I wish I could remember the word and the book, but I remember the event quite clearly. Many years ago, I was visiting my friend Mae. Our toddlers had been put down for a nap, and Mae was reading a storybook to her 4-year-old son before quiet time. At one point in the story, Kaleb asked his mom what one of the words meant. She stopped the story, thought for a moment, then told him a very basic definition using words and ideas that the little boy already understood. What caught my attention at the time was how simple yet clear her definition was. Later, when I began defining words for my children and students, I realized not only how difficult it is to define big words for little people, but also how important it is.
I have challenged myself as a teacher:
if I cannot simply define a word,
then do I really understand it myself?
You would think that a dictionary might be helpful for defining big words, but sometimes that definition is too complicated or, on the contrary, too vague. For example, today I looked up the word “rain” on Dictionary.com because it has been raining in Southern California this month. The first definition for rain is “water that is condensed from the aqueous vapor in the atmosphere and falls to earth in drops more than 1/50 inch (0.5 mm) in diameter.” While I find this definition fascinating (because someone has determined the appropriate measurement of each drop), this complicated description contains other words not easily understood by some adults, let alone children. Can you say “aqueous vapor” five times fast?
Here are the second and fourth definitions listed for rain: “a rainfall, rainstorm, or shower…weather marked by steady or frequent rainfall.” So the dictionary defines rain as rainfall. When I was in school writing definitions of vocabulary words, I was warned not to use the same word in its definition. As a teacher or parent, I still attempt to clarify what I mean by repeating the word, sometimes louder, sometimes slower.
So here is my attempt to explain what rain is to a child. Rain is water trapped in clouds that sometimes falls to earth in drops.
Now you might ask why anyone would need to define rain. Since I chose this word for my example, I will continue doing so, although I have never actually explained the word “rain” to anyone, even in drought-ridden California. But I should define rain when talking to someone who had never heard of, seen or experienced it. I might be providing a new word for something they had seen or experienced but didn’t know how to identify it. When I define rain, I might be clarifying what it is as opposed to other things seen or happening at the same time, such as wind or lightening, or contrasting it with hail or snow. Sometimes I need to define one word before I use its homonym (a word that sounds the same but means something different). In this case, the homonyms for rain are reign and rein. I wouldn’t want students to imagine the king all wet when he is actually ruling over his kingdom, or a wet horse without the leather straps used to guide it.
As a Sunday School teacher, I have the opportunity to teach spiritual truths to little children, and I want to get it right. I have challenged myself as a teacher: if I cannot simply define a word, then do I really understand it myself? I have seen the blank stares and confused faces of students at the end of a Bible story when I failed to define the big words for them. A friend of mine told me his experience teaching a third grade class about how God preserved Joseph in Genesis. At the end of the lesson, his own daughter bravely raised her hand and asked him, “Daddy, what is preserve?” On the positive side, I have also listened to little children repeat and explain important Bible concepts and lessons with full understanding. After all, Jesus invited the children to come to Him, and didn’t want others to hinder them (Luke 18:16).
As I was writing this, I was thinking about that pivotal moment when teacher Anne Sullivan helped Helen Keller understand words. Read about it here: Teaching Helen
Here are some of the Bible words I have defined for young children: “plagues” are yucky things; “glory” is everything good about God; “obey” is to do what you are told to do with a happy heart; “sin” is disobeying God’s commands; the bad news is that we all deserve to be punished for our sins, but “the gospel” is the good news that Jesus can rescue us.
What are some Bible words you use when teaching children, and how do you define them?