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Learner-Made Vocabulary Cards in the EAP Classroom

Seeing vocabulary as a key predictor of academic language success, Dawn Rogier and Beth Coleman decided to incorporate a useful, convenient, and student-approved resource in their classroom. See Thomas Baker's Portal article, "Reading to Talk," Essential Teacher, December 2007.

On the trains in Japan, youfll often notice many high school students engrossed in flipping small white cards that have English vocabulary words and Japanese translations written on them. They stare at a card, look up to the ceiling and mouth the word, glance back, flip the card, and go on to the next. Beginning-level language learners often find vocabulary cards with direct translation useful in learning a language, but as learners become more advanced in a language, the usefulness of this type of card drops. A systematic study of words that includes more than just the translation of a word becomes necessary, and learning words in isolation becomes less meaningful. McCarthy (2006) points out that an advanced learner is someone with an awareness of how vocabulary works and that the difference between native and nonnative speakers is that native speakers have much more developed networks of the relationships between words.

While teaching at Zayed University, in the United Arab Emirates, we watched students write Arabic translations in their textbooks beside the English vocabulary list. We thought of those Japanese cards and the energy and commitment to learning vocabulary that many Japanese students demonstrate. Portable, easy-to-carry cards could also help our students improve their vocabulary.

Complex university texts are not written with second language learners in mind. As Kinsella, Stump, and Feldman (2005) explain, vocabulary is the single strongest prediction of academic success for second language students. Our students agree that vocabulary is crucial and thus are eager to learn it more effectively. We decided to try vocabulary cards with our students because they are far more portable than computers, textbooks, or notebooks; they are more durable than sheets of paper; and they are made by learners.

Incorporation of Strategies

We took the vocabulary cards one step further than a card with a word and translation by incorporating strategies that help students build relationships between words and move beyond the idea of one word, one meaning. We began asking students to make vocabulary cards on 4x6 index cards, noting the word's grammatical function, using context, guessing meaning, using an English definition, writing an example sentence, noting related words, and evaluating the guessed meaning. Schmitt and McCarthy (1997) note that deeper processing of words enhances learning and that the more cognitive energy spent on a word, the more likely it will be recalled and used later.

A proper introduction to the method of card making is important in order for students to clearly understand the various steps. On the first day of class, we give students an example from a reading in their textbook. When we encounter a word that students might not know, the introduction to learning new words with vocabulary cards begins. We give each student some blank index cards, a dictionary, and a handout with step-by-step instructions for making the cards. The class works through the steps together as the importance of each step is explained. We then ask students to make a card themselves, with a word of their choice from the reading, by following the handoutfs directions. It is important to circulate among students and offer assistance when necessary to ensure that students are following the instructions (e.g., that they guess the meaning before looking at the dictionary). We ask students to make five cards per day and have a minimum of twenty-five ready the following week. We stress that only words they don't know should go on the cards, as the cards are not for the teacher, but for the student. In the first few days, allowing at least ten minutes of class time to work on cards helps students get into the habit of making and reviewing cards. During the course, as we teach writing or note-taking skills, we encourage students to jot down in the center of an index card words that they don't know so they can complete a card later.

Student Feedback about the Cards

We invited students to comment on the vocabulary cards by answering a survey related to a vocabulary test and the process of making the cards. At the end of the course, we selected a random sample of students to participate in a more in-depth interview about how they learned vocabulary and how they felt about making vocabulary cards.

Ninety-two percent of the students surveyed reported that they had done all four parts of the cards at least 80 percent of the time and that they were making between sixteen and thirty-five cards per week. Eight percent believed the cards had helped them a lot with their vocabulary test, 62 percent felt the cards had helped them somewhat, and 25 percent felt the cards had not helped them much. Seventy-five percent felt that the vocabulary-card method was better than other vocabulary methods they had tried. Students reported that they found the cards "pretty easy" to make and use and that they could "learn from them anywhere and anytime." Some students reported that they had no problem making the cards and that writing the meanings of the words on the cards was useful. Students felt that the meaning and the related-words sections of the cards were the most helpful aspects of the cards. Some students worried that they were not capable of finding the correct meaning of the words in the dictionary on their own and preferred that teachers tell them the meaning. One student claimed that just making the cards was enough, and she did not study the cards; making the cards was enough for her to remember the words. She also commented that she had "learned more vocab than at any other level" of the program.

Student complaints about the cards included that they took too much time per card (up to six minutes), required more information on each card than the student felt was necessary, found that the correct meaning for the context was difficult and time consuming, and were discouraged by guessing incorrectly so often. On the other hand, students who used the cards and completed at least 80 percent of the cards commented that writing the vocabulary word three times or more on each card was helpful for both memory and spelling, creating the cards made it easier to study, choosing their own words was a positive factor, and having related words on the same card was helpful for grammar and writing.

Students who could remember or understand the reason for each step tended to complete the cards more thoroughly and benefit more in their test results and writing. Therefore, the teacher needs to present the rationale for each step, relate the steps to what happens in the classroom, and persuade students with research or explanation. Students seem to be more accepting of all the steps if they know why each step is important. Showing students the correlation between students who did the cards thoroughly and those who did well on vocabulary tests or writing illustrated the effectiveness of the cards. What students clearly acknowledged is that a system of in-depth vocabulary work is essential if lexis is to reach a higher level of comprehension.

Vocabulary Card



"a drug originally designed to treat depression"

L7 text, p. 22


X or a check mark



Related Words

Meaning and Example

depressed, depressing (adj)

antidepressant (n)

depressingly (adv)

depress (v)

Disorder marked by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking, sleeping too much . . . .

e.g., Her depression made her silent and lonely.


1.       Put the vocabulary word in the middle of the card in a circle.

2.       Put the abbreviation for its part of speech (n, adj, adv, v) below the word.

3.       In the upper left-hand corner, write "Context" and copy the context (spoken or written) in which you heard or saw the word. Also put the source (citation).

4.       In the upper right-hand corner, write "Guess," and take a guess at the meaning in context. (You may be wrong most of the time, but guessing is good practice for TOEFL.)

5.       In the middle of the right-hand side of the card, write "Meaning and Example," put the dictionary meaning FOR YOUR CONTEXT, and write an example sentence using the word.

6.       In the middle of the left-hand section write "Related Words," and list words that come from the same root. Put their part of speech beside them. Not all words will have related words, but many will.

7.       Now go to the Guess section of the card and mark it wrong (X) or right (a check mark). Don't forget to do this step; it is important.

8.       DO NOT DO WORDS YOU ALREADY KNOW WELL. It's a waste of time.

9.       DO NOT WRITE ANY OTHER LANGUAGE ON THE FRONT OF THE CARD. You may write a translation on the back of the card IN PENCIL for difficult words. Later, when you know it in English, erase the translation.

10.   USE A SEPARATE CARD FOR EACH WORD. This is so we can use them for games later.


Kinsella, K., C. S. Stump, and K. Feldman. 2005. Strategies for vocabulary development.

McCarthy, M. 2006. What is an advanced level vocabulary? Paper presented at the TESOL Symposium Words Matter: The Importance of Vocabulary in English Language Teaching and Learning, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Schmitt, N., and M. McCarthy, eds. 1997. Vocabulary: Description, acquisition and pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dawn Rogier ( currently teaches at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates and has also taught in Mali, Zaire, Japan, the United States, and Romania. Beth Coleman ( teaches at Zayed University and has also taught theatre, literature, ESL/EFL, and English for academic purposes in Canada and Japan.