Wednesday, 15 January 2014

HELPING STUDENTS WITH DEFINITIONS



Some teachers who are implementing different areas through English have asked me  to help them enable their students to give definitions of essential concepts in their areas in English. Therefore, I will try to give some clues on this complex issue. Let me start by summarizing what a correct definition should consist of. I would say that a  formal definition consists of three parts.
  1. The term (word or phrase) to be defined
  2. The class of object or concept to which the term belongs.
  3. The differentiating characteristics that distinguish it from all others of its class
Examples: 
  • Water (term) is a liquid (class) made up of molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in the ratio of 2 to 1 (differentiating characteristics).
  • Comic books (term) are sequential and narrative publications (class) consisting of illustrations, captions, dialogue balloons, and often focus on super-powered heroes (differentiating characteristics).
  • Astronomy (term) is a branch of scientific study (class) primarily concerned with celestial objects inside and outside of the earth's atmosphere (differentiating characteristics).
Now the question is:  how can we help students in CLIL contexts to define essential concepts both orally and in written form in the area they are being taught through English? I suggest helping with some language support and using mind maps that help them consolidate the concepts they have learnt.  Apart from this, we should provide students with activities that enable them to revise the new vocabulary.  It goes beyond the scope of this post to list a big number of possible activities  but let me propose some  basic types that can be helpful: a loop game which is only  one of the many  practical activities for  CLIL classrooms  by  Keith Kelly , a matching exercise on Geography terms and  a  Pyramid game, an activity adapted from a Russian TV programme which can be adapted to any content area. 

Another thing that is highly advisable is to give  students  good models of definitions. An example of a good glossary of geographic terms can be found here.  For biological terms, this is a good site.

Last but not least, I recommend making definitions a natural part of everyday  teaching practice by prompting students' use of definitions in their daily oral interactions. Below these lines  I have listed some examples of the classroom  language you can use:

What is a…?
Give me definition of a…
How would you define a…?
Who can define/give me a definition of…?
Can anyone give me a definition of…?
What do we call this?
What is the name/(technical) term for this?

We will comment on the usefulness  of the suggested  activities  in our next seminar session on January 28th. Apart from this, we will talk about the  features of good CLIL materials and analyze some examples.

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