As a rule, dictionaries should be a last resort when it comes to figuring out meanings of unfamiliar vocabulary in reading. This is especially the rule with English language learners since they often take the first definition offered which may or may not be the appropriate choice for the sentence or passage the student is reading. Another flaw with dictionary use is that it disrupts a student's focus. Stopping every few sentences to "check the meaning" turns the reading process into a series of constant interruptions which leads to limited comprehension of the big picture. Needless to say, such an approach does not help such students become good readers or develop a love of reading.
So what is a teacher to do? Provide multiple opportunities to discover meaning from context! Analyze what position the word has in a sentence remembering that nouns and verbs are the key parts of a sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are just additional information that a reader does not really need to know. Then see if there are clues within the sentence that offer insight into the meaning of a word. If there is not enough information there, look at the sentence before and after and see if more information can be gleaned from this.
Should this not prove successful, look to word parts (prefixes, roots, suffixes AKA word parts). Supplementing every lesson with a few key word parts boosts vocabulary. Post them on word walls, have students refer to them regularly, make up games where the use of those word parts are instrumental to solving the question, and reinforce regularly.
Try crossword puzzles. Spelling City offers quite a few activities that students will enjoy as they "unknowingly" acquire a larger vocabulary base. Another site for similar activities is found at DISCOVERY EDUCATION.
Make vocabulary activities engaging and stimulating and students will become better readers:)
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