• the historical and psychological study and the classification of changes in the signification of words or forms viewed as factors in linguistic development
  • the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings 

 Merriam-Webster, 2019

se·​man·​tics | \ si-ˈman-tiks

More than just studying a list of words, our ELs need to know ...

Most likely we’ve all heard the expression, “It’s all just semantics” or some similar variation. This is true. It’s what words mean,  what the words mean to us, how the words are combined to make meaning in the content we are reading or writing.


There are two sub-categories of semantics: lexical and compositional.


Lexical Semantics:

Sometimes words are about things, sometimes they are about concepts.

When you think of chocolate, do you see dark chocolate? Milk chocolate? White chocolate? All of the above? None of the above because you, like my mother don’t like chocolate? Is it something very specific?  85% single-source couverture organic chocolate? (Yes, that's a real thing.) In a more abstract way, what do you think of as “some chocolate”? Truffles? Candy bars? A more generic concept of a sweet piece of food? Or like a friend of mine who uses air quotes and "is just having some chocolate” when in reality it is chocolate vodka and chocolate liquor to make a chocolate martini? Polysemy, idioms, metaphors, specificity, similes, allegories, euphemisms, figures of speech, synonyms, antonyms and generalities all contribute to the lexical relationship or lexical field of a word (see below). Curzan and Adams (2012) sum it up nicely by saying that you understand a word by sorting through all of the meanings for the word and selecting the one that fits. So, yes, it is all semantics or if you prefer relational.

So what? ELs and other learners need explicit instruction on the meanings of words not when they are isolated, say in a spelling list, but when they are connected to other words in a text. Think about the different meanings of the word table in math, science or general conversation.      


Compositional Semantics:

What words mean plus how words are syntactically used in a sentence; how they are combined with other words to convey meaning. What words does a writer use to convey the meaning of a persuasive or descriptive text? How does the reader comprehend those words based on their definition of the words, background and personal culture?. 

So what? ELs need explicit instruction on which word’s definition to use in which setting. When they are reading, to solidify comprehension, they have to understand the syntactical meaning as well as the contextual meaning. When writing, to be able to clearly convey mastery of the content, they need to also be able to navigate the syntactical and contextual meanings and select the correct words, usage and parts of speech. 

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Application/Activity Examples

Polysemy

Personal Polysemy Word Bank

Language Objective:

     Students will journal the multiplicity of meanings of words across the curriculum in English.

Activity:

  • Students will partition their journals into columns for math, science, social studies, ELA and other.
  • At the top of each page students will write their word bank word.
  • In each column, students will write the contextual meaning of the word in the content/subject. the encountered it.  They will also write the sentence the word was used in.

Idioms

 (Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

Synonyms

 (Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

Antonyms

 (Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

Metaphores

(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

Specificity

(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

References & Resources

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., &  Johnston, F. (2016). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary,  and Spelling Instruction (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.


Curzan, A., & Adams, M. (2012). How English works: A linguistic introduction (3rd ed.). Glenview, IL: Pearson. 


Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2014). Essential  linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and  grammar. (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Helman, L., Bear, D. R., Templeton, S., Invernizzi,  M., & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way with English learners: Word study  for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle  River, NJ: Pearson.


Johnston, F., Invernizzi, M., Bear, D. R., &  Templeton, S. (2018). Words Their Way: Word Sorts for Letter Name -  Alphabetic Spellers (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.


Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2017). Building  literacy with English language learners (2 ed.). New York: Guilford.

Lexical Fields

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Polysemy

Under construction

Idioms

Under construction

Metaphors

Under construction

Specificity

Under construction

Similes

Under construction

Allegories

Under construction

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Hyponymy

Under construction

Synonymy

Under construction

Antonymy

Under construction

Homonymy

Under construction

Metonymy

Under construction

Meronyms

Under construction