Understanding Word Meanings/Impact of Semantics

Semantics relates to the meaning of words. Initially, when reading, students deal with concrete objects, information, and meaning. Reading comprehension is made more complex as students must construct meaning from concepts and information beyond their direct sensory experience, such as with abstract concepts or technical vocabulary. In turn, a student must expand and diversify his/her vocabulary for understanding to become richer as he/she advances through school.

For example, as students grow older and encounter more complex reading tasks, their understanding of verbs (such as think and believe), and conjunctions (such as because and although) must increase. Students’ understanding of specific technical vocabulary words, e.g., those found in math, science, history, etc., must continue to develop as well.

Here are some strategies to help students develop their reading comprehension skills by focusing on semantic skills.

Helpful Hints

  • Confirm that students’ skills in word decoding (reading words rapidly and accurately) are at, or near grade level. Provide opportunities for students to make decoding skills "automatic," so that they are able to focus on the meaning of what they are reading. 
  • Preview new vocabulary words and technical terms, e.g., those found in math and science materials, before having students read the text.  
  • Promote students’ ongoing vocabulary development by using multiple methods for introducing and reinforcing vocabulary words.  
    • Relate vocabulary words to students’ personal and/or prior experience. Reinforce new word comprehension by providing students with as many direct experiences as possible, including taking field trips, conducting experiments, working on projects, etc.  
    • Show how new words are related to one another, for example, biography and autobiography, eavesdrop and privacy, etc. Techniques for relating words may include using classifying activities, graphic organizers such as concept maps or Venn diagrams, and using role-play.  
    • Put difficult vocabulary words on flash cards; allow students to study them at home and refer to them in school.  
    • Have students keep personal vocabulary dictionaries of words they find challenging.  
    • Link reading and writing by having students practice using homophones (words with the same sound, and possibly, the same spelling, but different meanings), e.g., cheap and cheep, red and read, homographs (words that have the same spelling but different meanings and sounds), such as bass, dove, and row, and words with multiple meanings, e.g., run, sink, light.  
  • Teach students about the meanings underlying prefixes (such as re, sub, dis) and suffixes (such as ness, ment, ous), and how these elements change the meaning of root words.  
    • Give students opportunities to practice breaking down long words into their morphological units (prefix-root word-suffix), for example, unfavorable, misjudgment, prehistoric, etc.). Use words that students encounter in class when possible. To simplify this activity, you might want to use compound words.  
    • Have students create word webs, visual diagrams where the root word is in the middle and variations of the word (with added prefixes and suffixes) are connected to it. For example, using the root word therm, students may create and attach such words as thermos, thermostat, thermometer, using the root word loc, students may attach such words as local, location, dislocate, etc.