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Multiple Meanings

Mrs. Welch has three students in her class who are reading and writing. She would like to target multiple meanings using the three step process supported by research (Paul, 1987) because her students are struggling with words that have more than one meaning. She chooses high frequency words to target.

Watch Mrs. Welch target the word ‘can’.

Big Idea

Multiple meaning words are pervasive in printed text as well as everyday conversation (Taylor, 2003). Due to limited access, students who are DHH struggle with words that have more than one meaning.  Because of this, Paul (1987) suggests that high frequency words with multiple meanings be taught explicitly. 


Fact #1 brief explanation

Rote memorization of multiple meaning words may not be the most efficient way to teach them.  Therefore, Paul (1987) suggests the three step process seen below.

  1. Activate prior knowledge- What sign(s) do we know for the word “can?” or “What different meanings do we know for ‘can’?”
  2. Appropriate activities that would expand and reinforce the new vocabulary- Activity involving a trash can, the concept of can when referring to ability and a soda can to show the differences. 
  3.  Multiple opportunities to encounter the new vocabulary and its various meanings in common reading materials- A simple story that utilizes at least two meaning of the word “can” in order for students to practice determining the correct meaning.

Supporting Fact

Children who were DHH struggle with the idea that words have more than one meaning.  This supports explicit teaching even more. (Paul, 1987)

Supporting Fact

After explicit instruction in how to tackle multiple meaning vocabulary, students, age 11-13 with hearing loss, increased their multi-meaning vocabulary, general reading comprehension, observable understanding and confidence with reading (Aceti & Wang, 2010)


Aceti, K. J., & Wang, Y. (2010). The teaching and learning of multimeaning words within a metacognitively based curriculum. American Annals of the Deaf, 155(2), 118-23.  The study explored the effects of an 8-week intervention in which a teacher/researcher used direct instruction to show the multiple meanings of 7 words to 4 deaf students ages 11-13 years in a school for the deaf. Applying conclusions from emerging research that links knowledge and strategy with metacognitive skills, the teacher/researcher used specific metacognitive strategies to facilitate both the acquisition of the concept of multimeaning words and the ability to distinguish one meaning from another while reading, and thus improved the students' reading comprehension. The study participants were able to increase their vocabulary of multimeaning words as well as their reading comprehension in general, and, overall, experienced an improvement in their observable understanding and confidence when approaching the task of reading.

Paul, P.V. (1987). Deaf children's comprehension of multimeaning words: Research and implications.  Although knowledge of multimeaning words is important for reading comprehension, deaf readers may know only the most common meanings or nuances of high-frequency multimeaning words. Results of a study are reported in which 33 profoundly hearing impaired students stratified into three equal age groups (ages 10, 11, and 12) were administered a 60-item pictorial, multimeaning vocabulary test. Each item contained one target word and five possible responses in the form of contextual illustrations. Results indicated that knowing two meanings proved significantly more difficult than knowing one meaning of the same words. Selecting more than one meaning was not influenced by age, suggesting that deaf students may lack not only an in-depth knowledge of words, but also the ability to use available context clues in deriving word meanings. To enrich vocabulary development, a three-step plan for teaching multimeaning words is described: (1) activate and enrich the students' prior knowledge; (2) develop activities that give students practice in applying newly learned word knowledge; (3) provide opportunities for reading familiar and new words in a wide variety of natural, meaningful contexts. Sample activities are provided to illustrate each step.

Taylor, J. R. (2003). Polysemy's paradoxes. Language Sciences, 25(6), 637-655.  This article reviews some recent publications dealing with the phenomenon of polysemy, and addresses some of the questions which they raise. According to a generally accepted definition, polysemy is the association of two or more related senses with a single phonological form. In many respects, the definition is highly problematic. Important foundational questions concern the nature of word senses, how they can be identified, enumerated, and characterized, the manner in which they may be related, and the psychological reality of these constructs. A further question concerns the kinds of linguistic units that are candidates for a polysemy analysis. Also not to be overlooked is that fact that the phonological pole of a linguistic unit is likely to exhibit variation no less than the semantic pole. In spite of the many theoretical and descriptive problems associated with polysemy, it is remarkable that speakers of a language are rarely troubled by it. The paradox is traced back to way in which polysemy is conceptualized by linguists, against the backdrop of ‘idealized cognitive models’ of language. The article concludes with some observations on a usage-based approach to issues raised.