Teaching Vocabulary with Semantic Gradients

Semantic Gradient?

Finding ways for our students to connect with vocabulary on a deeper level is one of the most important things we do as ESL teachers. After all, just being able to read a word doesn’t really help our students if they don’t know what the word means.

We want them to recognize the word and be able to apply the word. 

One of the things in the English language that makes this so challenging is that we have multiple synonyms for each word that we use. That is why strategies like Semantic Gradients are so important. 

Semantic Gradients are a map of sorts showing the progression between two opposite words.

For example, words like soggy and dry may go on each of our gradient line. Students would then order wet, soaked and damp in between to show a progression. But how do we know how to teach semantic gradients? 

What are the steps for this strategy?

Step One: Finding the Words 

The first step of how to teach semantic gradients is knowing how to choose the right words. You need to think of polar opposites. I go back to the example of soggy and dry. These words have very different meanings. These words are the anchors of your line. The rest of the words on the line should be synonyms to one of your anchor words. Depending on the size of your line and the level of your students you can choose anywhere from 3-5 synonyms for each of the anchor words.

Step Two: Give the Words Meaning 

This is an added step that I think is so important in an ESL classroom. Visuals are everything to our students as they progress in their understanding of vocabulary. When using a semantic gradient I like to provide a picture that they can associate with each word. So, in sticking with our example, I would show a person in completely dry clothes and a person who is soaked through, possibly from standing in the rain for too long without an umbrella. I like to talk through scenarios with my students about the words when possible as well so that they can make a real life connection. 

Step Three: Arrange the Words 

 In knowing how to teach semantic gradients, this is the easiest step. The students need to put the words in order between the two opposite anchor words. Once the line is complete there should be a progression from one end to the other. So in our example, the person would go from soaked to dry by becoming soaked, wet and then damp. There are so many different charts that you can use for organizing the words and making your own isn’t difficult. But I like to use this black line gradient chart in my room for simplicity. 

Step Four: Have Students Discuss 

Discussion is the only thing that truly lets us know if our students “get it”. So this step in teaching semantic gradients is the most important in my opinion. Once my students feel confident in their line, we take some time to discuss as a class why they chose the order they did. Sometimes changes happen and sometimes they stick with their original choices. 

To Sum It Up 

enhancing Vocabulary Semantic gradients are an incredibly effective visual tool for teaching our ESL students the various synonyms of common words. There are so many ways to say the same thing so being able to differentiate the levels of words enhances vocabulary which improves both reading comprehension and writing. 

Understanding how to teach semantic gradients is not a difficult task, this is a relatively simple strategy that is easy to implement. It has quickly become one of my favorites in my own classroom.

If you are ready to try using Semantic Gradients in your classroom you might be interested in our resource for TEACHING VOCABULARY WITH SEMANTIC GRADIENTS.




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