How to Define Words in Class

How many definitions can your students take?

Defining words in simple, plain English is not as easy as one might think. All teachers are aware that knowing what a word means and conveying it clearly to students, especially lower-level ones, are two very different things! This topic came up recently when I was editing ESL Library’s new lesson on Ordering Fast Food. Tara, our head writer, was wondering how best to define “take a beverage” (when you want cream and sugar in your coffee, for example). We went back and forth on a few possible definitions before finally agreeing on something (see the end of this post for our decision), and I was reminded of the times I would flounder over defining a term in class. What can you do when a student asks you for a definition and it just won’t come to you?

Let students take matters into their own hands.

With references available in class, whether it be classroom dictionaries or mobile devices, students can take an active role in answering their own questions. These suggestions are useful anytime a student has a vocabulary question (and not only when you’re stumped!).

  • In-class English–English dictionaries: Have students bring their own or provide some for the class to share. Note that dictionaries in their native language should be a last resort (to be used only after they’ve tried to understand the word through an English–English dictionary and your explanation). However, very low-level students may need a dictionary in their native language because they don’t have the vocabulary to understand the definition in an English–English dictionary. But first, try drawing a picture or using gestures to explain the meaning.
  • Mobile devices: There are plenty of English-English dictionaries online (MacMillan and Merriam-Webster have good ones for students). There are also a lot of dictionary apps, but try your best to ensure students use English–English apps so that they’re not always translating to and from their native language. Students can also google the word in question—often the images that come up will be enough for them to understand the meaning.
  • Asking a classmate: Another student can often explain the definition clearly because they naturally use simple vocabulary, and they usually understand their classmate’s confusion. Plus, it’s good practice for them—teaching is a great way to truly learn something!

But what happens when a student wants an answer from you?

What do you do when a student asks you to define a word and you just can’t think of how to explain it or you don’t actually know the word in question? This happens to all of us at some point. If the suggestions above don’t work (or aren’t feasible due to time constraints or other reasons), try doing one or more of the following:

  • Look it up in an in-class dictionary or on your mobile device: Say something like “I’m not sure how to best explain that word. Let me just look it up for you.” You can then put the definition into simpler terms.
  • Buy yourself some time: Say something like “That’s a great question. Let me think about it tonight and get back to you tomorrow.” Or “We’ll discuss it tomorrow when there’s more time.” Then ask a coworker or look it up at your leisure.
  • Admit you’re stumped: Teachers are only human! My students thought it was great fun to see me stumped from time to time—they were very proud when they were the ones who stumped me! Say something like “That’s a tough question! I’ll need to look that up. Good one!” After all, if you’re unfamiliar with the word in question, chances are it’s not very common.

For more tips on what to say and what not to say when you get stumped, check out How to Answer Students’ Questions. I also included a list of handy references at the end of that post.

So how did we define “take a beverage” in our Ordering Fast Food lesson? We decided on this definition: “to choose to add milk, cream, sugar, etc.” What do you think—is it clear for students?

Cream and sugar for me, please!

(Image courtesy of Dan Hancock via Flickr)

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