Clarifying meaning

In one of the previous posts I presented some practical ways of revising and recycling vocabulary in class. But, of course, before we get to the fun stage of revision games and activities, we need first to get the meaning of the new vocabulary item(s) across. And this is what I wanted to talk about in this post.
The lexis that is taught in class can basically be divided into two categories:

  • planned for (as part of our lesson aims)
  • unplanned for or incidental (spontaneously arising from the in-class discussion)

Whichever the case might be, we need to be able to clarify the meaning of new lexis in a way that ideally is:

  • concise
  • clear
  • unambiguous
  • comprehensible to everybody

It is much easier to do so with lexis that we have planned to teach, because we can prepare the clarification in advance. However, being called on the spot to clarify a word that has just come up unexpectedly can be much more difficult. But it is also something that happens more than once every class, so it is good to have a few tricks up your sleeve which can help you clarify meaning of incidental lexis.
Below is a list of different techniques you can use:

  1. Realia:

    This approach works well with concrete objects that can be found around you. It’s quick and efficient. Leaves little room for ambiguity, but its usefulness is rather limited.

  2. Mime:

    This involves not only gestures but also making sounds and noises. Very useful for certain verbs (e.g. jump). Efficient and quite unambiguous although there are certain country, language or culture specific gestures. A good comic relief when your students are falling asleep.

  3. Definition in English:

    Arguably the one teachers use most often. Useful for practically any lexis and level, but difficult to come up with a simple and clear one off the top of your head. Often can end up being lengthy and using language that is more difficult than the actual target item.

  4. Drawings/Pictures:

    Great if you have artistic inclinations and talents, and comical if you don’t (like me). Can be very efficient and clear, and if you’re good at it, applicable to both concrete and abstract terms. Helps visual learners. If you don’t feel like drawing, you can easily and quickly find appropriate pictures on the Internet.

  5. Synonyms/Antonyms:

    Very quick and useful for words which have clear opposites (e.g. happy vs sad) or synonyms (e.g.brilliant = fantastic). The obvious downside is that there are very few (if any) words which have 100% exact synonyms/antonyms. Although it might be helpful to say that hop is kind of like jump, you’ll have to think how to convey the additional shades of meaning (e.g. consider: look vs stare vs gaze vs glare vs glance)

  6. Students teach each other:

    Often there might be student(s) who know the new word and can explain it to the others. This has the advantage of passing the responsibility for learning to students, putting them in the centre and taking the pressure off you. However, quite often you’ll end up clarifying the explanation given by the student yourself, which is more time-consuming and can potentially be confusing for the learners

  7. Examples/context:

    If the students came across the new word in a reading or listening activity (i.e. in context) get them to deduce the meaning themselves, if need be guiding them accordingly (i.e. through questions which will step by step guide them to the meaning). Alternatively, you can give some examples with the new word and get the students to deduce the meaning from there. Although this is more natural, reflecting how we learn lexis in real life, and thus beneficial for the students, it can be more time-consuming.

  8. Dictionaries:

    I always try to have at least one dictionary per 3 students in the classroom. And nowadays most students will have smart phones. Getting them to look up the word can be very beneficial as using dictionaries is an important skill. It also promotes learner autonomy and equips learners with useful skills they can use outside the class. And it gives you a chance to rest a bit too.

  9. Students ask questions to discover the meaning:

    You give students an example sentence with the new vocabulary item, e.g. Last night I felt quite maudlin. Students ask you questions to find out what the word means (you can decide whether they are yes/no or open questions – obviously, what does it mean is not allowed!), such as: Where were you? Were you sad? This technique can be very engaging and motivating, because it sparks students’ curiosity. I’d say it makes the word quite memorable as well.

  10. Translate:

    I left this one until the end on purpose. I know it’s one of the 7 deadly sins, and many teachers will argue against it. Of course there are clear disadvantages of it which we should bare in mind. But at the same time, if you happen to know the students’ L1, translation can have many advantages in some cases. Take the word “trout” for example. You could go into a detailed explanation and description or even show the students a picture of the fish. But wouldn’t it be easier, faster and more effective just to give the L1 equivalent?

To finish off, I’d like to pose a few discussion question which I hope you will comment on below. And please let me know if you know other effective techniques for clarifying meaning we could add to the list. Looking forward to your comments. Thanks!

  • How often do you use the techniques from above (1 = almost never; 2 = sometimes; 3 = usually (my standard technique)? Why?
  • Are there any approaches you’ve never used? Why?
  • Are some more effective than others?
  • Which of the ones you don’t often use could you try out in your next class?

You might also find this post interesting. I describe 7 practical ways for checking understanding of new language.

Read up on clarifying meaning:

  • Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications
  • Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary (p.81) Pearson Education Limited
  • Nik Peachey “Conveying meaning”

9 thoughts on “Clarifying meaning

  1. I love no.6, and try turn to it first, before doing all the rest…
    And i choose translation over the other ways if iwe are pressed for tine and the word doesn't seem smth the students will learn and use a lot (for instance,some technical vocab in a job descriptionbfor HR english)

    I fully agree that giving definitions we sometimes risk being unclear, so I tend to blend no.3and 10: after having given an explanation, I can ask my students to think of an equivalent in their L1

  2. I'm teaching English for specific purposes this term and my problem is the medical terminology which I have to explain in English and deduce the required vocab item in L1 too.
    Here I need recycling techniques/activities as the objective of the course is to facilitate their academic studies.
    could you suggest any?
    You always take up the real problems that the teachers encounter in the class; I appreciate your approach and style too.


  3. Thanks for your comment!
    I like number 6 as well, although sometimes I feel it's overused. I go for translation when I'm pressed for time as well, and when it's the easiest way out. What do you think are the possible pitfalls of this approach, though?
    Or better still, combine 10 with 7. You could also ask a CCQ here, i.e. When did you last feel “surprised”? (to answer this question correctly the students need to understand the meaning of the target language, in this case “surprised”. What do you think? Any other approaches to clarifying lexis you frequently use?

  4. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you've found my posts helpful. If you have suggestions for future ones, please let me know.
    I wrote a post about different activities to recycle vocabulary in class. You can find it here:
    What you're teaching sounds quite challenging, especially if you have little background in medicine yourself – I wouldn't have a clue.
    These courses on Memrise might be helpful:
    You can check my post about Memrise to get an idea what the website is about if you haven't used it yet:

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