Explaining Unknown Words in the TEFL Classroom

One of most common situations a TEFL teacher will find themself in is Explaining Unknown Words.

A typical scenario is when a class is working on a text or watching a video and then a student will simply ask what the meaning of a certain word is. They may well use you as a kind of walking dictionary so this article looks at different ways you can use to explain the meaning of a new word. You can combine these methods, play with them, pick and choose between them and soon you’ll start to know which method is best for which word and explaining the meaning of unknown words will become second nature to you.

But before looking at the list remember:

  1. it is far better if the student can work out (with your prompting if necessary) the meaning of a word rather than you just explain it straight off
  2. many words in English have more than one meaning; just stick with a single meaning in the context given and don’t over complicate things


  • Don’t explain the word but instead ask if any other student in the class can explain what it means. A variation on this is to get the students into small groups and have them swap words and explain them to each other; the words one student doesn’t know may well not be the words another student doesn’t know.
  • Note here that if you have a monolingual class, make sure they’re only speaking English during this exercise.
  • Rather than explain immediately, see if the students can guess the meaning from the context.
  • Break the word down into its component parts or look at very similar words to see if the student can see a connection to the meaning. For example if a student asks you want repatriate means you can show them the prefix re and compare its use in words like return, repay, rework (i.e. do again); then talk about what patriate means and perhaps look at a similar words like patriotism. In other words, work with the student in using their existing vocabulary to guess the meaning of a similar new word.
  • Get the students to look up the word in a monolingual dictionary (especially useful here are Learner’s Dictionaries).
  • Draw a picture on the board. Or how about getting a student to draw a picture on the board following your instructions?
  • Mime the word.
  • If it’s there in the class, silently point to it.
  • Give the opposite. Suppose a student asks the meaning of miserable, say black – white, up – down, good – bad, happy….
  • Give a synonym. Of course there are no true synonyms in English, but for beginner and intermediate classes you can afford to use them. What does miserable mean? Sad…
  • For some words you can use a scale ladder, adverbs of frequency, for example, lend themselves to this kind of explanation.
  • Finally, if all else fails, explain the word but in English only; give a couple of good examples of the word in context and then get the students to give you other examples as well.

Useful Links

How to Teach English – a basic course in teaching

Teaching Vocabulary – a video guide

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Posted in How To Teach English, Vocabulary & Spelling.

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