+ Vocabulary Instruction: Definitions Can Be Tricky

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Get your students really involved with vocabulary words.  “Bringing Words to Life,” by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan, is a book that will help.

Teachers introduce a word and the first step is to provide information through  a definition.  That means “look it  up in the dictionary.” 

The Trouble With Dictionaries

But there are problems with dictionary definitions.  They are often unhelpful, for a number of reasons. 

Traditionally, a definition identifies the class to which something belongs (“a bachelor  is a man“) and then indicates how it differs from other members of that class (“who is unmarried”). 

But the overriding consideration for dictionary-makers is space.

Concerns about conserving space are “horrendous,” says one lexicographer.  Another lexicographer has said that trying to be brief has led to “some remarkable convolutions in dictionary prose style.”   Every defining characteristic common to dictionaries can be traced to it, says a third. 

So, say  the authors, there is nothing “official” or “scientific” about the form in which definitions appear.  Don’t treat them as holy writ.

To understand how students perceive these matters, Beck, McKeown and Kucan put themselves in the place of a young learner trying to make sense of dictionary definitions.  They came up with four characteristics that get in the way of understanding word meaning.

  • weak differentiation  — The word conspicuous is defined as “easily seen.”  So the  word would appear to mean “visible.”  But this word means more — it means something that pops out, because of its color, or size, or inappropriateness.
  • vague language  — In one dictionary “typical”  is defined as “being a type.”  A type of what, a student might ask.  There isn’t enough information to make any sense.
  • a more likely interpretation of meaning  — When a definition uses familiar words in unfamiliar ways, students flounder.  If “devious” means “straying from the right course; not straightforward,” a child might assume  it has to do with crooked walking or getting lost.
  • multiple pieces of information — Students need guidance as to how to integrate the defining terms.  “Exotic” is said to mean “foreign; strange; not native.”  Is something exotic if it is strange but not foreign?  Or only if it is both foreign and strange?  How do we capture the concept?

   Beck and her colleagues suggest three constructs for devleoping initial  word-meaning information:  1)  student-friendly explanations; 2)  providing instructional contexts, and 3)  offering opportunities for interacting with the words.

We are going to look at the first of these.

Student-Friendly Explanations

First, characterize the word

Make it as particular as possible.  Explain its typical use — ask yourself, “When do I use this word particularly?”  Don’t worry about capturing all possible applications; start students off with a strong focused concept.

For example, the authors offer the word “tamper.”  While a dictionary definition gave “to inerfere in a secret or incorrect way,” implying perhaps that a busybody tampers, we really want to convey a sense of “messing up”  that comes with it. 

Student-friendly explanations would be crafted to highlight the notion that tampering with something damages it.  Perhaps “to change something secretly so that it doesn’t work properly, or becomes harmful.”  These explanations will be wordy, but will truly anchor the term.

Second, explain meanings in everyday language

Use language that is readily accessible.  The word “ally” is defined as “one associated with another,” which is puzzling at best.  We might change it to “somebody who does things with you,” or “somebody you hang around with.”  Still, we need something else: an ally helps you in a common cause.  Perhaps we could say, “someone who helps you in what you are trying to do, especially when there are other people who are against you.”

Beck and her colleagues offer some examples:

  • disrupt = “break up or split”  Say what?  “We disrupted the candy bar so we could share it?”  Try something like, “to cause difficulties that stop something from continuing easily or peacefully.”
  • covert = “kept from sight; secret; hidden”  Students will likely grab on to the “secret” part and think of it as a synonym; but it most often describes something done in a secretive way.  Offer “describes something that is done in a hidden or secret way.”
  • illusion = “appearance or feeling that misleads because it is not real ” Vague; could it be somthing that looks good but isn’t?  And how does a feeling mislead?  Suggest, for example, “something that seems like one thing but is really something else or might not be there at all.” 
  • improvise = “to make, invent, or arrange with whatever is on hand”  But it doesn’t say you have to do it because you don’t have the needed materials.  Try something more concrete like “to make something you need by using whatever is available at the moment.”
  • morbid = “not healthy or normal”  Morbid is way beyond “not healthy!”  A student might try to say “I can’t go to school today because I’m feeling morbid.”  A more accessible formulation might be  “showing a great interest in horrible, gruesome details, especially about death.”

You will note that student-friendly definitions are much longer than their dictionary counterparts.  And notice that they often include words such as something, someone, or describes, which anchor the meaning so students can begin to understand how to use the word.

Beck and her colleagues suggest building these meanings more fully by developing contexts in which words might be used, and providing ample opportunity to employ them.  Find the book and see how to enrich vocabulary work.

Source: the book is “Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction” by Isabel L Beck, Margaret G McKeown and Linda Kucan.  Published by The Guilford Press, 2002.  ISBN 1-57230-753-6.  This book is part of a series called “Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy,” edited by Cathy Collins Black.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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