Learning to learn #1: Note-taking and vocabulary

Daniel Vincent

We can teach and teach and teach our students, but we cannot learn in their place; that’s on their shoulders. We can, however, guide them to becoming better learners, a concept at the heart of Learning to Learn, one of the seven competencies in the Cambridge Life Competencies framework. Learning to Learn deals not only with the skills necessary to become a more autonomous learner of English but also with study skills more generally.

In this series of blog posts I’m going to look at ideas that you can either try out with your students in class or else encourage them to try out for themselves at home. Together, I hope these ideas will enable them to take more control of their own learning. They are targeted primarily at teenagers but are useful for learners of all ages. Let’s start with two basic but essential learning to learn skills: organising your notebook and recording vocabulary.

Nota bene, as the Romans would say

Keeping one’s notes well-organised is a skill that will help students not only throughout their education but very likely in their working lives as well. Of course, some students are naturally more organised in this regard than others. We’ve all had students who diligently employ a range of coloured pens in their well-kept notebooks, underlining certain words and highlighting others. However, other students might not have a notebook at all, using whatever scraps of paper come to hand instead. The first thing then is to ensure that everyone has a notebook and that they make consistent use of it. To encourage the latter, you might want to take students’ notebooks in periodically, in the same way you take in homework, to keep an eye of how they are being used.

Once everyone has a notebook, it pays to dedicate some time to illustrating ways of organising a notebook that are appropriate for students of English. At its simplest, this involves encouraging them to divide it into different sections. This could involve starting a new page or section each lesson, or it might entail having different sections for grammar, vocabulary, useful phrases for conversation, useful phrases for writing, homework notes and so on. Obvious as this might sound as a strategy for good note-taking, it isn’t necessarily so for younger learners. You can even make a lesson activity out of it by showing your students two different ways of dividing their notebooks and having them discuss the pros and cons of each, as in the image below. My personal preference is for the one on the right, with the notebook organised according to language area etc., but it’s important to bear in mind that what works well for one student might not work well for another, so you shouldn’t be draconian about it.


Learning notebook example layouts










Collocation, collocation, collocation

When it comes to vocabulary, a lot can be done to record new words and phrases systematically, especially when it comes to collocation. For instance, you can have students set aside a page for collocations with make and do, and, if appropriate for the level, another for collocations with play, go and do. Recording sets of collocations in one place will not only help students notice patterns but will also make it easier to review their learning at different stages throughout the course, including before exams. Collocation grids such as the following can be added to as and when new collocations are learned:


Collocation grid example









Collocations can also be recorded in substitution tables:

Collocation substitution table example









…or even as spidergrams:

Collocation spidergram example







Cloudy, over-clouded, cloudscapes

To get students focussing on word formation (an especially useful skill for those preparing for FCE, CAE or CPE exams) and phrases related to key words, you might want to give an example of a word cloud, like the one below for friend, and then encourage them to come up with their own for other root words such as science, act, decide, believe, love and so on. As with collocation grids, these can be added to as and when new words are learned.


Collocation word cloud example








Up next…

Now that you have some ideas for encouraging your students to take more methodical notes, especially as regards vocabulary, it’s time to look at different ways in which you can encourage a learning to learn approach to studying that vocabulary. This will be the topic of the next post in this series.

In the meantime, why not try out some of the ideas above and discover more about the Learning to Learn strand of the Cambridge Life Competencies framework.


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