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Dictionary Definitions vs. Student-Friendly Definitions

Big Idea

Vocabulary knowledge continues to be an area of need for students who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH).  Teachers often use definitions as a method to teach new vocabulary. However, dictionary definitions are not the most beneficial way to teach vocabulary.  It is difficult for students to construct meaning from these definitions because they are brief and presented in an unfamiliar format.  A more effective method, to teach novel vocabulary, is to construct student-friendly definitions.  Discussing the meaning of words and writing definitions in everyday language can provide learners with an enduring understanding and a growing vocabulary.


Fact #1 brief explanation

When writing a student friendly definition, take time to think about the word in question and discuss the word with students.  What is the words most common use? What does the word mean?  Once this is done, write the definition in everyday language. Be sure that the language is accessible so that the new concept is easy to understand.


The target vocabulary word is photosynthesis.  The dictionary definition isthe synthesis of complex organic materials, especially carbohydrates, from carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic salts, using sunlight as the source of energy and with the aid of chlorophyll and associated pigments.”  This definition would be difficult for many students who are DHH to understand.   

When preparing for your vocabulary lesson on photosynthesis, think through these steps.

Step 1: What is the words most common use? To label the process that green plants go through in order to make food
Step 2:  What does the word mean? To change carbon dioxide and sunlight into food
Step 3:  Write the definition in everyday language.   Photosynthesis is how a green plant changes sunlight and carbon dioxide into food to keep it alive.
Other Examples:
Word Student-Friendly Definition
resist when a person struggles or fights not to give in
share give part of what you have to someone else
interior the center of something
shelter a safe place

Supporting Fact

When meanings of unfamiliar words were discussed as part of vocabulary instruction, students who were DHH increased their vocabularies (Paatsch, Blamey, Sarant, & Bow, 2006).

Supporting Fact

When students were given a dictionary definition and asked to write a sentence using the new word, 75% of the sentences written were incorrect (McKeown, 1993).


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. & Kucan, L. (2006) Bringing words to Life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.  This book provides a research-based framework and practical strategies for vocabulary development with children from the earliest grades through high school. The authors emphasize instruction that offers rich information about words and their uses and enhances students' language comprehension and production. Teachers are guided in selecting words for instruction; developing student-friendly explanations of new words; creating meaningful learning activities; and getting students involved in thinking about, using, and noticing new words both within and outside the classroom. Many concrete examples, sample classroom dialogues, and exercises for teachers bring the material to life.

Diamond, L. & Gutlohn, L. (2006). Vocabulary Handbook. Consortium on Reading Excellence, Berkeley, CA: Brookes Publishing.  Educators and reading specialists from elementary to high school will get in-depth, ready-to-use guidance on the three main elements of high quality vocabulary instruction: specific word instruction, independent word-learning strategies, and word consciousness. For each of these elements, four sections give teachers the what, the why, the when, and the how.

Mckeown, M. G. (1993). Creating effective definitions for young word learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 28(1), 16-31. Examines the relative effectiveness of dictionary definitions and definitions revised to address problems found in traditional definitions. Finds that revised definitions led to significantly more responses that demonstrated a characteristic use of the word. Concludes that revised definitions were more effective in helping students understand typical correct uses of words.

Paatsch, L. E., Blamey, P. J., Sarant, J. Z., & Bow, C. P. (2006). The effects of speech production and vocabulary training on different components of spoken language performance. Journal of deaf studies and deaf education, 11(1), 39-55.  A group of 21 hard-of-hearing and deaf children attending primary school were trained by their teachers on the production of selected consonants and on the meanings of selected words. Speech production, vocabulary knowledge, reading aloud, and speech perception measures were obtained before and after each type of training. The speech production training produced a small but significant improvement in the percentage of consonants correctly produced in words. The vocabulary training improved knowledge of word meanings substantially. Performance on speech perception and reading aloud were significantly improved by both types of training. These results were in accord with the predictions of a mathematical model put forward to describe the relationships between speech perception, speech production, and language measures in children.