What should content-area teachers know about vocabulary instruction?
Page 4: Explicitly Defining and Contextualizing Terms
As we mentioned on a previous page, asking students to use a glossary or dictionary to define a list of words is an ineffective way to teach vocabulary. These definitions are often abstract and difficult to understand. More, in the case of multiple definitions for a single word, students might have trouble determining which is applicable to their lesson. Instead, it is helpful to provide a student-friendly meaning, as can often be found on dictionary Websites such as www.learnersdictionary.com/ and www.ldoceonline.com/. By doing so, teachers put the definition into language that will make the most sense to their students. Teachers should also provide examples of how the word will be used in the context of the lesson, particularly if that word will appear in different forms. In any event, teachers should preview dictionary or glossary definitions and determine whether students might benefit from both a standard and a student-friendly definition.
For Your Information
Though reference tools such as dictionaries and glossaries might not offer a student-friendly definition, for those who have a little background knowledge about a term, the information in a dictionary can still be useful for:
- Showing multiple definitions of a term
- Narrowing the intended meaning of the vocabulary word from the one that appears in the lesson
- Confirming and deepening a student’s understanding of word meanings
Ms. Nor, the U.S. Government and Civics teacher at Wilton High School, gives a student-friendly definition for the word table and gives examples of how this word can be used in different forms.
table: to remove (as a parliamentary motion) from consideration indefinitely
table: to decide not to discuss (something) until a later time
Below are some examples:
- It is expected that Congress will table any new actions until after the elections.
- The student council tabled a motion to vote on the new initiative until the poll results were in.
- The committee is tabling the presentation until its next scheduled meeting.
Notice the difference in the complexity of the language in the dictionary and student-friendly definitions. The synonyms and antonyms included in dictionary definitions can help students gain a deeper understanding of a word’s meaning. Also notice that the example above uses different forms of the word table (i.e., tabled, tabling). Some students, especially English language learners and those with reading or language difficulties, will not make a connection among the variations of a word unless they are explicitly made aware of them.
Watch the video to see educational consultant Anita Archer highlight different forms of the word intent (time: 0:40).
Video is courtesy Anita L. Archer.
Transcript: Highlighting Different Forms of the Word Intent
Teacher: Here we have some words that are related, and one of the best ways to expand your vocabulary is to see the relationship. So I’m going to tell you a story. When I touch it, say the word. So…Harriet Tubman did what, everyone?
Teacher: Intend to be free. It was her…
Teacher: Intention to go from a slave to a free state so she would be free. She had to take some actions that were…
Teacher: Intentional, so she had to have a plan of those actions. So when she finally did act, she acted how, everyone?
Teacher: Intentionally. Beautiful!
Additionally, teachers can ask students to compare the new meaning of a word and how it is similar to or different from how they have used this word previously. These questions help students to begin actively processing the information about the word, an element of vocabulary instruction that will be addressed on the next page.