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Meaning: initial training sessions


Sooner, rather than later, on any initial training course, you have to get to grips with meaning.
The issue is where to stop because semantics is a much-researched and quite technical area.

The following is somewhere to start and probably about as much as there is time for on a short course.  Longer courses may have a bit more time to devote to the area and there are guides in the in-service section of the site to help a little.  The link to that section of the in-service guides comes at the end.


The key ideas

This section makes no attempt to condense the study of semantics into a short set of worksheets and tasks.  What it does try to do is cover the essentials from which people can build a greater understanding.

  • The meaning of mean
  • Word vs. lexeme
  • Lexical relationships
    • synonymy
    • antonymy
    • hyponymy
    • metaphor

The aim of all of this is to give trainees the essential data they need to be able to teach lexis effectively (or at least passably).


What is a word?

The purpose here is to alert trainees to the reason we use the word lexeme in place of the anguished term word.

The first task is simple: to identify what for them counts as a word and to reveal the problems with the lay term.


You may like to know that number 10 is a real word (recently [2012] used in the UK parliament).  It means estimating something as worthless.  The reason it is there is to alert people to what is a possible word in English (compare 9.) with what is not possible by the rules of English phonotactics.
If you need to pronounce it, it's /ˌflɒksɪˌnɔːsɪˌnaɪhɪlɪˌpɪlɪfɪˈkeɪʃən/.

You may need to elicit more examples of lexemes consisting of more than one word and to remind people of the distinction between lexical and functional words.  You may also have to own up to the fact that most people in ELT use the word 'word' fairly loosely!
The task does not include any phrasal verbs but you could refer to them if you feel it's appropriate.
For that, you may like to compare:
    He looked at the ship
which contains five lexemes and
    He looked up the word
which contains only four lexemes.


Relationships between lexemes

The first task here focuses on the meaning of mean.  It distinguishes between

  1. The sense of a word, i.e., its denotation
  2. A word as a reference, i.e., as representing something in the here and now
  3. A word's meaning in use, i.e., its connotation

Task 1 is designed simply to alert trainees to the three sorts of meaning.
Task 2 is designed to establish the fact that synonyms need to have the same word class, the same connotations, the same styles and the same varieties.  There is also the question of synecdoche (The White House) and metaphor (cream of society) to consider.
Task 3 is designed to alert people to colligational issues (transitivity and verb catenation in particular).

The final worksheet is really just a test of the ability to come up with synonyms, antonyms and hyponyms from a common superordinate (or hypernym, if you prefer).
You can't use it until you have introduced the terms, of course.


For worksheet #3:
Task 1 gets people to think about all the issues with synonyms in the classroom.  Individuals should do the task before cooperating with a partner to discuss the problems which might arise.  Your input will be needed here because novice teachers have a tendency to use synonyms as a substitute for explanation.
Task 2 works the same way and the problems people should note are at least that some words have no antonyms, that affixation is unreliable as a guide to meaning and that shades of meaning are usually not captured by suggesting an antonym.
Task 3 is designed to raise awareness of hyponymy and its usefulness in terms of understanding nuance but also to alert people to the fact that people vary in how they classify the world.


Related areas

Lexical relationships are treated at length in the in-service guides to the area but the majority of those are not suitable for initial training course use.

Related guides
For trainees:
words and vocabulary the index to the area in the initial plus section
lexical relationships this is in the in-service section and contains much that is too difficult at this level.  It does, however, cover the basics, too.
For you (as a reminder of what you need to know)
the in-service guides for the in-service index of the guides to lexis
A-Z index where you can find guides to or containing specific concepts and terms