Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thoughts on Multiple Meaning Words

I've been working on multiple meaning words with my students. For struggling readers, multiple meaning words can be very difficult. I wish that I could just buy a book or show a Powerpoint and have it all make sense. (I have bought the book, and I have shown the Powerpoint.)

But confusions remain. I've realized that this is because understanding multiple meaning words goes deeper than just matching definitions. In fact, I'm beginning to realize that this problem with multiple meaning words is linked to why my readers are struggling in the first place.

What are multiple meaning words?
Multiple meaning words look the same, but have different meanings. Sometimes this occurs when 2 words enter the language from different paths. For example, the bat used in baseball comes from the Middle English bateren, which meant to hit. The word for the flying mammal bat, however, came from Scandinavia. These two words look the same, but have completely different meanings. Knowing one won't help you figure out the other.

Polysemous words, on the other hand, share a common core meaning. Take the word spring. Its core sense is an old, old word meaning "to leap". The other meanings of spring all relate to this core meaning--the season spring, the water spring, even the coiled piece of metal. Knowing one helps you to know them all.

Visualizing and multiple meaning words
When I ask students to do common tasks with multiple meaning words--match the way that a word is used in one sentence to another sentence, for example--they often resort to guessing. What's going on? For one thing, these activities often happen outside of a connected text. Readers who are used to sucking up information from pictures or previous pages have little to pull from. So these activities bring out a very real problem that these readers have with creating visual images.

When I changed my instruction to have students draw a picture of each sentence before they tried to do the matching task, I saw a huge improvement. The simple step of adding boxes spurred readers to visualize, which helped them to see how the words showed different meanings. Readers who are spontaneously visualizing probably don't need this step. However, this experience showed me that my readers are not spontaneously visualizing--definitely a useful piece of information! The problems with multiple meaning words only served to highlight a deeper reading issue.

Teaching Core Meanings
An interesting journal article by Marjolijn Verspoor and Wander Lowie found that L2 learners do better when they are taught the core meanings of words. One of the examples in the article is the word nugget. The core meaning is the kind of nugget as in a gold nugget. An understanding of this meaning helps a reader to understand the figurative uses of nugget as in a chicken nugget or a nugget of information.

Since I have many ELL students in my reading class, I found this very interesting. Now, I try to help students see how the core sense of a word relates to the other uses. How do the different meanings of wild relate? What about the multiple meanings of shop? Often, these students have trouble with the uses of a word that are within one part of speech, such as the meanings of bold.

It's a process! Hopefully, helping readers to visualize sentences and build their awareness of core senses of words will help them to better understand multiple meaning words.

Here's a funny story about Aidan and multiple meaning words.


  1. Thanks for posting about this! My low 3rd graders really struggle in this area and I've been looking at different ways to help them.

  2. Thank you for commenting and liking back to your themes post! Great stuff!