Reading Room – March 2023

Tips and Tricks: Semantics

This month in the Reading Room, we will be focusing on semantics, which is the branch of linguistics concerned with how meaning is constructed and communicated in written or spoken language. Vocabulary development requires students’ knowledge of the meaning of individual words and other aspects of semantics such as synonyms (words with the same or almost the same meaning), antonyms (words with opposite meanings, and polysemous words (words with multiple meanings). Semantics also includes the ability to understand the meaning of words in different contexts in addition to the knowledge of the meaning of relationships between words.

Many words have very similar meanings and it is important to be able to distinguish subtle differences between them. For example, ‘hot’ and ‘fiery’ are similar in meaning (synonyms) but ‘fiery’ implies a stronger human reaction to a situation than ‘hot.’ It is also important for students to know the opposite meanings of words (antonyms). For example, ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ would be considered opposite in meaning. Words that have more than one meaning (homonyms) can also be confusing. For example, ‘watch’ could mean observing (a verb) or could refer to a timepiece worn on the wrist (a noun).

It is important that children are able to make subtle distinctions between the meanings of words and their use in various contexts. Working on understanding the meanings of words will help a child in their general schooling and improve their reading, spelling and comprehension. If they cannot retain an understanding of the learning of new vocabulary, they will have difficulty understanding new concepts and ideas. This will also affect their ability to express their own ideas.

Children with difficulties with semantic details may exhibit

  • difficulty with word classification
  • difficulty developing more than a literal understanding of a text
  • a poor short-term auditory memory
  • a need to be given time to process information
  • kinesthetic strengths, learning better through using concrete materials and practical experiences
  • visual strengths, enjoying learning through using visual materials (charts, maps, videos, demonstrations)

The following are activities that could be used with your students.

  • Comparative questions – (Example: ‘Is the red ball bigger than the blue ball?’)
  • Opposites – using everyday objects (Example:  thin/fat pencils, old/new shoes)
  • Sorting – both real and pictorial items into simple given categories (Example:  items we can eat, items we use for writing and drawing).
  • Classification – ask pupils to sort both real and pictorial items into groups, using their own criteria.
  • Bingo – simple pictorial categories (establish that each student understands the category on their bingo board before they begin the game)
  • Odd one out – ask the pupils to identify the items that should not be in a specific category and give reasons why.
  • Which room? – ask the students to match pictures of objects to specific rooms in the house and give reasons for their choice of rooms
  • Where am I? – one student chooses a place in the classroom to stand or sit and asks ‘Where am I?’ The other pupils have to use a range of prepositions to describe the pupil’s position – (Example:  ‘You are in front of the teacher’s desk.’, ‘You are next to the whiteboard.’)
  • Comparisons – activities in math (finding objects that are shorter than, longer than).
  • Concept opposites – introduce concept vocabulary within different areas of the curriculum, using visual/concrete materials (Example:  hard/soft, full/empty, heavy/light, sweet/sour, rough/smooth).
  • Homophone pairs – using pictures and words (Example:  see/sea, meet/meat).
  • Compound word dominoes – (Example:  bed//room, to//day, for//get, pan//cake)
  • Compound picture pairs – match pictures that form a compound word (Example: foot/ball, butter/fly)
  • Word families – collect words that belong to the same category (Example:  vegetables, fruit, clothing)

*Taken from A-Z of Special Needs for Every Teacher by Jacquie Buttriss and Ann Callander

The following are resources that could be used with your students. 

Semantic Feature Analysis from Reading Rockets,enhances%20comprehension%20and%20vocabulary%20skills.

Connecting Word Meanings Through Semantic Mapping from Reading Rockets

Teacher Ideas to Help a Child with Semantic Language Difficulties from Classroom

How to Use Semantic Maps for Teaching Vocabulary from Vocabulary Luau

Semantics in the Classroom from Linguistics for Teachers of ELLs

For questions, please contact:

Chris Fox –, Jessica Powell – 

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