Teaching Students to Write Word Definitions

Vocabulary lies at the heart of oral and written language skills. The ability to define a word with accuracy and precision is an important skill that has been associated with academic achievement (Marinellie, 2010). A recent study suggests that a short teaching session on how to develop formal word definitions improves a student's ability to give definitions. In the study, Grade 4 children who were performing a grade level below on reading levels, participated in a lesson designed to teach them about the formal structure of a definition and increase the accuracy/precision of word meaning. The procedure outlined below was used to teach students how to write formal word definitions.

Process for Teaching Formal Word Definitions

1. Explain to the student that they will practice writing definitions of words like those in a dictionary. Give an example of a noun e.g. chair - a piece of furniture that a person can sit on; a verb e.g. germinate - to develop from a seed to a plant.

2. Choose five common nouns and five common verbs that can be easily used to form a mental image. (A word that is more easily pictured may be easier to define compared to one that is not easily pictured. Nippold et al, 1999).

Nouns - table, water, hand, house, night, horse, forest, bird, school, farm

Verbs - laugh, walk, draw, buy, talk, listen, carry, save, throw, cry, wash

3. For each noun word, list in the first column five possible categories and in the second category five possible attributes.

4. For each word, read the word and its part of speech (ie. noun or verb) and all the items listed for the first part of the definition.

Noun: Table

a sport                                           that you sit at to eat dinner

a thing                                           that is made of wood

a piece of furniture                          that is able to be moved

a type of food                                 that you cook on

an animal                                       that is heavy

5. Discuss and determine the correct category. Ask the student to write the first part of the definition. Next, discuss the attribute that best fits the definition, the one that most people would agree upon. Ask the student to write the second part of the definition.

6. Throughout the noun lesson, emphasize that a 'good' noun definition begins with with a 'class term' - the word that describes many things that are like this thing. Each class term should be followed with a further description.

e.g. apple is a fruit that grows on a tree and is crunchy

7. Throughout the verb lesson, emphasize that a 'good' verb definition begins with an action using the form 'to + verb', followed by a second description of action.

e.g. reuse - to use something again and again

8. Once the student understands the procedure, choose words that relate to the class topic or words commonly used to describe how to complete a task.

e.g. Nouns - character, extinction, erosion, habitat, community

e.g. Verbs - analyse, classify, identify, illustrate, erupt, reuse

Click here to download writing formal definitions practice sheets.

Marinellie, S. (2010) Improving children's formal word definitions: A feasibility study. Child Language Teaching and Therapy 26:23

Nippold MA, Hegel SL, Sohlberg MM and Schwarz IE (1999) Defining abstract entities: Development in pre-adolescents, adolescents and young adults. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 41: 473-81