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May 10, 2008

Lesson Plans - Guessing unknown words from context

Hello Readers,

If you have students who are constantly looking up words in their dictionaries during class, then you can probably appreciate how frustrating unknown words can be for language learners. The fact of the matter is that English is a living language, which means that new words are constantly being added to it. What does this mean for speakers of English (both native and non-native)? Simply put, there will always be new words to learn. That being said, ...

... it's important for students to understand that some unknown words aren't always worth trying to understand. The meaning of many words can often be worked out from the context - without the use of a dictionary. Of course, that doesn't mean that students should throw out their dictionaries, as they are an important learning resource. It does suggest, though, that using a dictionary to work out the meaning of a word is not the only method that works.

To help students cope with unknown words, try this:

1. Find a short text that introduces some new words to your students.

2. Have students read through the article quickly (without trying to understand it) and underline all the words that they don't know.

3. Ask the students to make a table in their notebooks with the following headings:
Words that are essential to understand
Words whose meanings I can work out
Words which I need to look up in the dictionary

4. Have students read through the article again in order to complete the table. The students should write the essential words in the first column and simply tick either the second or third column for each word.

5. Have students form groups of two or three. Ask students to compare their tables and discuss how they completed them.

6. Ask students to think about what kind of strategies they used to work out the meanings of the words. Some examples you could give, if they needed help, would be:
a) checking to see if the word is defined in the text
b) looking for similarities with words in their own language
c) working out the meaning from the other words in the text
d) looking for how the words fit into the organization of the ideas in the text
e) consulting their own vocabulary/grammar notebook

7. If you haven't already given students the list of strategies (a-e) from step 6, then write these up on the board and have students number them in order of importance.

8) Encourage whole-class discussion about different strategies students can use to guess words from the context.

This lesson was adapted from Study Tasks in English, by Waters, M. and Waters, A. (1995). CUP.

If you have other suggestions for teaching students how to deal with unknown words, feel free to share your ideas below.

Until next time ...

Carol Rueckert
Writer, ESL Lesson Plan
E-mail: crueckert@eslemployment.com
Blog: www.esl-lesson-plan.com

"I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand." - Chinese Proverb

Looking for more articles about lesson planning for the ESL classroom? Click HERE!

About the author of this entry:
Carol, a native English-speaker hailing from the small town of St. Joseph in Minnesota, USA, worked in China for more than 7 years. During that time, she worked at universities, private language schools, grade schools, international schools, and did private tutoring as well. Besides teaching, she also worked as a Head teacher, an Education Manager, and a Material Development Manager. In addition to working on this newsletter, she also writes a monthly column for Time Out Beijing, authors ESL textbooks for publishing houses in China, and is an Editor for Garnet Publishing in England. Carol holds a BA in Communications from the College of St. Benedict/ St. John's University, a CELTA, and a MA in TESOL from Oxford Brookes University. Look for her posts on the ESL-Jobs-Forum discussion boards!

Posted by crueckert at May 10, 2008 08:20 AM

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