Help English Learners to Define New Words Using Context

Do your English learners stop when they encounter a new word? Do they immediately pull out their phone or dictionary? This is what I encounter when I teach adult intermediate and advanced ESL courses. My students rely on methods they learned in beginning levels of English that are not appropriate or effective for advanced students. Stopping for new words 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 techniques for defining new words using context. The goal is for students to read English using their first language skills. 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 friend for the definition. So, I encourage and teach my adult ESL students to read English texts 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 if needed. However, the multiple definitions can be confusing and unhelpful for many English learners.

I regularly use the New Words chart to teach/review how to define vocabulary in context. These are first language strategies which many older English learners already know and use. Often these strategies are not transferred when reading their nonnative language. It is necessary to review and demonstrate these techniques many times, particularly at the beginning of a term. By asking appropriate questions such as, "What part of speech is this word? Do you see a synonym or antonym near it? Can you substitute a word that makes sense? Is there a prefix, root, or suffix?", students learn to use new word definition strategies.

As students gain proficiency using these methods, they change the way they encounter new English words and read with greater confidence and speed. No more stopping to define each new word and interrupting their comprehension of the text. Using these new word techniques has improved my students' vocabulary, comprehension levels, and reading speed. Up to 80% of students raise their scores from CASAS Level B to Level C in one semester.

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