TESOL teaching mistakes to avoid 1: Asking 'what does this word mean?'
In this series of articles, we look at some common teaching actions which more often than not simply don’t work. If you find yourself doing this in the classroom, think about why you are doing it - if you don’t have a clear reason, or evidence that it helps students to improve their language in practice, it may not be the most effective way…
Think before you ask ‘what do you think this word means?’
‘What does this mean?’ is one of the most common questions I hear from teachers in classes that I observe. It can be an incredibly useful question, if asked at the right time and for the right reasons. However, it usually leads to more confusion, more teacher explanation and therefore less real learning or application by students.
Take a moment to think about the assumptions that come along with that question: If you are asking students to give you the meaning of a word, you are assuming that they know it already. If they know it already, then why are you teaching it? Granted, you may think that some of the students know the word, and others don’t, which would be a good opportunity for peer learning, however, the only response to the question is an in-depth explanation of the word by either the learner or yourself.
This links to the second assumption: by asking this question, you assume that students are capable of giving a complete explanation or definition of the word. Explanations are dangerous in the language classroom - the language of explanation is by definition more complex and dense than the thing being explained. Even simple concepts can only be explained effectively using complex connections between ideas.
For example, to explain the word 'cactus' effectively, and differentiate it form other types of tree or plant, you may need to use a relative clause - it is the plant which grows in the... - or a lot of specific vocabulary - desert, dry, etc. to specify what you mean, as well as having to use other specific language - spine, spike... Given that you assume the word 'cactus' is new to the students, it is unlikely that they would understand these related concepts either, meaning that your explanation is unlikely to be very effective in practice.
If the word that you are asking to be explained is not known to even half of the students that you teach, it is likely to be at or slightly above the level of competence of these learners. An explanation of that word, being higher in level than the word itself, is therefore even further outside their competence. This means that by asking this question (unless you know that the students know the word), you are probably setting the students up for failure and an admission of non-understanding, rather than aiding learning.
If explanation is too difficult, then default next step is for the teacher to start explaining the word, probably using even higher-level concepts, increasing teacher talk time to communicate it and potentially confusing the students even more.
Does this question always cause problems?
‘What do you think this means?’ Can be a valid question, which prompts students to investigate meaning effectively, though not on first meeting a new word. Rather, this question is most effective as part of a stage where students are deducing meaning form context. If the word is presented in the context of a marker sentence or longer text, and there are other clues around the word as to its meaning, then the question ‘what do you think it means’ has a much clearer purpose.
In contrast to the above situation, where students either know it (but may not be able to explain it) or simply don’t know it (and therefore may feel deflated), with context, learners have a set of clues to work from to make educated guesses at the meaning of a word. Deducing meaning from context is a skill which needs to be developed as a study strategy in class, and one which will serve students well throughout their language learning lives. ‘What do you think it means?’ Is a fundamental starting point for that strategy, but again, only if there is enough context for students to start looking at the language around the new word, and picking up clues to meaning that are there.
So what is the alternative?
When you are planning to work with vocabulary in a reading, listening or watching task, plan out the words you want to teach into two lists: one titled ‘words that students need to know before they start reading/listening/watching’, and ‘words that appear in the text with clues as to their meaning’. The former list may be best dealt with at the beginning of the class, through elicitation, drilling and checking (not explaining!), in a pre-teaching vocabulary (PTV) stage.
Words which can be guessed can be left until after students have been through the text once or twice, and got a general understanding of the points made. As a final stage working with the text, list out the words for the students and ask them to underline and define them, according to their understanding of the words in context. Remember, the aim here is not for the students to guess correctly, but to guess based on context. They may well guess incorrectly, which is fine, but always lead a good feedback stage after this task, to go through the students’ ideas and refer back to the text to guide them towards a better understanding of the words they are studying. This more inductive approach to vocabulary in texts can be more effective than working with these words in isolation outside of the text.
In summary, think before you ask students to give you the meanings of new words - are they realistically capable of doing so, and how will they feel if they can’t? In texts or recordings, is there enough information for students to make a good guess at the meanings of new words? If so, save these words until later in a lesson and lead a ‘vocabulary in context’ task to get them thinking more critically about the new language they have met.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.