Making Definitions in the Classroom

George Manolovich, Himeji Institute of Technology



  • Key Words: Classroom management, speaking
  • Learner English Level: High Intermediate, Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: College/University
  • Preparation Time:10-20 minutes
  • Activity Time: 30-45 minutes

Time constraints often make us walking dictionaries; when a student asks the meaning of a word, we usually say what it means and go on with the lesson. The students learn nothing beyond the definition, and they learn that only passively. A better way would be to have the students participate in defining the word. Teachers can spend one lesson teaching definition-making and thereafter have the students themselves create the definitions as a permanent, active learning activity. Here is how such a lesson would look.


  • Students will learn that a good definition has two parts, a) a category, and b) a distinguishing element.
  • Students will learn how to make definitions on their own.
  • Students will understand and remember better the definitions in dictionaries and textbooks.


Before class, the teacher should write down a few sentences for context and underline the words to be defined. Of course, any word can be defined, but since it is our goal to show students that they are capable of defining words, the ideal choices are those words which the students already vaguely understand.

To illustrate how the class would proceed, letユs use the word "culture." First, the teacher writes the context sentence on the board and underline the word to be defined. (It is necessary to have a context sentence so that only one definition of the word is applicable.) An example of a context sentence for "culture" is "American culture is popular in Japan." The teacher then asks what words we associate with culture in this case. The students respond with words like music, fashion, and food, or specific examples like rock-n-roll, jeans, and hamburgers. The teacher writes these words on the board.

Next, the teacher asks what label we can give these diverse concepts. If the students respond with blank stares, the teacher can encourage them by offering categories which are obviously wrong. For example, for our list of wordsムmusic, fashion, food--the teacher could ask, "Are these animals? Are these types of trees?" Someone is bound to say "No, they're things." This answer is good, although it is broad, because it allows the teacher to introduce the word "category" and to show that "things" is a broad category for our word culture.

The next part--the answer to the question "What kind of things?"--will narrow the category or distinguish between the elements in the smallest category. A good definition should have both parts: a narrow category and some distinguishing elements.

The teacher points to the word "American" and asks "What kind of things are these?" Hopefully, a student will say something like "things from one country." If students don't come up with an answer, the teacher can add one or two more context sentences which use the word "culture" in the same way. For example, "Drinking tea is part of British culture" expresses the same idea.

The teacher can now write "things from one country" on the board and say that "things" is the category and "from one country" is the distinguishing element. Unfortunately, our category is too broad to make our definition reliable. For example, America grows rice just like Japan; is rice then part of American culture? Obviously not, because rice is not characteristic of America. The idea of "culture," therefore, refers to "characteristic things." After making this point, the teacher can write on the board: "Culture is the characteristic things of one country." We now have our definition.

(A word of warning is needed here. With ESL students, especially lower level students, it will be a great challenge to create definitions with a limited vocabulary. The teacher must keep this in mind and choose simple words, even if it means sacrificing a little accuracy.)

The teacher can summarize by showing that "characteristic things" is the category of our definition and "of one country" is the distinguishing element. After this initial run, the teacher should go through the same process with other words. This time, however, the students should create the definitions entirely on their own--perhaps, working in pairs.


In the future, the students will apply what they have learned. If a student raises his/her hand and asks, "What does this word mean?" the teacher can pass on the task of defining the word to another student--one who has a vague notion of the word's meaning. In this way, both the student who asked the question and the student who creates the definition will learn something.