EL Support Lesson

Using a Dictionary to Clarify the Meaning of Unknown Words

This lesson will help students explore using a dictionary to figure out tricky words with suffixes. Use as a stand-alone activity or a support for the Understanding Academic Vocabulary in a Nonfiction Text lesson.
This lesson can be used as a pre-lesson for the Understanding Academic Vocabulary in a Nonfiction Text lesson plan.
Grade Subject View aligned standards
This lesson can be used as a pre-lesson for the Understanding Academic Vocabulary in a Nonfiction Text lesson plan.

Students will be able to define academic vocabulary in a grade level text.


Students will be able to define academic vocabulary with suffixes using a dictionary and graphic organizer for support.

(3 minutes)
  • Bring out an age-appropriate dictionary with illustrations and show the cover to the students.
  • Ask the students to raise their hands if they have ever used or seen a dictionary before.
  • Explain that a dictionary is a tool that readers can use to figure out the meaning of words. Tell the students that dictionaries come in many different languages and there are also online dictionaries that can help us learn new words.
  • Find a word that most students would know the meaning of, such as apple, cat, dog, sun, or child. Model looking through the pages to find the word and show students the illustration. Explain that dictionaries with illustrations are important because they help our brains connect the word with the picture.
  • Ask another student to think of a word they would like to find in the dictionary. Call them to the front of the classroom and guide them as they look for the word, using the guide words and illustrations to help them. Once the student finds the word, read the word and definition aloud, showing the rest of the class the illustration.
  • Reinforce that a definition is an explanation of what a word means.
  • Choose a grade level word that has a suffix and write it on the whiteboard (e.g. eating, playing, jumped, or asked).
  • Say, "Today we wil be learning how to use a dictionary to figure out the meaning of tricky words. Tricky words are words that are hard, or challenging, to figure out. Sometimes these words are simple words and other times they have a special ending called a suffix. When we look up tricky words in a dictionary, we need to look up the base word. The suffix is the ending of the word that changes the meaning."
  • Circle the suffix of the first word on the whiteboard. For example, circle eat in eating. Explain to students that eat is the base word of the word eating. Tell students that the base word eat is a verb and when we add the suffix -ing we change the base word eat to eating, showing an action that someone is doing right now.
  • Orally share two different sentences that show the difference between the base word eat with and without the suffix -ing. Examples include:
    • I eat my food.
    • I am eating my food.
  • Write the following words on the whiteboard: dancing, berries, walking, opened, finishes, yelling, helps, liked.
  • Draw a table on the whiteboard, labeling the left column "Base Word" and the right column "Suffix."
  • Model figuring out the base word for the word dancing, explaining that to create the base word dance we have to add an e after the c. Write the suffix -ing in the right column on the board.
  • Allow a few students to come up to the board to figure out the base word and suffix for the next couple words, guiding students to figure out how to create the base word for tricky word patterns (i.e. to create the word berry, we must delete ies and add a y).
  • Pass out whiteboards and whiteboard markers. Put students in partnerships and ask them to finish figuring out the base word and suffix for the remaining words.
  • Allow a few students to share out, clarifying any misconceptions.
  • Record the base words and suffixes in the table on the whiteboard.
(10 minutes)
  • Pass out the Dig into the Dictionary 1 worksheet and age-appropriate dictionaries/online dictionaries to each pair of students. Give the students a few minutes to record the base words from the whiteboard into the middle column labeled "Base Word" on their worksheet.
  • Project the Dig into the Dictionary 1 worksheet on the whiteboard. Model finding the definition of words 1–3 in the age-appropriate dictionary or online dictionary and record them on the worksheet, using complete sentences or phrases.
  • Have the students find the definition of words 4–6 with their partners.
  • Allow a few students to share their findings with the rest of the class. Record the accurate definitions of words 4–6 on the Dig into the Dictionary 1 worksheet.
(10 minutes)
  • Split the students up into six groups and give each group a whiteboard and whiteboard markers. Pass out one of the note cards to each group and explain that the note card has one of the base words they defined during the lesson. Tell the students that this will be their group's assigned word.
  • Explain to students that they will create a new sentence using their assigned word and act out the sentence in front of the class.
  • Using the grade level word you chose during the introduction, write a sentence on the board. If your chosen word was apple, an example sentence would be:
    • Apples are so tasty to eat!
  • Act out the sentence. For example, pretend to take a bite of an apple. Rub your stomach and say, "Mmmm!"
  • Give each group a few minutes to come up with their sentence and record it on their whiteboard as a small group.
  • Allow each group to come up to the board. Ask them to briefly act out their sentence and allow a student or two to make a guess as to what the sentence is. Ask the group to record their sentence on the board.


  • Provide the Glossary for students to refer to throughout the lesson.
  • Provide an age-appropriate bilingual dictionary for students to use.
  • Provide a copy of the base words in English and L1 from the Dig into the Dictionary 1 worksheet for students to paste into their reading logs or journals.
  • Define the words from the Dig into the Dictionary 1 worksheet in English and student's home language (L1), if student is literate in L1.
  • Allow students to work with a small, teacher-led small group during the discourse and formative assessment activities.
  • Allow students to define one word during the formative assessment in English and L1 and draw an illustration that can be shared during the Review and Closing section.


  • Allow students to use the Vocabulary Card worksheet throughout the lesson, to reinforce understanding important terms.
  • Encourage students to come up to the board to show the suffix in one of the words during the word level activity.
  • Encourage students to paraphrase the definitions in their own words instead of copying directly from the dictionary.
  • Encourage students to think of their own illustrations to match each picture and word on the Vocabulary Card worksheet and record them in their reading log or journal to refer to during future lessons.
(5 minutes)
  • Ask the students to define words 7–8 on their own. Based on the word's meaning, encourage the students to record a new sentence for each word in their reading log or journal.
  • Provide the following sentence frames to support the students:
    • The word ____ means ____. I can use the word ____ in the following sentence: ____.
(2 minutes)
  • Have students do a think-pair-share with a neighbor, orally sharing the answer to one of the following question stems:
    • A dictionary can help me ____.
    • A new word I learned today was ____.
    • My favorite part of the lesson was ____.

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