Teaching words with multiple meanings

A word doesn’t always have just one meaning. From time to time, native speakers and language learners must contend with words that have multiple meanings. It could be a word that is either spelled or said in the same way but means two different things. There are also terms that both look and sound the same but have opposite meanings. Lexical chunks, phrasal verbs and figurative language only add to the confusion.

A teacher can certainly provide a list of multiple meaning words for students to memorize. But how do you help learners navigate the challenge of encountering new vocabulary outside of the classroom? By teaching them to be aware of the various kinds of multiple meaning words and providing strategy training for learning words from context.

Words with multiple meanings

The English language has plenty of words with multiple meanings. Sometimes there is confusion between the noun and verb form of a word, such as is the case with run (go for a run) and run (you run very fast). Issues can also arise when a word is spelled in the same way but said differently, bass (a kind of fish) and bass (a kind of sound and instrument).

Students need to be aware of the ways in which words can seem similar and pay attention to aspects like punctuation, part of speech, pronunciation, capitalization and other surface features which will tell them they have encountered a word with multiple meanings.

TIP: Design a lesson with activities that highlight each type of multiple meaning word and ask students to explain how they could tell the words apart. 

Sometimes words can look and sound similar but have vastly different meanings. These words are referred to as contronyms. For example, consider buckle (what you do when you connect your seatbelt) and buckle (his knees buckled/collapsed and he fell to the floor).

In these situations, it is best for a teacher to help students learn words along with an example sentence so they have some context to illustrate meaning.

TIP: Productive language activities in which students write their own sentences are more effective than having learners memorize examples from a book. Language is always more meaningful when it comes from the individual.

Teaching learners to pay attention to context, particularly when they are reading, is also crucial. Most of the vocabulary we have acquired in both our first and second language comes from reading and studies have shown that learning words in context not only makes them more memorable but provides the depth and breadth a language learner needs to enhance working vocabulary.

TIP: Dictionaries are great tools but students should be encouraged to guess at meaning before looking words up in reading activities.

The mental lexicon

Applied linguists study how language is saved in the brain. Research has shown that humans store concepts and labels separately, which means that we do not keep a word and its meaning in the same place.

When a native speaker first learns a term in his or her mother tongue, concept and meaning are usually acquired at the same time. However, in the case of bilingual students, a semantic network of meaning has already been established by the first language. Learners are thus tasked with mapping new labels onto existing concepts.

Multiple meaning words can pose problems in this respect, particularly if students are not aware of the double meaning and begin to experience comprehension difficulties as a result. Individuals who struggle with sound letter mapping and phonics may also have difficulties when it comes to spelling and distinguishing between homonyms.

Tools that can help

Apps and platforms which teach vocabulary in creative ways can sometimes provide the help first and second language learners need.

Duolingo has a free platform that uses a student’s working vocabulary to select reading material from the web which contains 90% familiar words. This facilitates learning words from context, as students are more likely to guess correctly and experience less frustration with readings that are over their head.

Anki has a paid flashcard service that allows students to make flashcards which they can practice and learn using spaced repetition tuned to their individual forgetting curves. They can enter an example sentence and practice drilling the words that cause them the most confusion.

Memrise is a language learning site with a mnemonic approach. It helps students come up with fun word games, visuals and tricks to cement meaning.

Teaching second language learners

Whether we are learning vocabulary in our first or second language, there is a lot to learn about a word: spelling, pronunciation, meaning, multiple meanings, use, collocates, synonyms, antonyms, the list goes on. That’s why teaching second language learners to spend time enhancing the depth of their vocabulary knowledge is so important.

Tutoring English online

If you teach English online, you probably find students often struggle with a word that has two meanings. How can you help? Start by providing a list of the most common examples. Next, don’t let learners get too discouraged. Language is funny and words with multiple meanings are made to order when it comes to telling stories that make students laugh and learn at the same time!

Do you have any tips on teaching words with multiple meanings? Please share them in the comments!

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