Spiral-bound Success: How to Organize a Foreign Language Notebook in 8 Simple Tips

When you hear “the notebook,” what do you think of?

A shirtless Ryan Gosling?

Well, we’re here to forever change the meaning of “the notebook.” 

Language notebooks are your own personalized repository of all the most valuable knowledge you gain on your road to fluency, so why not fall in love with the best notebook of all?


Why Use a Foreign Language Notebook?

One key reason to use a foreign language notebook is because writing things down makes them easier to remember. As PBS’s NOVA Next reports, taking notes with pen and paper helps improve students’ conceptual understanding of the material they jotted down.

For language learners, the benefit of using a foreign language notebook to aid memory are obvious. It could improve your retention of vocabulary words and help you better understand grammar rules. That’s a lot of awesome packed in one little notebook!

Second, maintaining your own reference resource is often more useful than relying on outside materials. After all, it’s customized to you, so it should be easy for you to use. Plus, you can use your notebook down the road if you forget the language at some point.

Additionally, using a foreign language notebook is a good way to track your progress and help keep you motivated. Nothing’s better than seeing how far you’ve come! That way, you never feel like you’ve reached a language learning plateau—you have evidence to prove you’re moving forward!

Setting goals is also helpful because it keeps you continue along at a good rate. One study out of Harvard indicates that goal setting can increase both motivation and achievement. In your language notebook, you can set these goals so that you’re always accountable to yourself.

Finally, you can use your foreign language notebook to target specific errors you need to correct. Errors in language learning can build over time if you let them. However, since a notebook is more personalized than other resources, you can use it to target these errors. For instance, if you’re struggling with one particular verb conjugation, you can dedicate several pages to explaining it and listing conjugation charts.

Resources to Help You Organize Your Notebook

Starting a language notebook from scratch can be daunting. Luckily, there are some resources out there that can help.

We’ve found some specially-formatted notebooks available for purchase that can take some of the guesswork out of your layout. We also came across a couple of great videos of how some language learners created and organized their own personal notebooks.

Our hope is that these will be an inspiration to you as you start your journey. Let them help you figure out what will and won’t work for your own notebook.

DEBON A5 Vocabulary Notebook

If you want to maintain a language notebook but don’t have the artistic eye, you might try this notebook. It’s organized with spaces for “Today’s Top 5 Words,” “Today’s Top 5 Sentences” and “Grammar/Phrase/Usage Notes.”

This sort of notebook is terrific for more advanced students who study new vocabulary and phrases daily. It’s a useful way to keep track of the new words and phrases you hope to add to your vocabulary.

MochiThings Language Learning Notebook

MochiThings provides another notebook option specifically for language learners. This notebook is formatted with unique line spacing meant to give you room for your target word/phrase, its pronunciation and its translation.

This is useful for students of all levels who are looking to expand their vocabulary. Since you can easily note the pronunciation and translation of any word or phrase, it can be like your own personal dictionary/phrasebook.

Language Notebooks

This YouTube video will give you some helpful tips on crafting your own language notebook. Perhaps more importantly, though, it’ll give you a guided tour of the YouTuber’s beautifully crafted language notebook.

If you’re looking to embark on creating your own notebook from scratch, this is a good option, particularly for visual learners. There’s no better inspiration to craft your own notebook!

Abigail’s Language Notebook Collection 2017

Abigail’s video offers a guided tour of a different layout of a language notebook. This YouTuber employs some topnotch color coding to compose word lists, so this is great if your primary goal is to learn more vocabulary.

What layout works best is a matter of personal opinion, but this will certainly give you some ideas!

How to Organize a Foreign Language Notebook

Now it’s time to start considering your organization. Here are some simple tips to consider.

1. Develop logical sections

Developing logical sections is an important component of a successful notebook. This will make it easier for you to navigate and cut down on wasted time and space.

Some possible sections you might want to include:

  • goals
  • grammar
  • vocabulary (with example sentences)
  • idioms/phrases you hear

These sections might vary based on your personal preferences, but they’re a good jumping off point. A goals section will help you remember what you want to work on and help keep you focused. Grammar pages will help you refer back to key rules.

Vocabulary pages are a helpful way to learn new vocabulary or reinforce vocabulary you already learned. Having a section for words and phrases you hear is useful because you can jot down things you don’t yet know and then look them up later. Then, you can work on learning these words and phrases.

To determine what sections are best for you, take some time to brainstorm what things you need to work on, what reference materials you want handy and what would be fun to include (maybe a list of Spanish books, songs or podcasts you need to look into?).

2. Dedicate enough space for each section

Leaving enough space for each section will help ensure you don’t need to cram too much information into one page or (gasp!) have to start a new notebook from scratch.

How much space you need depends on your organization. For instance, if you organize your vocabulary words thematically (i.e., medical vocabulary, business words), you’ll likely need a page or more for each major theme. If you want to include verb conjugation charts, these also take a lot of room.

The trick is to consider your page layout ahead of time in order to estimate how much room you’ll need. You might even separate sections like grammar and vocabulary into separate notebooks to allow yourself more room to spread out.

3. Use sticky tabs

Sticky tabs are any organization junkie’s best friend.

Sticky tabs protrude from a page so you can easily label and find any section. You can put them at the top, the side or the bottom of the page depending on your design aesthetic. You can label them if you desire, or leave them blank.

Using sticky tabs will make it easy to flip between sections, which is important when you want to add information or refer back to a section. Sticky tabs can make your notebook infinitely more useful by shaving time off from having to thumb through pages.

Plus, they look super professional and polished, so looking at them is pretty satisfying.

4. Color code…a lot

Color coding is more than just pretty—it can also communicate key information at just a glance.

Whether you use colored pens, highlighters or a combination of both, color coding will make your notebook more visually appealing and easier to use. You can color code parts of speech or use different colors for words in your native language and target language.

Abigail’s YouTube video above is an excellent example of how to use color. She uses a wide variety of highlighter colors to differentiate between words and even indicate the meaning of color names.

Regardless of what scheme you choose to use, you might want to jot down your color coding key early in your journal to refer back to until you get the hang of it.

5. Make your notebook visually appealing

The more visually appealing your notebook is, the more fun it’ll be to use.

Don’t be afraid to use drawings to represent word meanings. As you draw, think about the word to help reinforce it. Not only will this make your notebook more interesting to look at, it can also help you associate the word with its actual meaning rather than the English translation.

The Language Notebooks video above is a great example of adding visual appeal. The formatting of pages varies a great deal to increase the aesthetic, and varied typography choices keep it interesting.

6. Include details that will help you

What information is important to include in a language notebook varies by learner, so you should consider what details will help you most.

For instance, you might include examples of how to use grammar rules or vocabulary, you might note the part of speech for vocabulary words or you might include pronunciation hints.

It may be helpful to include this information from a reputable source such as a language textbook or language learning program. If you’re using FluentU, for example, you can learn vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation from authentic videos equipped with interactive subtitles, flashcards and quizzes. The multimedia experience can also provide plenty of content to write about.

Remember: this notebook is yours and yours alone, so always do what’s best for you.

7. Leave wide margins so that you can add information

You never know when you might learn new information about a vocabulary word or new tricks to internalize a vocabulary rule. You might even find an example sentence you want to add to a definition of a word you’re having a hard time remembering.

Since there’s no telling what might come up, it’s best to be prepared! Leaving wide margins will give you the extra space you need to add this information without having to start a new page from scratch.

8. Do a test page

A test page may seem like an unnecessary step, but it can save you headaches down the road.

Doing a test page will save you the trouble of redoing the journal or having to rip out the page if you realize your scheme doesn’t work.

Test pages work well when planning the main body of your notebook. They’re particularly useful for very visual pages, like thematic vocabulary pages, especially if you intend to have several similarly formatted pages.

To start, consider what you want on the page. For instance, you might be planning on including vocabulary words and drawings, or you might want verb conjugation charts.

Try blocking off the space on the page that you would reserve for each component. Once you’re done, look over it carefully. Does it work? What areas could be improved? Do you need to change the spacing? What colors might work better?

Once you see the page you’ve imagined, it will be much easier to see what does and doesn’t work before you commit to a language notebook full of similar pages.


Even once your notebook is full, it still isn’t over. There’s always another notebook to fill with fun language learning!

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