Just Look it Up! Why EAL learners need more than just a dictionary!

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In my opinion, a common misconception is the idea that to understand a text that is going to be read, EAL learners should find the meaning in a dictionary of any words that they do not understand.  I do not believe that this is an effective way for EAL learners to learn the meaning of a new word and then be able to comprehend a text.

Reading is about making meaning from a text.  It could be argued that to understand a text you do not have to know every word that you encounter.  This is especially true for EAL learners.

Take the verb ‘get’ as an example.  If you were to ask an EAL learner to look this up in a dictionary (click on the link for get in the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary here) they would encounter a number of different definitions for the verb ‘get’ then they would need to know which meaning is the right one for the context they are reading in. Then there is the added problem of being able to understand the definition itself.  Sometime dictionary definitions contain words themselves that EAL learners might not know, therefore, there is added problems with being able to understand the definition as well as the original word.

For EAL learners you might ask them to match a word with a definition written by the teacher because you will be able to create more learner friendly definitions that take into account your learners language proficiency.  This comes with a word of warning that there should always be a limit to the number of words that you expect learners to know or remember.  Reading after all does not mean that you have to know or understand every single word that you encounter.  As I mentioned earlier, it is possible to gain an understanding of what a text is about without knowing every single word that you encounter.

There are also activities that can further understanding such as gaps fills, matching pictures to words, using first language, or teacher talk.  Teacher talk can be an especially helpful tool in explaining difficult words because definitions will be given in context and the teacher can also check understanding through effective questioning.

In summary, I feel that asking EAL learners to find the meanings of words they do not understand is not an effective strategy for them to use.  A teacher should plan carefully which words they think are key to understanding a text and then plan strategies or approaches to knowing the meaning of these words that do not cause added problems such as looking up definitions in a dictionary.


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