TEFL Q and A, Chapter 2: Vocabulary--Teaching Meaning

Q: When I asked you before about the most important things a teacher can do, you said they were to help students understand and use language. Which is the most important?

A: Understanding, because without understanding students will have nothing they can use.

Q: So if I'm teaching, let's say, the word table, what do I do exactly? Do I say, "This is a table" (while pointing at it)?

A: You can do that, but you can actually do something much better for your students. You can point at the table and say, "What is this?" Then, if students know the answer, they can say, "It’s a table!" and they’ll feel good about it.

Q: I'm guessing that some words are harder to teach than table. Am I right?

A: Yes, and there are some special techniques teachers use to teach the meanings of words. Here are some examples:

  • Context--Use a word in a sentence so students can guess the meaning of the word. For example, to use aware in context, you could say, "When I went into the room I was aware that someone had been smoking."
  • Visuals (e.g., pictures, objects, mime)--To teach the word matchbox, you could show your students a matchbox.
  • References to other (known) words--For example, if your students know the word love and you want to teach them the word adore, you can write "adore = love" on the board.
  • Explanation of a word’s key properties--This is a carefully thought out mini explanation. If you're teaching the word cottage, you might say it's a "small old house in the country."

Q: OK, I think I understand that. But I'm still not quite clear about what I should actually say in the classroom.

A: Well, don't forget that you have to try to get the students themselves to come up with the word (or explanation). For matchbox you can say, "What’s this?" For adore you can say, "Does anyone know another word for love?" For aware you can say, "Can you guess what the word aware means in this sentence?..." For cottage you can ask guiding questions like, "Do you think a cottage is big or small?"

Q: So it sounds like I have to get my brain around two things: first, what technique to use and, second, what to actually say in class.

A: That's spot on.

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