When teaching any language whether it is a word, a phrase or a verb form, at some point it will be essential to convey and check that your students have understood the meaning.

Conveying meaning - methodology article

In most classrooms this is most commonly done through translation by the teacher or students, but is this really the best way? In this article I'd like to share some alternative methods which I have used in my teaching.

  • Problems with translation
  • Moving away from translation
  • Possible problems
  • Conclusion


Problems with translation
All though it is quick and simple, there are many possible problems with relying on translation.

  • The word you want to translate to doesn't always cover the same range of meaning and connotation of the target word.
  • Some structures or verb forms that exist in English either don't exist in other languages or the parallel form carries either additional or less meaning.
  • Using translation can make students very teacher / dictionary dependent. By relying on translation, students don't develop the 'real world' strategies, which could help them to negotiate meaning and communicate when they need to make themselves understood or to understand someone who doesn't share their language.


Moving away from translation
Here are some methods I have used in attempting to move away from dependence on translation.

Mime. This includes noises or gestures. Some words particularly actions, are easy and quick to mime.

  • This can actually make lessons much more enjoyable too, especially if you get the students used to miming words.


Pictures. This includes photos and drawings. These are very useful for when the words you are trying to teach are objects. Doing a quick drawing on the board can very simply convey the meaning of words that come up unexpectedly in class.

  • Again, if you get students to do the drawing too, then this can make the class more memorable and can be made a regular revision feature of your lessons. Time lines are also a great way of conveying the meaning of different verb tenses.


Clines. These are graphs showing degree and they can be really useful for sets of words like, love, hate, don't mind, fond of, detest, enjoy or things like adverbs of frequency. They rely on students' existing knowledge and extend that knowledge.

  • If you know that your students understand love and hate then you can place these at extremes on the graph and get your students to decide where the other words in the set should be in relation to those.


Realia or the real thing. This relies on the words you are teaching being objects and you being able to bring that object into class, but it can be really effective for students who are tactile learners and who need to touch.

  • This can be particularly effective for teaching words like fluffy, rough, smooth, furry, hairy, which have very subtle differences which would be hard to explain.


Dictionary. A monolingual dictionary can be really useful in helping to build up your learners' independence.

  • Using a monolingual dictionary well is a skill and one that you may well need to work on in order to help your students get the best out of it.


Explanation. Being able to explain what a word means in the target language can be a really useful skill for students.

  • By giving students concise and accurate explanations of words we can help them to develop the ability to explain words that they want to know.


Synonyms / Antonyms. Giving opposite words or similar words can be a very quick way of conveying meaning, but you will need to be careful.

  • Using thin as a synonym for skinny can be quite effective, but there is still a difference in connotation and you'll need to consider whether and how you deal with these slight differences in meaning.


Word formation or to be accurate breaking down complex words to their root parts. This method can also help students to understand how some of the suffixes and morphemes of the language work.

  • The word 'misunderstanding' can be divided into three parts; the root (understand), its prefix (mis) and the 'ing' at the end. By breaking words down in this way students learn more about the language than the word itself and can start to apply this knowledge to other words they want to use.


Context. This could be within a written text, audio, video or even a play and is by far one of the most useful and powerful ways to convey meaning.

  • If students are able to deduce the meaning of a word or phrase through the context in which they see or hear it, then they are well on the road to becoming independent learners.


Possible problems
Of course using the techniques above takes time and planning and there are always likely to be words that 'come up' unexpectedly in class when it will be just more economical to use translation. There is also the fact that you may have to battle against your students' expectations.

  • If they are used to having the teacher give them translations of every new word or phrase they learn, then they might not readily take to having to do some of the thinking work for themselves. If this is the case, you might want to start introducing these methods gradually by using them as part of revision games.
  • If, as is the case with many learners, they are really uncomfortable with not having a translation to match their new language points against, you could try telling them that you will give them translations for new words at the end of the class which will also act as a good way to revise any new language which has come up in the class.


Although many of these ways of conveying meaning may be more time consuming and require more planning than translating words, I believe by using them we are in the long term making better learners of our students. We are not only teaching them words and phrases, but the ability to convey and understand new meaning within the framework of the language they want to learn. This will make them more independent learners and better able to cope when the time comes for them to actually use the language in the 'real world'.

Nik Peachey, British Council

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