Feeling Confused?

confused monkey
At a seminar I attended recently, the presenter asked for an audience member to look up the word “leverage” to clarify a point. A helpful gentleman volunteered and read through four distinct definitions of “leverage” before finally reaching the one that accurately matched the presenter’s meaning.

When confronted with a word that has multiple uses, “looking it up” can add to the confusion.

In addition to multiple definitions for everyday vocabulary, there are subject-specific definitions which are especially challenging for ELLs in content-area classes, like most science and social studies classes.

In the article “Academic Language and ELLs: What Teachers Need to Know” Lydia Breiseth offers these examples of words whose meanings change by subject:

Word Meaning/Use
  1. Lunch table (Social language)
  2. Periodic Table of Elements (Science)
  3. Table of Contents (ELA)
  4. Multiplication tables (Math)
  5. To table (delay) the discussion (Social Studies)
  1. Plot of a story (ELA)
  2. Plot of land (Geography)
  3. Plot ordered pairs on a graph (Math)
  4. To plot a government coup (History)
  1. Branch of government (Social Studies)
  2. Branch of a river (Geography)
  3. To branch out (Idiom)
  1. Your foot (Health)
  2. One foot in length (Math)
  3. Foot in your mouth (Idiom)
  4. Foot of the mountain (Geography)
  5. To foot the bill (Idiom)

For students already struggling with literacy and content-area knowledge, having to read through multiple definitions to select the right one is painful and distracts from the meaning of the text. Far more helpful is providing the precise definition for a specific context.

And it’s not just words!

Later in the same article, Breiseth brings up Debbie Zacarian and Judie Haynes, who coined the term TWIPs (Terms, Words, Idioms, and Phrases) in their book Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas, for important language structures. The article provides these examples that further illustrate how important content specific definitions are:

Terms The boiling point of water is 212° F.
Words The Declaration is now on display in Washington, DC.
Idioms She came to town once in a blue moon.
Phrases Based on the data, we agree with the scientists’ conclusion.

Analyzing texts, identifying vocabulary pitfalls, and developing instructional materials to address those challenges are the time consuming tasks that discourage you from using fresh, authentic materials in their classes.

LessonWriter automatically performs all those tasks on any reading material, so you can teach what suits your students best and still deliver high quality literacy support.

And with LessonWriter’s Differentiated Instruction options, definitions, jargon and slang can be taught as needed to some students and not to others where they may be inappropriate or distracting. Explicit instruction in slang, for example, is often helpful to second language learners but not to native speakers.

Join now to get started customizing language learning support for your students today.

3Haynes, J. & Zacarian, D. (2010). Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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