Thursday, March 1, 2007

Searching for word meanings and importance of learning vocabulary in context

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

A teacher has a question: "What is a Ktoex machine? I got this term in an English newspaper. I want to know what kind of machine itis. Thanks."

When I first read your question, I didn't know what a Ktoex machine was. I hope you won't be offended, but I'd like to model the process I went through to find out what it is. Maybe you can use the process yourself the next time you come across a word that isn't in your dictionary. First, I went to, typed "ktoex" and could not find it. I went to, typed "ktoex" and could not find it.

Then I noticed that "kt" is not a common way to begin an English word. So, I thought maybe you misspelled Ktoex when you copied it from the newspaper. I tried "Toex" at, and found a company that makes gates and fences, and also learned that "toEx" is a mathematical term. I also tried "Kotex" at, and found that it is a company that makes feminine products.

When I can't find an exact meaning of a word in the dictionary or on the internet, I usually just try to make my best guess from context. However, you didn't provide any context from the newspaper article where you found this word.

Was it an article about construction or home security? Then maybe a "K-Toex" machine is something that automatically opens a model K gate, made by the Toex company.

Was it an article about physics, math, or advanced scientific technology? Then the "K-toEx" machine is probably a machine that works based on the "toEx" principle in mathematics, combined with something abbreviated "K".

Was it an article about girls or women's health? Then maybe the "Kotex" machine is something that dispenses feminine products.

I hope this information helps you to guess the meaning of the word.

Note to English teachers, how not to learn vocabulary:

This experience reminded me of something I deal with in class. I have several students who regularly read the China Daily or TIME magazine on their own time, and write down every word they don't know in a notebook.

When they've accumulated about 50 words, they sit down with their dictionary, look up all the words, write the phonetics and Chinese translation next to them, and try to memorize. If they can't find a word in the dictionary, they come to me, point to the word in their notebook and ask me, "What's meaning?".

Most of the time, the words they ask me about are as baffling as "Ktoex". I ask the students for some context, and they don't remember. I try to think out loud through the guessing process, as I did above, and the students have no patience for that. They want me to give them one definition that they can memorize, and they want it RIGHT NOW.

I've tried explaining the futility of memorizing vocabulary out of context, but it doesn't get through. Can anyone think of a very clear way to put across to them that they're wasting their time with the vocab memorizing initiative? Or should I let them continue deluding themselves that this significantly improves their English? (I mean, I've seen words in their notebooks that later come up in class, but they don't know them well enough to recognize them, let alone define or--heaven forbid!--use them.)

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