Some excellent points about guessing the meaning of a new word first. Another good reason to have the Ss guess is that by making an error in definition (as, in my experience, contrary to Joe’s assertion, they will so do far more often than getting it right), they give themselves the opportunity to apply the tried and truest method of learning, trial and error, or, as my sweet, recently departed Nanny put it, the school of hard knocks. If they make a mistake, say for example, guessing that “ebony” as it refers to one’s hair means “curly”, and then, upon researching the word using lexicons, find its true meaning to be black, the Ss will, upon hearing the word a second time, even if much time has transpired between encounters, will stead themselves a far greater chance of “remembering” the original word. In fact, the local stigma surrounding mistakes as punishable offenses (the greatest bane to a Language ARTS coach) can be used to turn their direst weakness into their greatest strength. Using that “fear” to assist in remembering.
So yes, I encourage all my Ss to guess at meaning first and that the only unacceptable, or “wrong” answer to the guess is: “I don’t know.”
Additionally, the mere process of trying to guess, of dedicating that 30 seconds or so to pondering the meaning, begins to push the new word from the realm of short-term-memory-based “memorization” to the more long-term-memory-based “remembering”. It gives a practical, experiential component to the word as opposed to cramming it away into dusty, little used memory banks of their overtaxed hard drives.
I am going to strongly disagree with Mr. Sax on one point however, and that is the use of a bilingual dictionary. As anyone who speaks an L2 can tell you, true success and comfort with the use of their chosen, learned language only begins once the user learns to think in their target language, be it English, Japanese or Swahili. By employing bilingual dictionaries, the Ss are encouraging themselves to continue translating, which, imo, is anathema to true usage.
Might I humbly suggest that after the Ss guess, have them reach instead for Monsieur Roget. Not only can synonyms and antonyms highly increase the ability to grasp the true meaning of a word almost immediately, the Ss may also benefit from a veritable cornucopeia of new words introduced by the Thesaurus. Let’s look at our original vocab example: The student has already guessed that “ebony” means “curly”. If they were to look it up in a standard dictionary, sure, they may glean the concept of “black” from the definition, but more likely, beome increasingly addled over all the references to wood, cabinet making and piano keys. Likewise, using a C>E dictionary will most certainly give them the information they need by providing whatever the chinese character for “hei” is, but the likelihood of them remembering this the next time “ebony” crosses their plate is dramatically decreased due to the aforementioned placement of the data into the translated realm of STM. With www.thesaurus.com , they can immediately see that it means dark and black and that it’s antonym is white. Bang! Set firmly into LTM, nigh on immediately. As a bonus, words such as atramentous, pitch, obsidian and ivory, pale and wan will begin to worm their way back to the LTM. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Ss will have used English-only research tools, thereby taking them further down the road to “Thinking In EnglishTown”.
After using a thesaurus, now direct the Ss to the sister site, www.dictionary.com . Now, with the forearmed knowledge of “black” in their minds,the info about cabinetwork and piano keys and Asian trees with long latin names will begin to make more sense. All that remains is proper pronunciation. Many online dictionaries provide a bundled software program that turns their PCs into “pronunciation coaches”. By clicking on the little speaker icon, they can hear the word, repeat the word, hear it again, repeat it again and so on and so forth, until facial-muscle memory begins to kick in.
A final suggestion is to get them to start learning with their ears. Do not allow the Ss to read with their eyes only. By having them read everything aloud, the Ss begin to hear the language (or at least, the grammar) used properly, in their own tongues. The more they do this, the better off they will be in learning to hear and correct their own mistakes when it comes time to speak and write.
Hope this helps.