When a student asks you “What does “this new word” mean?”, it’s tempting to blurt out the definition or give them a synonym, but you’d be doing them a disservice. Your job as a teacher isn’t to give you students the answers, it’s to help them figure out how to get there themselves.
That’s why it’s the #1 word in every teacher’s pedagogical dictionary: elicit elicit elicit.
Use these questions to help your students get to the bottom of a new word without spoon-feeding them:
What is the context?
Very often your students will ask you for a definition when all they really need is about 12 seconds to think about what they just read and make some sense of it. Don’t be afraid of the silences while they think, they become less awkward over time.
Additional questions: “What is this text about? What’s the mood of the writer? How may they feel about this? What do we already know about this? Is this presenting something similar or different? How do you know?”
Does any part of this word look familiar?
If context doesn’t help, maybe something inside the word will. Give your students a chance to dissect the word. Maybe they recognise a prefix or a root. Roots and prefixes may not give you all the information you need to figure it out, but you’ll be teaching them to fend for themselves when they don’t have access to you or a dictionary.
Additional questions: “What other words use this pre/suffix? What do they mean? Does this sound like any other words you know?”
Which part of speech should this be?
Grammar can be our best friend sometimes. (I know, shocking.) Only certain words can fit in certain slots in a sentence, and you can walk them through the grammatical flow to narrow down their choices.
Additional questions: “What words come before and after this one? Can you tell me exactly what’s happening without this word? If not, what feels missing? If so, what kinds of words give us extra information?”
If this spot in the sentence were empty, what word would you put in it?
This one is my last resort, but my favorite. Simply cover up the word in the text, effectively making a DIY cloze exercise, and have them use their own imagination to fill in the gap themselves. They usually land somewhere close to the meaning of the original word, and you can direct them towards the right answer from there.
Additional questions: None. This is a perfect question and I stand by it.
Tell me more.
Okay this isn’t a question, and it’s meant for the conversation portion of the class, but it’s worth noting as a way of getting students to speak more on a topic without giving them any direction whatsoever. I sometimes find myself asking leading questions that betray my opinion or force them into a corner, and that’s no good. Simply asking for more lets them give whatever they want to give without feeling any pressure.
Alright, time to work! :)