. (1971). Variables in a Hierarchy of Difficulty. Working Papers in Linguistics, 3(4), 185-194.

Godfroid, A., Housen, A., & Boers, F. (2010). A procedure for testing the Noticing Hypothesis in the context of vocabulary acquisition. In M Pütz & L. Sicola (Eds.), Inside the learner’s mind: Cognitive processing and second language acquisition (pp. 169-197). John Benjamins.

Goldstein, E. B. (2019). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research and everyday experience (5th ed.). Cengage.

Higa, M. (1963). Interference effects of intralist word relationships in verbal learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 170-175.

Jiang, N. (2002). Form-meaning mapping in vocabulary acquisition in a second language. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 617-637.

Kopstein, F. F., & Roshal, S. M. (1954). Learning foreign vocabulary from pictures vs. words. American Psychologist, 9, 407–408.

Lessard-Clouston, M. (1994). Challenging student approaches to ESL vocabulary development. TESL Canada Journal, 12(1), 69-80.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Liu, J. (2008). L1 use in L2 vocabulary learning: Facilitator or barrier. International Education Studies, 1(2), 65-69.

Murayama, K., Blake, A. B., Kerr, T., & Castel, A. D. (2016). When enough is not enough: Information overload and metacognitive decisions to stop studying information. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 42(6), 914-924.

Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Learning vocabulary in another language (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Ormrod, J. E. (2014). Essentials of educational psychology: Big ideas to guide effective teaching (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding second language acquisition. Hodder Arnold.

Ou, K., Tarng, W., & Chen, Y. (2018). Vocabulary learning through picture-viewing and picture-drawing on tablets. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies, 16(3), 64-80.
Papathanasiou, E. (2009). An investigation of two ways of presenting vocabulary. ELT Journal, 63(4), 313-322.

Prator, C. (1967). Hierarchy of difficulty. Unpublished classroom lecture, University of California, Los Angeles.

Reder, L. M., & Anderson, J. R. (1982). Effects of spacing and embellishment for the main points of a text. Memory and Cognition, 10, 97-102.

Schmidt, R. W. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11(2), 129-158.

Schmitt, N., & Schmitt, D. (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: Theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. ELT Journal, 49(2), 133-143.

Smith, S. M., & Rothkopf, E. Z. (1984). Contextual enhancement and distribution of practice in the classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 341-358.

Stockwell, R., Bowen, J., & Martin, J. (1965). The grammatical structures of English and Spanish. University of Chicago Press.

Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (1995). Problems in output and the cognitive processes they generate: A step towards second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 16(3), 371-391.

Tang, E., & Nesi, H. (2003). Teaching vocabulary in two Chinese classrooms: schoolchildren’s exposure to English words in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Language Teaching Research, 7(1), 65–97.

Tang, E., Chung, E., Li, E., & Yeung, S. (2016). Online independent vocabulary learning experience of Hong Kong university students. IAFOR Journal of Education, 4(1), 13-29.

Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Pearson Education Limited.

Tinkham, T. (1993). The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System, 21(3), 371-380.

Tirosh, O. (2015, November 16). English words that can’t be translated. Tomedes.

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Waring, R. (1997). The negative effects of learning words in semantic sets: A replication. System, 25(2), 261-274.
Webber, N. E. (1978). Pictures and words as stimuli in learning foreign language responses. The Journal of Psychology, 98(1), 57-63.

Wilkins, D. A. (1972). Linguistics in language teaching. MFT Press.

Leave a Reply