Polysemous words in the ESL Classroom

ESL Lesson: Teaching Polysemous Words

You use polysemous words constantly while speaking English, and you probably don’t realize it.

In fact, roughly 40 percent of English words are polysemous. Additionally, some words, such as “set,” can have more than 30 meanings!

It is a feat of cognition that native language speakers can seamlessly use and comprehend polysemous words using grammatical and contextual clues.

What are polysemous words?

Polysemous words are multiple-meaning words that are used differently across the content areas. Examples of Polysemous words include environmentmeasure, and adjacent. These can be particularly challenging for English language learners.

Why are Polysemous Words difficult for English Language Learners?

Studies demonstrate that people have a more difficult time processing texts with polysemous words used in their nonprimary sense than texts with polysemous words used in their primary sense. Source

ELL: How to teach Polysemous Words

Remember the “polysemous ness” of words while teaching ELL (English Language Learners). That is to say, remember the number of meanings words might have. Some words might have low ‘ polysemous ness’ (the quality of polysemy), and some might have high polysemous ness. Generally, you should always be aware of the tiered vocabulary you use with your ELL and ensure it serves your students’ needs.

Polysemy versus Homonymy

Don’t get confused: Polysemy and homonymy are different. Polysemy is the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase. Homonymy is the existence of two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins.

Polysemy has different yet related meanings and Homonymy has completely different meanings.

For ELL, polysemous and homonymous words present different difficulties when students try to guess the meaning of words

ELL students can understand Polysemous words if they know the meaning of one word vs. ELL cannot guess the meaning of homonymous words because words have completely unrelated meanings.

Children learn to use context to determine which meaning of a homonym is correct in a sentence as early as kindergarten.

Polysemous Phrasal Verbs

Here are some Polysemous phrasal verbs and their meanings

Polysemous meaning: The Etymology of Polysemy

It is helpful to think of the Etymology of Polysemy when understanding the meaning of polysemous words.

Polysemy comes from the Greek: “many signs”.

πολύ-, polý-, “many” 

and σῆμα, sêma, “sign”

Don’t get this confused with a word with two meanings called a homonym.

The etymology of homonym

The word homonym comes from the Greek ὁμώνυμος (homonymos), meaning “having the same name”,[6] wh

ὁμός (homos), “common, same, similar “[7] 

and ὄνομα (onoma) meaning “name”.

Homonyms are also multiple-meaning words. Homonyms have the same spelling and usually sound alike, but have completely unrelated and different meanings. (For example, dog bark, tree bark).

Polysemous Words: Examples

“We use our arms and legs to jump and run” versus “Nation-states are in an arms race that underpins geopolitical conflicts.”

“My contacts don’t work during the night because my pupils change size with the lack of light” versus “There are thirty pupils in the average classroom.”

“The student was dull” versus “The knife was dull.”

Some examples of Polysemous Words

The definition of Polysemy: Polysemy refers to the ability of words to have more than one meaning.

The word “polysemy” means “plurality of meanings.”

Some examples of Monosemantic words:

There are some words in the language which are monosemantic. This means they have only one meaning. Examples include terms such as “synonym,” “molecule,” or “bronchitis.”

a photo of a red tattered book that says "English" on the cover in old fashioned type

How do words develop semantic meaning?

There are two processes of the semantic development of a word: radiation and concatenation.

Usually, both ways of semantic development influence the semantic development of a word.

Radiation: A process of semantic development

In cases of radiation, the primary meaning stands in the center, and the secondary meanings proceed out of it like rays. Each secondary meaning can be traced to the primary meaning. E. g. in the word “face” the primary meaning denotes “the front part of the human head.” Connected with the front position the meanings: the front part of a watch, the front part of a building, the front part of a playing card were formed. Connected with the word “face” itself, the meanings: expression of the face, and outward appearance are formed.

Concatenation: A process of semantic development

In cases of concatenation secondary meanings of a word develop like a chain. In such cases, it is difficult to trace some meanings to the primary one. E. g. in the word “crust” the primary meaning, “hard outer part of bread” developed a secondary meaning, “hard part of anything /a pie, a cake/,” then the meaning ”harder layer over soft snow” was developed then “a sullen gloomy person,” then “impudence” was developed. Here, the last meanings have nothing to do with the primary ones. In such cases, homonyms appear in the language. It is called the split of polysemy.

Why do some words become polysemous and others do not?

The systems of meanings of polysemantic words evolve gradually. Older words have better developed their semantic structure.

You can think of the normal pattern of a word’s semantic development thus:

monosemy -> simple semantic structure encompassing only two or three meanings -> an increasingly more complex semantic structure.

Icebreaker Intros with Polysemous Words:

Polysemy jokes: Educational Riddles, double entendre, and Jokes for your ESL Classroom

How can you teach Polysemous Words in an ESL lesson?

Most people are familiar with the double entendre, which can be utilized to teach polysemous words in an engaging and creative way.

double entendre (plural double entendres) is a figure of speech or a particular way of wording that is devised to have a double meaning. It is usually capable of two interpretations with one usually risqué, though, but be careful not to be too risqué!

Learn More About Polysemous Vocabulary


The development of new meanings of polysemantic words

Picking up polysemous phrasal verbs: How many do learners know and what facilitates this knowledge?

Niccolò Tommaseo (9 October 1802 – 1 May 1874) was an Italian linguist as well as a writer and the editor of works including a Dizionario della Lingua Italiana in eight volumes (1861–74) and a dictionary of synonyms (1830). Tommaseo, in statue form and pictured here with a seagull on his head, is considered a precursor of the Italian irredentism

Related Keywords: Polysemous Words, monosemy, homographs, scaffolded instructions, weak learners, Lev Vygotsky, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), domain, language, the lexicon, lexis, usage, vocabulary, vocab, word, lexical gap, lexical set, word family, tiered vocabulary

Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.