Teaching Semantics to English Language Learners

Instructor: Ralica Rangelova

Rali has taught Public Speaking to college students and English as a Second Language; She has a master's degree in communication.

This lesson explores the complexity of semantics and highlights the relationship between appropriate use of words and language fluency. It also suggests strategies for attaining and retaining vocabulary by grouping and connecting words based on semantics.

Role of Semantics

Often a word on its own means nothing or many things or the meaning changes depending on context. We use our knowledge, physical experience and cultural understanding of the world and environment to label things, objects, processes and events.

Every person, every nation, every culture may have a different understanding and experience with the surrounding world. Let's take a man from Dubai: he may describe mountains as 'normal brown mountains.' To you, 'normal mountains' may be green. So, you see how different experiences with things can cause confusion and misunderstanding. While some meanings stay the same across languages, others differ immensely.

This variation in a word's meaning is why semantics is important. Semantics is the study of the interpretation and meaning of words, phrases, sentences and symbols. English language learners have to spend extra time memorizing phrases, idioms, collocations and verb patterns, to name a few. A strong understanding of words helps us convey clear messages; decipher and interpret messages, and make our speech interesting, fluent and setting-appropriate.

Significance of Semantics for Fluency

The more fluent we get in a language, the deeper understanding of words and their meaning we need. Knowing only one meaning of a word becomes limiting and inefficient. Words have conceptual, connotative, collocative, affective, stylistic and other meanings.

  • Conceptual meaning, also called cognitive, denotative, or primary, is the first meaning that will pop up in our mind when we see a word in isolation.
  • Connotative meaning varies according to age, culture, or individual experience; it conveys feelings and emotions related to the word, e.g., 'white' may have a positive connotation because it is commonly associated with light, purity and innocence.
  • Stylistic meaning reflects the social situation, e.g., the news on TV won't sound the same as when my best friend recaps what was announced.
  • Affective meaning conveys the individual feelings and attitudes of the speaker: politeness, irritation, sarcasm. Tone and intonation help communicate affective meaning.
  • Collocative meaning refers to word 'partnerships' that always co-occur together and must remain the same. Replacing any word with a synonym affects the meaning, e.g., collocative pairs are 'right on time, draw attention, big deal.'

Strategies for Expanding and Retaining Vocabulary

As you see, semantics is pretty complex but it's essential for expressing ideas and understanding messages. For English language learners attaining and retaining vocabulary is a part of becoming fluent. Vocabulary activities, such as reading, writing and listening, provide a good start for exploring new words. However, to make activities less abstract and build cognitive structures, we can have students group and connect unfamiliar words to other words they know.


These words have similar meanings: 'pretty, beautiful, attractive, gorgeous.' However, synonyms may differ in connotations. It is tricky for students to pick the most appropriate synonym but as they gain more knowledge and vocabulary, it becomes easier. At first students use synonyms to avoid repetition and later they start grasping stylistic, connotative and affective meaning.

A good exercise for learning synonyms is to have students look for a synonym for an underlined word or phrase in a sentence.


These words have the opposite meaning: 'big-small, tall-short, hot-cold.' They are another great technique for expanding vocabulary and can be taught in conjunction with synonyms. Antonyms can be further systematized by creating themes: feelings, adjectives, nouns, etc. This creates a context and structure, which makes memorization easier. Antonyms also help speakers to avoid repetition, making speech richer and clearer.

A sample activity for students, which include synonyms and antonyms is called 'semantic gradient.' We start with two opposing anchor words, e.g., 'ugly' and 'beautiful.' Students have to find synonyms/antonyms and order them to create a continuum, e.g., 'unattractive,' 'plain,' 'pretty.'


Homographs are words that have the same form but different meanings. Students may get overwhelmed at first but then they can have fun with these. Introduce homographs with easy and familiar words: 'My friend was right about the restaurant' and 'Turn right at the stop sign.' It is a great way to expand vocabulary because students' astonishment with how different the meanings are helps them memorize a lot of them.

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