Using Definition to Develop Academic Vocabulary
Academic Vocabulary Development in Reading/Writing Classrooms
April 2, 2004 Colloquium TESOL, Long Beach, CA.
Anne V. Martin, Ph.D.
ESL Consultant/Writer Syracuse, NY
(former Director of ESL, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY)
Academic vocabulary and definition as a pedagogical focus
Definition as a technique—why use it? How and when is definition used? Why does it work for
academic vocabulary development?
Is real; compact but versatile
Is accessible—many textbooks have glossaries; definitions in context can be found in a wide
range of texts, including academic and non-academic (e.g. general magazines, cartoons, even
Offers opportunities to study and practice categorization, comparison and contrast
(differentiating detail), ways to make information more specific; to consider audience and make
decisions about specificity accordingly
Offers practice with a range of ways to identify and clarify, e.g., etymology, synonyms,
series of examples, use of visual diagram or drawing
Offers a method for accessing academic vocabulary without focus on a “list” per se
Can make academic vocabulary learning fun!
Definition Techniques that enhance academic vocabulary development (cf. back of handout)
l. Discovery and inference (example: fossil)
2. Formal Definition (usually 1-3 sentences)
principles—place term in category, add differentiating detail as appropriate
examples to analyze (e.g., from glossaries, various texts)
examples to critique and improve
writing your own
analysis of a classmate’s writing
3. Extended Definition/Definition in context
sample texts (varied) that include definition to read and analyze
activities for definition in context, e.g. extended definition of a concept, abstracts,
comparison of two theories, description of a mechanism, explanation of a process
A definition to consider: “Cognitive structure (is) the theory of the world in the brain that is the
source of all comprehension. The basis of comprehension is prediction, or the prior elimination
of unlikely alternatives….Predictions are questions that we ask the world, and comprehension is
receiving answers.” Frank Smith, Understanding Reading. NY:Holt, 1978, p. 67.
Some of the concepts and examples used in this presentation may be found in
Martin, A. (1976). Teaching academic vocabulary to foreign graduate students. TESOL Quarterly 10 (1):91-97.
Martin, A. (1991) Definition--a powerful tool for ESL learning and teaching. In Issues and Innovations in ESL
Teaching and Learning, ed. J. Gantzer and E. Brooks. NYS TESOL: 97-110
Model of Evolution of Understanding of “Fossil”
Possible category Possible member of the category
Fossils are bones? Chicken bones? Arm bones? Dinosaur bones?
Fossils are remains? Leftover fish? Dead skunk in road? Autumn leaves?
Burned-out building? Dinosaur bones?
Restriction of category
+ of plants and animals (elimination of building, grouping of remains as “life forms”)
+that lives on the Earth millions of years ago, preserved in rocks and other geological structures.
(distant time; dead for a very long time)—exclusion of leftover fish, leaves, skunk; inclusion of
dinosaur bones, a category member suggested by a student)
+central New York was covered by a great ocean 350 million years ago
+I found remains of sea plants and animals—coral, snails, clams, etc. (exclusion, in this case, of
dinosaur bones—they are fossils but not the kind found in this situation)
(Model from Martin, 1991, p. 103.)
Definition in context
By the sixteenth century, fairs began to settle down into permanent markets. Antwerp—historically
an unlikely candidate for a financial capital—“became home to the first permanent stock
exchange,” Smith notes. Called the bourse, it took its name from trade meetings that were held at a
hotel in nearby Bruges that was owned by a member of the Van Der Bourse family. Its coat of arms
comprised three bourses or “purses.”
Daniel Gross, “Bourse Trading,” USAirways Attache, Jan. 2004, pp. 13-14. Based on material in B. Mark Smith,
The Equity Culture: The Story of the Global Stock Market. Farrar, 2003.
Student Writing: short description of an object (ballpoint pen)
A ball-point pen is a type of writing tool that looks similar to a pen or a mechanical pencil. It is
provided with dry-ink instead of wet-ink (as in a pen) or carbon lead (as in a pencil). A ball-point
pen is widely used for writing by students (and others).
A ballpoint pen consists of a small metal ball that rotates with the friction of the paper. The small
metal ball is contained in a metal cylinder. The cylinder itself is connected to the plastic tube
containing the ink.
Student writing: Astronomical Telescope (definition in context)
A telescope is an optical instrument to examine large objects at a great distance. The optical
system is essentially the same as that of a microscope except the microscope is used to examine
small objects at a close range. The term telescope is derived from the Greek “tele,” which means
„distant,” and “scope,” which means “instrument for viewing.” The most widely-used telescope
today is the astronomical telescope, designed to view large objects in space such as galaxies, stars
The basic principle of the astronomical telescope consists of an objective lens and an
eyepiece, represented in Figure l.