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Vocabulary: conveying meaning to students

Updated: Jan 18

Vocabulary: conveying meaning to students
How can we help students understand new words or phrases in English?

Learning new words is one of the most important parts of learning a new language. You may be able to get your meaning across with poor grammar or pronunciation, but to do the same without the right words is even harder. There are a number of ways of getting meaning across.

  1. Visuals: This is a classic, used especially at low levels, but not exclusively - show the students what the word in question means by showing a photo or by drawing a picture or even by showing them the actual object if you happen to have it to hand. (When you use real objects in the classroom like this we call the objects realia.) This is a very direct method of teaching and it allows students to immediately associate the word with an image. Other visual means include mimes and gestures - I can't imagine indicating a little bit to students without making a 'little' gesture with my fingers. Likewise, I would never teach to nod your head without actually nodding my head. All of these visual cues are easy to prepare and they allow us to get meaning across very quickly, but only for words with very concrete meanings. You probably wouldn't get very far if you tried to teach the meaning of a word like should or reliable and you used only visual cues.

  2. Translation: similarly to using visuals, this is quick, easy and to the point. There are plenty of reasons why translation isn't encouraged in CELTA classrooms - the communicative teaching style that we generally use is founded in a belief that students should be immersed in the language that they are learning. You mightn't even have the option of using translation if you're teaching a multilingual class and you might not speak the same language as your students. However, when a word is a very technical word or a precise word from the natural world, I think translation can be your best bet - I can't think of a better way of teaching long-tufted screech owl than to look it up in a dictionary.

  3. Definitions: This is often the first impulse of the teacher, to explain what a word means, using a definition and maybe also by relying on words that mean the same (synonyms) or even words that mean the opposite. This is a useful method as it means that teachers can think of a way to convey meaning on the spot. It can be clunky and it reduces language to a formula, but when it's done well and the teacher checks if the students genuinely understand the definition, it's fine.

  4. Contextualisation: This is many CELTA tutors' favourite approach. Teaching via contexts means giving a meaningful example of a word in action so that students can (a) see how the word works in a sentence and (b) guess the meaning from the context. This has the advantage of making the new word immediately usable, unlike in the other approaches, because the students will already have seen the word in action in a sentence. It also has the advantage of engaging students' processing power as they figure out the meaning of the word - hopefully guided by the teacher's use of context and questions and thus the word will be more memorable. Finally, it means that the student is more centred in the learning process, instead of all the other approaches, where all knowledge comes from the teacher. Using contexts well is a skill, but it's a useful one to learn.

Whichever approach you decide to use, remember that presenting meaning isn't all there is to 'teaching a word' - students need information on form and pronunciation, they need to record the new word in their notes and they need to practise and regularly revise so that they don't forget it.

Dr Connor O'Donoghue hails from Ireland and he started teaching English as a foreign language in Poland in 2003 and he became a CELTA trainer in 2008. He has taught and trained in Ireland, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Connor also holds a Masters and a PhD in Education from Trinity College in Dublin. He has previously managed large teacher training centres in Vietnam and in London before founding DC Teacher Training.

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