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A fable: In a recent upper-int class in an international financial and business services company, the students were reading a text about UK society. A student asked what the verb whinge means. The teacher replied: to complain. That afternoon, the attentive learner wrote back to an important British client: In reply to your whingeing letter of 29th January,,.. and was surprised to be sacked the next morning.


In the space of one week in observed lessons, I saw other students being taught that mugging = stealing, smuggling = stealing, loads = lots, tie the knot= get married, binge= have too much of something. What problems might learning these equivalences lead to?

defining terms what does mean mean
Defining TermsWhat does meanmean?

In The Lexical Approach, Michael Lewis identifies no fewer than 10 aspects of meaning: connotational, factual & modal, discoursal, negotiated, top-down & bottom-up, contextual, pragmatic, collocational, differential and referential.

how we do it
How we do it

What are the common ways used in ELT to get across meaning of lexis and grammar?

Make a huge list.


Say what it's the opposite of (antonym).

Give a synonym/near synonym (wallaby? It’s like a small kangaroo).

Put it on a cline (boiling-hot-warm-tepid-cool-cold-freezing).

Go up a level (larch? it's a kind of tree).

Go down a level (dairy food? Butter, cheese & yoghurt are types of dairy food)

Go across a grammatical category (length? It's the noun for the adjective long)

Explain it via function. (corkscrew? It's what you use to open a bottle of wine)

Define it: (crowd: a lot of people together in the same space).

Ask another student to explain or define it.

Draw it on the board.

Take in a picture of it.

Mime it.

Do a demo with Cuisenaire rods.

Make the sound it makes (sheep, horse, hen, splash, drip, thunder, scream,..)

Bring one to the class (realia)

Point to one, if there's one handy.

Give them clues to guide them to it, including clear contexts.

Give them an example in a different context.

Ask them concept questions.

Use a monolingual dictionary to define it.

Translate it, using a bilingual dictionary.

Translate it, using the T as a dictionary/what it doesn't mean (false friend).

Have them guess what category of word it is and make an educated guess.

Work out the meaning from just the context.

Work out the meaning from Latinate root/cognate (true friend).

Work out the meaning from other related English words.

Do a line-matching exercise with mini-definition or translation.

Do a multi-choice matching exercise with definitions or translations.

Say "Look it up for homework" (ie: Justgo home, will you?).


Practice 1: meaning at a word/lexical-block level

Which of the above ways would you use to make clear the meaning of the words in italics?

  • I hated going to her house. Every time I went, there was cod. I've always hated cod.
  • We'd like two return tickets to Edinburgh, please.
  • Water it twice a week in summer and keep it away from direct sunlight.
  • Will you please stop taking the piss?
  • Stop trying to butter me up; it won't do you any good.
  • I sent her out to buy a new kettle.
  • The nave, apse and altar all date from the 12th century. The font is believed to....
  • He had long dark eyelashes.
  • What are your plans for next Thanksgiving?
  • They poured scorn on him because of his strange accent.
  • They tilled the soil from dawn to dusk.
  • I managed to find a stool near the bar.
  • They sent him to Coventry after he'd been caught stealing.
  • The nation went to the polls in 2011.
  • Did you ever go trainspotting when you were a kid?
  • I immediately knew he was a complete jerk. My opinion hasn't improved since then.
  • What do you recommend, waiter?
  • Hey, that's cool!
  • Axis attempts to set up quisling governments in the occupied territories failed.
  • Fancy a quickie?

Practice 2

How concise and precise can you make explanations for the following?

Imagine your class audience is B1.2/B2.1

Practise in groups. Give constructive feedback.


Concept Questions

  • Remember not to use the target structure/item when you're checking comprehension of it.
  • Keep to the simplest, least ambiguous, most concise language you can.
  • Ask questions that require very simple (one or two word, if possible) answers.
  • You will seldom need more than two questions to delimit the meaning.

eg: I may have to leave early today.

CQ1: Is there a possibility that I need to go before the normal time today?(Yes)

CQ2: Is it sure that this will happen?(No).

You've got it.


Practice Three: Meaning of Grammar Blocks

Devise concept questions to delimit meaning for the following

  • I wish you wouldn't leave the door open.
  • Despite their disastrous start, they ended up winning the championship.
  • If it hadn't been for the ref we wouldn't have lost.
  • We really must get together soon.
  • Unless the financial situation improves, someone will have to go.
  • He used to live just outside Dunedin.
  • Hardly had we arrived than we made friends with the locals.
  • We wouldn't still be here now if it hadn't been for Jonathan.
  • The more I thought about it, the more confused I got.
  • You'd better take some extra money for a taxi in case you miss the last bus.
  • If it were a bit cheaper we'd be able to get it.
  • Would you be a darling and get the phone?
  • The university was closed following the disturbances.
  • If it's a girl we'll call her Helen.
  • It took a while to get used to getting up at six.
  • The rebels are thought to be hiding in the central highlands.
  • You should get those teeth seen to.
  • I think it's time you went home, sir.
  • I wish you’d told us about it sooner.

20. …………………………………………………………………………………………….


Brian Brennan

International House Company Training

tel: (+34) 93 268 86 10

Feb 2012

  • Thanks for your time and attention.