Strategies for Teaching Semantics to ESOL Students

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  • 0:04 Teaching Semantics
  • 1:13 Prior Knowledge
  • 2:29 Speaking Semantically
  • 3:21 Evolution of Semantics
  • 4:15 Semantic Degrees
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

If you teach ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) students, you've no doubt encountered some valid questions on why or how the same English word can have different meanings. This lesson provides teachers with strategies for teaching semantics to ESOL students.

Teaching Semantics

Teachers who work with ESOL students are well aware that English presents a variety of complexities that can be difficult to explain. It's fairly easy for native English speakers to simply accept the intricacies and apparent contradictions of English vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. While the idea of teaching semantics to ESOL students may seem daunting, it can be made far less challenging if you follow a few techniques.

The first step is to clearly define semantics and how it relates specifically to English vocabulary. For the purposes of the following instructional strategies, semantics is defined as how the meanings of words change over time or depending on use. This also includes how words can take on different meanings depending on how and when they're used. With this definition in mind, you can use specific strategies and activities in the classroom in order to familiarize your ESOL students with semantics.

The manner in which ESOL students acquire new language knowledge is often heavily based on examples and repetition. This is particularly true of older ESOL learners because their learning styles and study techniques are typically set by the time they're studying advanced content.

Prior Knowledge

Perhaps the best way to approach semantics, at least initially, is to rely on the knowledge your students already possess. This strategy can help your students realize how much they already know about semantics, even if they've never heard the term before. To begin, ask students these questions and be sure to provide a few examples of your own to get the conversation started:

  • What English words have more than one meaning?
    • Leaves - can be the plural of leaf or mean exiting a place
      • My coworker always leaves early
    • Rose - can mean a type of flower or standing up
      • The audience rose and applauded the performer
  • What English words sound the same but have different meanings?
    • Eight (number)
    • Ate (past tense of eat)
    • Red (color)
    • Read (past tense of read)
  • What English words are spelled the same but pronounced differently depending on usage?
    • A violinist uses a bow
    • You must bow in front of the king
    • There is a strong wind today
    • Please wind the clock to the correct time

Next, use the examples that both you and the students have provided in order to demonstrate the basics of semantics. Remind your ESOL learners that the larger their vocabulary, the better understanding they may be able to develop of semantics and how it affects language meaning and usage.

Speaking Semantically

Some students, particularly ESOL learners, can get tripped up when hearing words that sound the same but have different meanings. Speaking semantically involves using semantics to teach students how to recognize meaning based on context. To demonstrate how important context is to understanding the semantics behind the words, say the following sentences aloud.

  1. Matt bought a matte mat.
  2. The band member didn't have a wristband, so he was banned from performing.
  3. The professor used a lot of coarse language over the course of the biology course.

Repeat the sentences and ask students to explain the differences in meaning among the same sounding words in each sentence. You can also ask them to provide spellings of the words. Finally, write the sentences on the blackboard and discuss how semantics and context can be used to explain and understand meaning.

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