Help Newcomers (ELL) to Define New Words using Context

Do your Newcomers stop when they encounter a new word? Do they immediately pull out their translator or dictionary? This is what I encounter when I teach adult advanced level ESL courses. My students appear to be relying on methods they learned in beginning levels of English that are not appropriate or effective for intermediate/advanced levels. Stopping interrupts their comprehension of the text as a whole and makes reading a slow and tedious process.

As a result, I began to teach intermediate and advanced English Language learners to use several techniques for learning New Words in context. My goal is for them to treat English like their first language. One rarely consults a dictionary when reading their first language. They guess the meaning from the context. If that doesn't work, they ask a family member or a friend for the definition. So, I encourage and teach my adult ESL students to learn English vocabulary in the same manner. They learn to guess the meaning in context and ask their classmates for the definition of new words. Of course, the dictionary is available as a last resort for a definition. However, I find that the multiple definitions in a dictionary can be confusing and unhelpful for many ESL readers.

I regularly use the New Words chart to teach/review how to define new vocabulary in context. These are first language strategies which many adult students already know and use. For some reason, these strategies are not transferred to their nonnative language. I review and demonstrate these techniques many times, particularly at the beginning of a term. For example, I ask, "What part of speech is this word? Do you see a synonym or antonym near it? Can you substitute a word that makes sense? Do you recognize a root word or suffix in the word?"

As students gain proficiency using these methods, they change the way they encounter new English words and read through articles with greater ease. No more stopping to define each new word and interrupting their comprehension of the text. Using these New Word techniques has improved students' vocabulary, comprehension levels, and reading speed. I have seen up to 80% of my class raise their scores from CASAS Level B to Level C.

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