'Work it out for yourself!' How often do you ask your students to do this when they turn to you for word meanings during reading activities? And what do you do when they ignore your advice? In this article, Jamie Keddie shares some thoughts.

It can be frustrating sometimes: You spend a good amount of time choosing an article that you think your students will like. You prepare some reading tasks around it and you decide how these might lead to an energetic class discussion on the issues that are raised. But oh dear – you are already 30 minutes into the lesson and so far the activity hasn’t really got off the ground. Your students have been bombarding you with questions about the meanings of words and phrases in the text. You are being treated like a walking, talking dictionary.

Of course, asking your language teacher about new words is one of the most natural processes that takes place in the classroom. Telling students not to do it might be a bit like telling a baby not to cry.

Imagine you have just started learning German. You are sitting in a café with your friend Jonas (a local) and you are reading an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung – a popular German newspaper (Jonas is reading Harry Potter in English). Of course your article is full of words and phrases that are new to you. Now, do you think you would read in silence, remembering the wise words of your German teacher who constantly reminds you that you should work out meanings from context? Or would you take advantage of that fantastic resource at your side (i.e. Jonas) and ask him questions about the text from time to time? I know what I would do.

This takes us to the first of six remedies to the ‘walking, talking dictionary’ problem.

Remedy 1: Don't worry too much about it | Remedy 2: Use a simplified text | Remedy 3: Use a smaller text | Remedy 4: Change the activity | Remedy 5: Supply dictionaries | Remedy 6: Be sparing with the definitions you give out | References

Anchor Point:1Remedy 1: Don’t worry too much about it

So, asking your teacher about word meanings is a natural process. And there are some quite useful pieces of information that teachers should be aware of:

Firstly, it is often said that the most common 2000 words in English account for 80% of everything we say and everything we write. In other words, if your learners are aware of these 2000 words, then they will be familiar with 80% of any text that is presented to them.

Now that might sound quite good, but in fact 80% familiarity – or to see it another way, 20% unfamiliarity – of a text is nowhere near enough for comprehension.

There is research which suggests that if a language learner is expected to deduce word meanings from contexts, he or she should be familiar with 95% of all the words in a text (i.e. 19 out of every 20 words).

Teachers have to be careful not to ask the impossible from students. If we supply texts which are beyond their comprehension abilities, then we have to be prepared to pay the consequences.

Anchor Point:2Remedy 2: Use a simplified text

Perhaps simplified texts hold the answer. For example, a teacher might decide to make gentle alterations to an article that he wants to use with his students in class. Changes could be made so that obscure or potentially problematic words and phrases are or removed or replaced. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with this approach although I must admit that there was a time when I would have thought it sacrilegious.

Northanger Abbey

Another option is to use graded readers – books which are simplified according to the language learner’s ability. Graded readers are perfect for teachers who wish to set up an extensive reading programme. Extensive reading is reading in quantity and for pleasure and there are a lot of language learning benefits associated with it. Of course, this type of reading will usually be done outside the classroom – in the students’ spare time. But there is no reason that teachers shouldn’t turn to graded readers as a source of texts for language study in the classroom.


Anchor Point:3Remedy 3: Use a smaller text

If you prefer to use non-simplified texts with your students, it makes sense to aim small. After all, the smaller a text, the less number of unknown words it will contain.

If we want to use texts to bring issues into the classroom, perhaps to get students speaking or writing, they certainly don’t have to be big. Ernest Hemingway famously won $10 in a bet when he wrote a complete story in just six words:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn

Another great type of short text for bringing issues into the classroom is the quotation. There are some great online sources of these and you can see an article which discusses ways in which they can be used here.

For intensive reading activities (the opposite of extensive), small is good. Based on absolutely nothing except for my own unfounded ideas, I generally aim to use texts that that are between 100 and 150 words long. Small texts mean fewer words and that allows me to keep better control of my students’ linguistic queries that will usually come in thick and fast.

Anchor Point:4Remedy 4: Change the activity

I can think of two effective reading activities which don’t allow students to linger on individual words and items and therefore prevent them from treating their teacher as a walking talking dictionary.

The first is the running dictation. Students are put into small groups and a text is stuck to the classroom wall or blackboard (or a tree or table if it is done outside). The groups are positioned as far away from the text as possible. Each group nominates a runner whose job is to make repeated journeys to the text and back. Each time the runners run to the text, they have to memorize chunks of it, return to their team mates and dictate it to them verbatim. This activity has an unavoidable competitiveness and teachers should take all safety precautions possible (move obstacles out of the way, etc). You can see the activity in action here.

The second approach is a lot simpler – you, the teacher, can read the text out aloud to your learners while they follow it on the page. There is a lot of thinking to suggest that this approach can help students with their comprehension. When the reading process is audio-supported by an expert English user (i.e. yourself), students are required to pick up their reading pace. They will also be given the opportunity to hear vocal punctuation that is invisible on the page (phrasing, intonation, pauses, etc) which is important for understanding the text. And, of course, everyone will finish reading at the same time.

Anchor Point:5Remedy 5: Supply dictionaries

Rather than give in to your learners demand for definitions, keep quiet and hand out a few dictionaries (either monolingual or bilingual, depending on the situation). The ability to use dictionaries effectively is an important skill that language learners need to acquire. If everyone appreciated this, then things like this wouldn’t happen:

A menu offering 'salty pancakes'

(“Salty pancakes” – should read “Savoury pancakes”)

Anchor Point:6Remedy 6: Be sparing with the definitions you give out

If you get really tired of being treated like a walking, talking dictionary, as a final resort, tell your students that you are willing to answer ten of their vocabulary questions but no more. That way, students will be obliged to select the words which they feel are most important to comprehension, and work out the meanings of the rest from the context.

Anchor Point:7References

  • Nation, Paul: Learning vocabulary in another language (Cambridge University Press)
  • Walter, Catherine: Transfer of Reading Comprehension Skills to L2 is Linked to Mental Representations of Text and to L2 Working Memory (Applied Linguistics 25/3, 2004)