The Internet TESLJournal

Defining Words: What Can Teachers and Students Do?

Jennifer Yun and Marely Cervantes
(Fullerton, California, USA)


The process of learning a new word can be a long one.  Between encountering a word for the first time and being able to use the word in speaking and writing, students must acquire many different kinds of knowledge about the word.  The first step, however, is to look for a definition.  How do teachers and students define words?  What are common mistakes that are made when defining words, and how can teachers and students define words effectively?  In order to investigate these questions, we conducted a survey on dictionary use for intermediate and advanced learners in academic university programs.  We also interviewed teachers and observed various classes at the postsecondary level focusing on vocabulary and word learning strategies.  We first noted some of the most common difficulties that teachers and students encountered when defining words.  From our findings, we compiled points of practical advice to inform teachers and students of how to approach defining words.  

What Are Common Pitfalls for Teachers When Defining Words?

What Are Common Frustrations that Students Have When Defining Words with Dictionaries?

How Can Teachers Define Words for Students?

Use a Variety of Techniques

Going through a long list of vocabulary words one by one Using a variety of approaches will (1) address the different learning styles of a student group, (2) develop students’ receptive knowledge (reading and listening) and productive knowledge (speaking and writing) of the word, and (3) engage students’ interest.

Teach Word-Learning Strategies

Teaching about words is as important as teaching words.  Combine direct word instruction with word-learning strategies .  

Recycle Words

Consider that learners need to be exposed to a word at least seven times before they can use it.

Be Brief and Relevant

When giving on-the-spot definitions in class, keep these principles in mind.

How Can Teachers Help Students Define Words?

Raise Awareness of the Different Parts of Word Knowledge

While we want students to have a breadth of vocabulary, we also want students to gain a depth of word knowledge. Without knowledge of how to use a word appropriately, students will not be able to produce the word in speaking or writing.

Show Students How to Be a Better Dictionary User

A dictionary can be a powerful vocabulary learning tool, but many students have never been taught how to use one effectively.

Push Students to Become Active Word Learners

The majority of word acquisition will occur outside the classroom. The more one knows about a word, the more one will notice it being used in real world situations.  


As teachers, we must continually remind students that their goal is to not only recognize a particular word, but to produce it on their own.  In order to gain the confidence to use a word, students must have knowledge of how to use it within the constraints of grammar, appropriateness, and meaning.  This comes through repeated exposure to the word and careful attention.  It is a slow and long process; as teachers, we must be as knowledgeable and encouraging as we can be.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XII, No. 1, January 2006