Tweaking Vocabulary Definitions

Have you ever wondered how the dictionaries came up with their definitions and why are they so unfriendly to users? Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s Bringing Words To Life gives background on how definitions came to be.

Definition practices date back to the 18th century and involve first describing the word by class and then how it differs from other members in the class. They give an example of the word bachelor which is defined as, “a man who is unmarried.” Another consideration is space – dictionaries try to use as little space as possible for each of the thousands of words. 

Many of our students with language-learning differences struggle with definitions because of how they are worded, the lack of information because of space and the fact that there are tier two vocabulary words embedded within the definitions.

For example, the word prominent, is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as:

prom-i-nent 1: sticking out beyond a surface or line 2: easily noticeable e: distinguished

Right off the bat there are 2 tier two vocabulary words embedded in the definition – surface and distinguished – making the definition difficult for a student to access. The definition itself is not worded in everyday language. 

I like to use the online Cobuild Dictionary and it has this definition for prominent: 

prominent (adj) something that is “prominent” is very noticeable or an important part of something else. 
Then I tweak the definition to add more information:
prominent (adj) is someone or something that is very noticeable, stands out or is an important part of something.
My definition will be longer than the dictionary definition and will almost always use the words: something, someone or describes at the beginning. Our InferCabulary apps use photographs to provide multiple contexts to broaden students’ understanding of their words. It can be used as another tool for deeper understanding.

Don’t be afraid to tweak the definitions for students, so they develop a deeper and broader understanding of the terms. Once they understand deeply, you can help them associate that meaning with the definition given in their classroom to maximize learning.