Starting a Vocabulary Box / Wordbag

8 Oct

As mentioned previously, I’m making more of a focus on vocabulary this year, and one of the things I’m going to be working with is the vocabulary box.

Now this is obviously not a new idea and it’s not even a new idea to me, I think the first time I came across this was almost exactly eight years ago in an seminar run by Bronwen Allen at IH Katowice, where she introduced the idea of wordbag cards (which is the term I’m going to use here).

Vocabulary revision and recycling is incredibly important – in “Working with Words” Gairns and Redman say that most (80%) of what we forget is forgotten within 24 hours of initial learning – clearly then it is our duty to help learners move items into long term storage and to recycle constantly.

Gairns and Redman quote Peter Russell’s “The Brain Book” as setting out the following revision schedule in order to maximise retention:

  1. a quick review five minutes after class
  2. a quick review 24 hours after class
  3. a further review one week later
  4. another review one month later
  5. a final review six months later

Obviously, as teachers, we aren’t always in a position to conduct all of these reviews with our learners, but we can help them out with the next best thing – the vocabulary box or the wordbag.

Here is an example of a wordbag card, bearing the school logo for a nice bit of additional branding….  To give you an idea of actual size, I have eight cards per piece of A4 paper.

It’s fairly straightforward – I have it down as “the chunk” to try and emphasise that words don’t always exist in isolation.  With higher levels I try to make sure that the things that get written down are indeed chunks, with lower levels I play it by ear.

One of the problems I’ve had in the past is simply starting the wordbag off.  It can be difficult for students to understand the purpose of the wordbag cards and what they are expected to do with them, you can’t always guarantee a steady stream of relevant vocabulary and it might take some time for there to be enough wordbag cards in the wordbag to actually do anything meaningful with!

So what follows is a “lesson” that I came up with this year to try and get things going.  It borrows from an idea expressed in Morgan and Rinvolucri’s classically titled “Vocabulary” – namely that we have relationships with words, we have preferences and associations with them and that making use of these relationships can help the learning process.

What you need:

three wordbag cards per participant (including the teacher), already chopped up onto separate slips of paper and preferably on different coloured paper, but that’s just because it looks pretty…

Some of your favourite vocabulary games and activities (there are some ideas given below).

What you do:

On the board draw three separate three box grids, like so (only neater):

And into the top section of each grid, write a word, collocation or short phrase.  I grade these according to level, so with my CAE group I might have “to insist on doing something”, but with my elementary group I might have “company car” .

The three words I used the other day were:


I gave the learners two minutes to work out what connected the three items.  The answer of course is that these are three of my favourite words.  They are my favourite difficult word, my favourite useful word and my favourite fun / fantastic  word.

I then asked learners if they knew what any of the words meant – if they came up with a suitable definition or expression of meaning, I put that in the second (middle) section.  But if not, I gave them a contextual sentence and wrote it in the third (bottom) section – e.g. “I ran out of credit so I had to top up my mobile this morning.”

Eventually, you get all of the boxes filled and then I check what goes into each section and label the sections with “the chunk”, “meaning” and “example sentence”.

I then asked all the learners to think of their favourite difficult, useful and fun/fantastic words and note them down.

One problem I’ve had with this stage is duplication of items, particularly if the learners are struggling to think of something suitable and overhear their colleagues coming up with a good idea.  So I’ve done this on a “first come first served” basis, making clear there should be no duplication and writing up the words the learners choose on the board next to their names.

Once everyone (or most of the class) have got their three words, I give out some wordbag cards and the learners fill them in.  For the fast finishers, the answer is simple – just give them another wordbag card and tell them to add another item to the mix!

So by the end of this stage you should have at least three times as many wordbag cards as learners and can then finish off the class by doing a number of different vocabulary based activities with the learners, using their new wordbag cards.

With any luck, by the end of the lesson, the class will understand what a wordbag card is, what should go on it and how it’s going to be used in classes.  They’ll have a basis for ongoing additions to the wordbag, plus a foundation for future revision / recycling activities at the start of end of the class – and it gives the teacher a chance to hit the ground running with the wordbag so that you don’t lose momentum while trying to build up a sufficient stock of cards in the wordbag.


10 Responses to “Starting a Vocabulary Box / Wordbag”

  1. Michael Leahy Monday 8 October 2012 at 20:51 #

    Great post David. You always help to get my brain into gear. I’ve been thinking about the vocab bag lately (I’m a big fan and have had amazing results from using it before). Now though, teaching on a foundation course, I can see that it wouldn’t go down as being ‘academic’ enough for the students. I know though that they would really benefit from it since their independent study skills are lacking (to say the least). I’m wondering if we could get a virtual vocab bag going and get them to use their smartphones to send their words to during the lesson or something. Any thoughts or suggestions on this?

    • David Petrie Tuesday 9 October 2012 at 14:36 #

      Hi Michael,
      The virtual vocab bag sounds like a great idea! Though I have no idea how to go about getting it going in practice! My first thought is that a wiki might suit your needs (check out as you could set one up for the group to encompass a range of independent study needs, not just vocabulary, but it could include a “glossary” of some kind? You hand over editorial control to the learners, but set tasks (i.e. at the end of the lesson, allocate vocabulary etc to the learners to add to the glossary), it could become a very useful resource for the group!
      They could update things via smartphone during the lesson, but that might distract a little from actual lesson content and getting them to do it later is one way of “revising” the item as per Russell’s list – but whatever works!

      let me know how it all goes,

      • Leo Wednesday 31 October 2012 at 18:29 #

        Great post, David!

        “Top up” is also one my favourite words 🙂

        I’ve also experimented with vocabulary bags (well, it was envelopes in my case) and gone back to lexical notebooks. You can read my reflection as well as advantages and disadvantages of both in this article: .

        As regards the revision schedule – thank you for the reference. I came across it once and criticised it another article (!) but couldn’t properly cite it because I couldn’t rememeber where I’d seen it. My main complaint was basically, as you noted too, that it’s not very realistic to stick to this schedule especially in a school setting. Surely how well you engage with the items should matter too and not only the number of encounters. I agree with you that having “relationships with words” facilitates the learning process.

        Good luck with your first webinar on Saturday – I’ve shared it with the colleagues who teach exam prep and will try to pop in myself.


      • David Petrie Thursday 1 November 2012 at 16:14 #

        Hi Leo,

        I’ve tried working with vocabulary notebooks in the past – I think your description of the lexical notebook is a much superior version of what I was attempting with my classes – but I’ve always found it difficult to convince learners to start and maintain such notebooks. The majority of my students are secondary / university age and have an awful lot of learning going on elsewhere – they tend to see such notebooks as an additional imposition, rather than a learning aid!

        But as I said, I’m trying to emphasize lexis this year with my classes and I’ll come back to your post for further inward digestion before making my next effort with the learners! Have you also seen the post on Vocabulary Diaries on Simon Thomas’ efl-resource site? He has a nice approach which includes a checklist (á la the Russell schedule) for revision.

        Thanks for sharing the webinar details – maybe see you there!

        Take care,

    • Romén Rodríguez Thursday 12 September 2013 at 12:39 #

      Hi Michael, David and Leo,

      I have just read this post and your comments about vocabulary bags, notebooks and technology and honestly, I think that the three of you will find this tech platform really interesting:

      It is a Digital Vocabulary Notebook. A full platform for iOS, Android and web, for teachers and students. It includes a lot of tech features to solve paper-related problems and widen the concept of a Vocabulary notebook. Students can add words (with definitions, sample sentences, categories…), then they can study words afterwards by filtering (reviewing just those words they don’t know or just a particular category). It also provides pronunciation and self-assessment tests for students. With the cloud accounts students can use laptops, pc, smartphones and tablets and be always able to access their vocabulary everywhere, without having to carry any paper notebook.

      Moreover there is a platform for schools that not only include all this features for students but also allows teachers to send suggested words to students, see the words students don’t know (to review them later in class) and it also allow teachers to see general stats about students (number of words each student has, number of tests they do, average scores on tests….). All with a very easy-to-use interface and with several awards already won by this educational tech tool.

      I think you will find it really useful for your classes. If you are interested you can contact through the website, emial ( or skype (vocabularynotebook).

      Romén Rodríguez


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