Sunday, December 12, 2010

Multiple Meanings: Theory, Research and Teaching Tips

Learning about the multiple meanings of words (e.g., to find -- a find) is included in the new and widely adopted Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. For example, the excerpt below was lifted from the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language. This anchor standard is identical for Grades K-5  and 6-12 and applies also to ELLs (English Language Learners).
Vocabulary Acquisition and Use
4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
By implication, the standard requires students to consider context even as they consider the degree and type of relationship between the basic known word and the new meaning. In each example below, the relationship between the two meanings is fairly transparent, clear, obvious. These linguistic types are called morphological conversions and/or zero-derivations because a new word is formed without adding any affixes, converting the word's grammatical function and creating a related meaning that is conceptually very similar to the first meaning.

Semantically Transparent Morphological Conversions
Word Used as noun Used as verb (or adjective)
button Find the gold button. Please button your jacket.
work We like our work. We work hard.
water Don't drink the water. I water the plants.
green Let's picnic on the green. Paint the bench green.

Teachers might help children see that in many cases the relationship between the two meanings is fairly obvious and semantically transparent, as in the examples above (Kiparsky, 1982).

However, in many other cases there is only a weak semantic relationship, or no semantic relationship at all. For example, the two meanings of bear are completely unrelated (e.g., I see a bear.  Can the table bear that load?). These are homonyms or homographs, with distinctly different meanings/ For grade school purposes, these are sometimes called "multiple-meaning words" (and see footnote on homographs versus homophones).

Here, the two meanings of house are related, yet not fully transparent. We may house our things in places other than a house. This illustrates some of the confusion conversions might create, especially for language learners, who tend to translate fairly literally at first. 

Likewise, consider the statement, "I will hammer the nail." The literal and linear interpretation is that I will use a hammer to hammer. However, because we could use a shoe or a rock to pound that nail, the related meanings of hammer are not quite transparent.

As students advance in their language skills, they need to become competent at examining the context to decide whether the meaning of the conversion is closely related to the meaning they already know--assuming they already know the word! The teacher's role is not only to teach children about this language phenomenon, but also to help them develop confidence in their ability to infer the meaning of a conversion. This requires us to help readers attend closely to context. It also means helping students identify the grammatical function of a word. 

In one pertinent study, Carlo et al. (2004) taught fifth graders about how English words work. Topics included learning about polysemy (multiple-meaning words), learning the structure of morphologically complex words and understanding the nature of academic language. On the polysemy post test, the ELL group made significant improvement compared to their pretest scores, yet despite this gain they did not match the progress of students who spoke native English.  However, both groups -- ELLs and native English speakers -- made significant gains over the control group, who did not receive the intervention. It is beneficial to teach students about how words work, including how multiple meanings work. The surprise bonus finding? The students enjoyed the lessons!

Two teaching suggestions:  Show students the Grammar Rock Video about verbs (lyrics here). One minute into the film, the video shows how nouns become verbs, a process sometimes referred to as "verbing." Stephen Fry discussed this  in his podcast, shown in a prior post.

Also, students might work with a partner to sort multiple-meaning words, given with context, by levels of semantic transparency. Provide a continuum, as shown below. We could decide that the verb brush is not fully transparent because one can brush with items other than a brush: We can brush the crumbs off a table with a napkin and brush down a jacket with a hand, etc.  Likewise, one need not use a whistle to whistle. Interestingly, there is transparency between a metal staple and the verb to staple, but not between the metal staple and a food staple, for example. This type of work should help learners become more sophisticated in terms of verbal reasoning and more attuned to context and the ever-shifting nature of English words.

to fight/a fight                            a brush/ to brush                              a train / to train
tiny staple / to staple                 a whistle/ to whistle                        Cinderella's coach / to coach
+ transparent                      related                                 - not related

Defining terms:

Homographs have distinctly different meanings and are pronounced differently, despite identical spelling. Examples are wound and moped: We wound the clock versus bandage the wound; he moped around versus she has a new moped, etc. (See more examples of "true homographs," provided by ESL expert John Higgins.) 

Sometimes, homographs are confused with homophones, but homophones are words with two or more spellings and two or more meanings, but identical pronunciation. Examples include fair and fare, and also air, heir, and ere. 

Homonyms are words that look and sound alike, but have distinctly different meanings, as with river bank, an investment bank, bank the car into the curve, and bank your earnings, etc. High frequency words tend to be homonyms, and tend to be quite polysemous--some convey dozens of meanings.

Zero-derivations, also called morphological conversions, occur when we transform a source word's grammatical function, but the sense or meaning of the word does not change much at all. Examples: 1) the noun snowplow becomes the verb to snowplow; 2)  the verb to polish becomes the noun polish.


Carlo, M.S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C.E., Dressler, C., Lippman, D., Liveley, T. & White, C.E. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of ELLs in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 188-215.

Kiparsky, P. (1982). Word-formation and the lexicon. In F. Ingemann (ed.) Proceedings of the Mid-America Linguistics Conference. Lawrence, KS.


  1. Andy Biemiller12/21/2010

    I'm glad to see the discussion of degrees of meaning association. I wonder how students are supposed to determine when there is NO association. (E.g., lean (re object against a wall) vs. lean (re meat with no fat)). In many cases, various researchers report that "deriving" meanings from context is unlikely. (See, for example, Stahl, 1999). Conversely, derived words, and related meanings (e.g., noun and verb forms as in your current Vocabulogic) can often be determined if the root is known.

    Andy Biemiller

  2. Thanks for drawing our attention to this point, Andy. I do not think we CAN understand a totally distinct multiple meaning (lean the verb versus lean the adjective) through a process of morphological conversion. We must rely on context and/or a dictionary. And as you say, context is often unhelpful...the odds of deriving meaning from context are typically less than .25, only "working" for 1 in 4 words (Beck et al., 2002; Nagy et al., 1985, 1987; Stahl, 1999; Swanborn & deGlopper, etc.).

    So, as you have consistently stated in your own writings, we need to provide explicit vocab instruction, and from an early age.



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