Unfamiliar Words Part 2: Dictionaries and Word Parts

It is worth reading my previous two posts on vocabulary before reading this:

The Vocabulary Gap

Unfamiliar Words Part 1: Context

In the previous post, I looked at how context can be used to understand vocabulary. In this post I look at a further two methods: dictionaries and word parts.

The problem with dictionaries…

Another way of checking the meaning of words is by using a dictionary. There are however, a number of issues with dictionaries. First of all, the primary concern with a dictionary is space; Definitions are often quite short and as a result they lose quite a bit of precision in meaning.  Secondly, the language used in definitions is often quite complex-you can end up needing to look up further words to understand the one you originally looked up! Finally, you cannot guarantee that the students will properly understand the true meaning as this is often slightly different from the definition.

Take this definition for example from my Oxford Popular Dictionary: Insinuate: v. Insert  gradually or craftily; hint artfully. From this you don’t really get the sense of the word at all. It’s okay if you have a rough idea what insinuate means but very difficult to understand the meaning from that definition. I’m not advocating we stop using dictionaries but they are not always going to be the best strategy.

…and some solutions

The following checklist from The Vocabulary Book (Graves,2006) is worth introducing to students:

  • Remember that many words have more than one meaning.
  • Be sure to check all the definitions a dictionary gives for a word, not just one of them.
  • Decide which definition makes sense in the passage in which you found the word.
  • Often the dictionary works best when you already have some idea of a word’s meaning. This makes the dictionary particularly useful for checking on a word you want to use in your writing.

I recommend teaching students about why and when to use a dictionary. I certainly don’t sit with a dictionary when I read. In fact, I tend to use a dictionary more for spelling. Wherever possible, we want students to be quite selective about words they will choose to look up. You will also need to teach them how to use the quartiles to find their words.

The Collins COBUILD dictionary is another useful search tool.  Originally designed for English language learners, it gives the definition as a sentence. It then follows up with an example of the word used in a sentence. For insinuate, as above, you get this:

  • insinuate / ɪnsɪnjueɪt, ɪnsɪnjueɪʃən / (insinuates, insinuating, insinuated, insinuations)
  • VERB If you say that someone insinuates that something bad is the case, you mean that they say it in an indirect way. (disapproval) (V that) The libel claim followed an article which insinuated that the President was lying. insinuationN-VAR ( ) He speaks with rage of insinuations that he had been drinking that evening.
  • VERB If you say that someone insinuates themselves into a particular situation, you mean that they manage very cleverly, and perhaps dishonestly, to get into that situation. (disapproval) (V pron-refl + ‘into’) He gradually insinuated himself into her life. (Also V n prep)

To get around the brevity of definitions, I find that “define:word” search function on Google is actually pretty helpful.  The definitions are fairly detailed and synonyms are also provided.

Word Hippo is a useful site for looking up words and much much more.

Using word parts to understand unfamiliar vocabulary

Students can often make tentative best guesses at words by looking at word parts. Those who are able to break down words into their constituent parts if necessary will be better readers than those who can’t.  However, not all word parts are as deserving of time as others.

Prefixes in particular should be worth considering.The following are the most common prefixes: Un-;re-;in-,im-,il-,ir- (not);dis- . These account for more than half of prefixed words. 20 prefixes account for 97% of words.  It is worth devoting some time to the teaching of these.

The most common suffixes are inflectional e.g. –ed, -s, -ing and students will be familiar with these even from oral language so they do not need instruction.  Derivational suffixes e.g. ‘–less’ and ‘–able’ change meanings and students should be familiar with this fact, but teaching many of these is probably not an effective use of time.

Latin and Greek roots may be interesting to teach but there are so many and they appear in fewer words that a disproportionate time would need to be spent on them. Sometimes the relationship between the root and the word is quite vague. There is an argument for teaching certain roots which may be of use in particular subjects e.g. mathematics or science.

When teaching the meanings of words more directly, the origins of words can be helpful in making the words more memorable.

Students should definitely be aware of trying to identify the root word of an unfamiliar word. Teachers can model this by taking a word such as bicycle and covering the ‘bi’ before asking students to add prefixes e.g. unicycle, recycle or look for connections with a word like cyclone.


Students should be aware of strategies to help them understand meanings, including all of those mentioned above. The strategies won’t work all of the time but they will work some of the time if students are able to use them. A combination of different strategies will help.  The first goal of comprehending a text becomes more attainable and the incremental ‘owning’ of words increases.

Teachers need to think carefully about the texts read in class and how they encourage independent reading. They should also carefully think about the point of reading what they are reading. Areas where they are familiar with content will lead to more efficient word building.

On a wider note, the argument for teaching more knowledge is overwhelming when it comes to reading comprehension and vocabulary building.

The majority of words are learnt through reading and listening. However, just because a smaller percentage of words are learnt from direct teacher instruction, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach individual words. In the next post, I am going to explore the words we should explicitly teach and how we should teach them.


4 thoughts on “Unfamiliar Words Part 2: Dictionaries and Word Parts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *