Mastering Multiple Meanings

The problem: I’m sure we’ve all had a student come to us and ask about multiple meanings of a word: “I thought tend meant that’s what someone usually does. ‘I tend to stay up late.’ But yesterday I saw tend to your business in a magazine. What does that mean?” Sound familiar? As we know, multiple meanings provide an additional challenge in vocabulary study.

The solution: Don’t avoid the issue. Face it and work with it. It’s helpful to address and and give practice with multiple meanings, but I believe the key is to limit the number of meanings you present at one time and to make practice meaningful. Then there will be a greater chance that students will actually remember everything studied.

Step-by-step practice: In Vocabulary Power, each chapter has a short section called Same Word, Different Meaning which presents three words, each with two possible meanings. Students are given the definitions, model sentences, and the chance to reflect by matching the correct definitions to the model sentences. If you do not have this series, you can still recreate this presentation and practice with the help of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English online. Simply select three words with multiple meanings and note the definitions and the model sentence for each meaning. Suggestions (taken from Vocabualry Power 2, Chapter 18): exclude, govern, tend.

After students study the definitions and the models provided, you can help them generate conversation questions that are similar in structure to the model sentences. For example, in Chapter 18 of Vocabulary Power 2 two meanings of tend are presented: (1) to be likely to do a particular thing and (2) to take care of someone or something. The model sentences are: (1) I don’t like to read books by that author. His stories tend to be a little too unrealistic. (2) My aunt asked me to tend the store while she ran to the bank.  Possible questions: Do you tend to be (logical, emotional, realistic…)? Do you know how to tend (a fire, a garden…)? Write the questions on the board and number them.

Next, assign each student a question and have them walk around the room asking their assigned questions. (If possible, create the same number of questions as there are students.) When the question-answer period is over, have students recall their question, the key word in their question, and the meaning of that word.

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