Speaking Together to Write Academic Definitions

“The beginning of wisdom is in the definition of terms.”
Socrates (469 BCE–399 BCE) , Greek philosopher

Getting students to speak can be a challenge, especially in ESL courses focused on academic writing. Flexibility remains essential.

How does one, for instance, teach the difficult task of writing formal academic definitions in a communicative style? The challenge becomes more difficult if the “high intermediate ESL” class is really a broad multilevel ESL class. Just presenting the standard “term+ class + distinctive feature” formula used in academic writing from the dense textbook won’t work. Defining “erosion”, “enamel”, “folk art” and “network” – the academic writing textbook examples- seems too difficult – and can be a tad boring.

I recently faced this awkward situation. Putting aside the textbook for a day, we took one step back to take two steps forward. We also created a lively ESL vocabulary lesson almost by accident as I redirected the two-hour class toward a communicative ESL lesson.

Students, working in small groups, created a large list of places where people could live – a house, a dorm, a cave, a castle, a duplex, a bungalow, a trailer, a penthouse, a cottage, a villa, a tent, etc. The students further refined the list in small groups, and then focused on describing four types of housing. Students were also asked to think about potential users, applications, materials, and advantages of different types of housing. The ultimate goal would be giving formal sentence definitions that could be expanded into extended definitions.

Given the mixed level, I also allowed the “high-intermediate ESL” students to verify their answers with both electronic and online dictionaries in their groups. By allowing the English students to authentically generate the vocabulary lists in a communicative fashion, the English students seemed both more actively engaged and appeared to enjoy a vocabulary lesson that could have been on the dreary side. They exchanged ideas and clarified the definitions. They also gained far greater comfort in the original task of writing definitions while expanding both their working and academic vocabulary.

What is your dream home? Real estate ads often ask this question. Our class explored a different question. What is a house? Our vocabulary activity lead to some good discussions and concluded with each group briefly offering sentence definitions to describe a wide variety of housing. The relative clauses might have been long, but they were clear and detailed.

Bottomline: exploring interesting topics, evoking student experiences, and requiring students to speak in small groups can work even while working on difficult writing tasks. Score another one for communicative teaching methods!

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  1. Steve – Thank you for making that insightful point about the downside of “industrialized” education. In the United States, we’ve often sacrificed quality education on the altar of greater accessibility. Fortunately, more educators and English teachers are rediscovering the advantages of the Socratic method, more individualized learning, and communicative methods to teach both English and critical thinking skills.

  2. Hi, Eric Roth. This IBCL India, thanks to share your great experience with us and i am also agree with Steve line:- This is a great way to teach & communicate people.

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