Two British Speech Therapists writing about all things speech and language.

Multiple meaning words

As children move through school often their language difficulties can sometimes become more subtle.  At first glance they seem to be able to respond to questions and can express themselves in longer sentences, but when things become more complex they can start to become confused.  One of the things that can particularly trip up children with language difficulties is words with more than one meaning.  For example, the word “orange” can be both a colour and a fruit.  These can be confusing for children because you need to understand the context in which a word appear in order to know which meaning of the word is meant.  Here are some ideas for working on words with multiple meanings:-

Multiple meanings

  • I often find that children find it difficult to understand what I mean when I try to explain this. If asked to give two meanings of a word, they often put the same meaning of the word into two different sentences (eg you could have an orange hat or an orange pencil).  I find that older children who have literacy skills often find this much easier to understand if I start with words which sound the same but are spelt differently.  (EG blue and blew or too and two).  I show them the two words written down (helping them with reading the words if necessary) and they find it much easier then to identify that these are two different words.
  • Defining words is quite a difficult skill (but a useful one). If kids find it hard to define a word, I often ask them to put the word into a sentence instead.
  • If they find even this difficult, or immediately say that they don’t know the word, I will put it into a sentence for them and see if they can then work out what it means. Here we are working on all sorts of other skills as well as multiple meaning words.  Picking out clues from a sentence and putting them together to work out a meaning is a skill often required in school and a really useful one to work on.  We will sometimes write the sentence down and see if they can underline the words that gave them a clue.  EG If we were talking about the words “you” and “ewe” it is likely that a child may know the first word but not the second.  I might put it into a sentence, such as “I saw a white woolly ewe in the field with her lambs”.  The biggest clue here is the lambs, but “white”, “woolly” and “her” all give us some information too.
  • The absolute best way of learning new words is to hear them in context. This is why the sentence work above helps more than just telling the child a word.  However, as a parent, if your child is working on multiple meaning words, it’s really great if you can comment sometimes on them as they occur.  For example, “we’re eating chocolate brownies.  That word is the same as Brownies that you go to on Tuesdays.  We can’t eat those brownies though!”
  • When we talked previously about teaching vocabulary, we have talked about using word maps to help children learn new words. You can make a word map to show two meanings of a word – there are some blank ones of these that you can download for free here.  Get the child to draw a picture or draw one for them. Write each meaning of the word into a sentence under the picture.  Keep them in a folder and look back at them another day.  You can see some examples of these made by children on this blog.
  • Try putting both meanings of a word into a silly sentence to help remember them. Make these up with the child, preferably using pictures of the two meanings to help them remember.  EG “I hit the bat with a bat” or “I had to duck because a duck fell out of the tree”.
  • There are some nice games for working on multiple meaning words in the book Rhodes to Language by Anna Rhodes.  You can also find some lists of multiple meaning words and other activity ideas on Free Language Stuff.
  • Be aware in general conversation with the child or when giving classroom instructions that words with multiple meanings may confuse them. If they seem confused, explain in different words.

This is one of those skills which takes a while to develop and we can all learn new meanings of words even as adults.  So be patient if a child you are working with takes a while to understand these and don’t panic if they know some but are still confused by others – this is expected.

Do you have any other ideas for working on words with multiple meanings?  Do share them below.

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