Richard Stefano – PME-811 – Blog Post 3: A break to talk about definitions – July 20, 2022

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As a native English speaker teaching in China, I’m often the target of grammar questions. My colleagues who approach me with questions are making a big mistake! My answer to grammar or definition questions is usually: “Yeah you can say that.” or “We don’t usually say that.” 

To be fair, I am not a language acquisition teacher, so while my knowledge of grammar is… adequate, my main concern is with communication. I tell my students “If I can understand what you mean, it’s correct”. They have separate ESL classes that focus on grammar, spelling, structure, etc.

Let’s put grammar aside, and focus on definitions: My students obviously ask me what words mean all the time. The least useful answer in that situation is the dictionary definition. The most useful is usually a simple translation. They have 15 years of experience speaking Chinese. When they can swap in their understanding of the Chinese word for the English one, they can start to do that in their regular speech/writing/listening. But ideally, I can help them understand the word through active defining that uses a back-and-forth between teacher and students: 

“Do you guys know [Related word]?” 


“It’s like that, but more/less/similar to [Feeling, emphasis, different word, etc.].” 

“Kind of like [something similar]?” 

“Almost, but that’s a verb! This is the noun version.” 

“Got it.” 

“Can you use it in a new sentence?”

An easy example is the word “wince”. I just show them using my face. I ask them why people make a “wincing” face. If a character “winces”, then they must be feeling _________. 

Which (finally) brings me to our PME-811 activity for this week: We are pulling from any sources we can find to define concepts that we’ll be using in this course. In a way – like my students – I think I’m building from my existing understanding of these concepts, and intending to use the sources to help me articulate what I already know. 

But then something interesting happened: when I struggled to articulate what I (think I) already know, I start to find cracks in my internal definition. The sources I’m looking at are showing me how ineffective my internal definition is in understanding the term, and especially in communicating that understanding to others.

So what the course is designed to do is give me that same “back-and-forth” I give to my students. We’re creating a definition on our own based on our understanding and our research, and then having a discussion about all of our different definitions, to bring our understanding closer together and move that understanding forward (or deepen it). It’s such an interesting parallel with my students. We want to be able to move forward with the same (or overlapping) understandings of those same terms, and ideally, we’re able to articulate and explore that understanding. 

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