Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Advice for choosing the best definition when encountering unknown words in a reading passage.

Oxford University Press has just posted a short video of me answering a question about helping students understand words in a reading passage:


Here is the video:

Here is an approximate transcript of the video:

Hello viewers.  My name is Scott Roy Douglas, from the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus, and I’m the co-author of Q: Skills for Success Reading and Writing 5.  Li-Lan Huang on Facebook asks:

My students sometimes get stuck in a reading passage because they don’t know which meaning of a word to choose. How can I help them?

This is a really great question, and I’ve seen it myself where students suddenly stop in the middle of a reading because they have encountered an unknown word.  Often, my students’ first instinct is to reach for their dictionaries, but even then, when a word has multiple meanings, it can cause more confusion.  In the meantime, students have lost track of what they were reading and where they were in the reading passage, and they have forgotten what they have already read.  As you can see, this is a recipe for reading disaster.  Generally, I recommend my students do the following when they encounter an unknown word while they are reading. 

First, students should ask themselves if the word is vital for understanding the passage.  If not, they should just skip the word and keep reading so as to not lose track of the general idea.  However, if the word is vital for understanding the passage, they should then ask themselves if they can understand the meaning from context.  By reading a little further ahead or by looking back just a bit, can they work out what the author is trying to say?  If the answer is yes, they can mark the new vocabulary word for later reference, and they should just keep going.  They can go back and confirm their guesses after they have read the entire passage.  However, if they can’t understand the meaning from context, they should still keep going after underlining or highlighting the word.  The important thing is to get an overall understanding of the general idea of the reading passage.  Once students have completed reading the entire passage, they can then look up the unknown word in the dictionary.  This will help them decide which definition is best if there is more than one definition for that word.  You see, they can workout which definition fits best with the general idea of the reading passage as well as the immediate context before and after the unknown word. 

I think by pushing through to the end, and looking up a word after finishing the whole text in order to have a general idea of what the author is trying to communicate will help students decide which definition is the best definition for a word when there is more than one definition.

Thanks so much for watching this video.  Have fun with your students!

It was a lot of fun putting this little video together.  Thanks to OUP for asking me to contribute!

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