Difficult Words: Go Back to Basics With Vocabulary Extension


Say you’re conducting a lesson with a student. Their pronunciation is improving and the material is moving along at a steady pace. You then encounter the most common question a language educator can hear:

“Teacher, what does that word mean?”

We go back to basics. Let’s look at an example.

What can we do when a student doesn’t understand the meaning of a complex word?

In the video provided, we find a teacher mid-lesson struggling to help a student answer whether the little pigtailed girl is the “older” or “younger” sister. The student clearly understands that the little girl is the woman’s sibling but cannot choose the correct adjective to fill in the blank.
The teacher persists, asking if the little girl is “older” or “younger” but fails to provide more context. As soon as it’s clear the student is unfamiliar with any word, expand on it. Go back to basics.

If the student is learning about adjectives such as “older” and “younger” we can safely assume they are at least familiar with more basic words like “big” and “small”. Present the new, complex words in such a way that they become synonymous with words they should already know. In the example provided, you would try to illustrate that the “older” sibling is the one that is “big” — that is, physically larger. The “younger” sibling would then be the physically “smaller” one.  Don’t be afraid to use props or act out the analogy. Expand your body to indicate the “older” sibling and shrink down for the “younger” sibling. Even those of us that aren’t artistically inclined can make use of simple sketches to further contextualize the analogy.

Once the analogy is understood, only then should you repeat the question. Equipped with an analogy for reference,  the student has a better chance of understanding and answering correctly after comparing sizes on the slides.

If the student still struggles — go back to basics. Ask whether the little girl is “big” or “small” and work from there. Once the connection is made between size and age, test it again for reinforcement. (e.g. Ask about the woman’s size, then whether she is the “older” or “younger” sibling based off their response.)

This process of relating complex words to more simple analogies is called “Vocabulary Extension” and can be used in a number of situations. Say an intermediate student wants to know the difference between a country and a continent. How could we use Vocabulary Extension to help fill this gap?

Again, take something the student would likely understand and build from that.

“Student, where do you live?”


 “That’s right and China is a country. Do you know Japan? How about Korea? Those are countries too. And a continent is many countries close together. For China, Japan and Korea, we call the continent ‘Asia’.”

In the preceding example we saw two words defined based off vocabulary the student should know — “China” , “Japan” , “Korea” and “Asia”. Even if they don’t know the other countries, the Vocabulary Expansion and a simple diagram will highlight how a “country” is a sub-set of a “continent”.

While reliable, these strategies aren’t foolproof. Sometimes  you will find yourself in a situation where no connection can be made or you fail to find the words to adequately describe a complex word. The key is to always remain calm.

It’s a mistake to fixate on any part of any lesson, so assess how necessary this complex word truly is and the time spent by explaining it. If the word is paramount to the lesson —  as in the “younger/older” example — keep trying different things. One simple strategy is to solve the problem for the student and then do so less and less as the lesson continues. Show the student the answer for the first few fill-in-the-blanks and if there are enough examples in the lesson, they should begin to see a pattern with which to form their own definitions of the words.

Alternatively if the word is just a passing question and no connection can be made, consider giving the best definition possible and moving on. Sometimes students have questions about words that aren’t truly relevant to the lesson and aidingthe student in the word’s pronunciation with a short definition is enough. Words thatcommonly fall into this category are “et cetera (etc.)” or “currency” — common enough on slides but not in everyday speech.

Staying calm throughout a lesson will help you identify whether a complex word is worth the effort. What is inexcusable however is saying “I don’t know” when asked about  a word’s meaning. No one is a living dictionary — But the reason slides are provided before every class is to give us the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the lesson, its content and to mentally allocate likely time for each slide. This is especially important for higher level students and adults, where the vocabulary in their courses may contain words you are not familiar with.

Ensure that you are fully prepared for every class by reading through it at least once in advance. It’s easy to dismiss low level lessons as simple enough to do “on-the-go” but reading through everything — even just once — will prepare you for possible pitfalls our students may encounter. If nothing else, you will have a better sense of how much time any topic deserves which is useful for over/under-leveled students.

Students will easily let you know what words are giving them trouble. Assess how vital the word is to the lesson. If it’s part of the core lesson vocabulary, expand on it by creating connections to complex words using basic, known synonyms as analogies. Be prepared for your lessons and ensure you know all the vocabulary yourself. And as always, stay calm and have fun.sample


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