Developing lexical precision through semantic gradients

Lexical selection serves the purpose of isolating and identifying the single most appropriate word or item from a cohort of semantically related words. Semantic gradients are an excellent teaching and learning device to broaden and deepen students’ vocabulary, by developing awareness of the subtle connotations and differences between semantically connected or overlapping words. The fundamental idea of semantic gradients is to develop a continuum of related words between two gradable opposites such as antonyms. All the words are sequenced by order of degree through minimising semantic distances.

The idea for semantic gradients was developed by Camille Blachowicz in 1986, in her investigation of alternatives to vocabulary notebooks. Blachowicz developed a five-point strategy that stood the test of time:

  1. Prior knowledge activation
  2. Development of predictive connections
  3. Contextual reading
  4. Refining word meaning using cues
  5. Applying learned words in writing, additional reading

Blachowicz initially compared existing innovative strategies such as:

  • exclusion brainstorming – students discuss if stimulus words are likely, unlikely to appear in certain field or genre
  • knowledge rating – students rank words by difficulty or prior knowledge, e.g. can define, can make predictions, previously encountered, unknown
  • semantic mapping – students connect related words, explaining relationships
  • semantic feature analysis – tabular characterisation of words across different dimensions, e.g. shared features
  • concept ladder – relationships of focus word to other words and concepts, e.g. flute is made of wood, used to make music, …
  • predict-o-gram – cloze procedure in which students predict how author will use words from a word bank

It is easy to see how Blachowicz combined these ideas to developed the semantic gradient teaching and learning approach.

Original semantic gradient example by Camille Blachowicz (1986)

More recently, Scott Greenwood and Kevin Flanigan (2007)  picked up the idea of semantic gradients and combined it with context clues for each word, including:

  • formal definitions
  • antonyms
  • synonyms
  • inferences in full sentences

The authors also offer cloze activities where students consider “the best word for the job”.

In general words can be arranged along the semantic gradient as an array creating a horizontal “bridge”, or as a vertical “ladder”. A graphic organiser that combines the two approaches in a diagonal can be downloaded here.

The activity is best practiced in small groups, followed by a class-wide comparison of results. This is to encourage discussion around the subtle differences in meaning between the semantically related words.

There are a number of scaffolding approaches, such as providing students with a word bank of related words, establishing the antonyms and most neutral word to be placed in the centre, colouring the words using a colour gradient.

Semantic gradient with colour cues

Semantic gradients are best practiced in an authentic and meaningful context. While this could be choosing “the best verb for the job” in a narrative writing activity in English, the teaching and learning device is also ideal to explicitly teach academic language and connect abstract concepts in other key learning areas.

In Science students can be asked to sequence words describing temperature (e.g. freezing to boiling), rock-forming minerals by density (e.g. Calcite to Pyrite ) or hardness (e.g. Talc to Quartz), alkaline and acid solutions by pH value.

In Maths, Brook Giordarno presented how semantic gradients can be used to practices the terms describing different angles (e.g. acute, right, obtuse, straight).

Other examples could be to sort and name polyhedral by number of vertices, edges, faces and diagonals.

In Humanities, semantic gradients can for example be used to explore power relationships (e.g. Queen, Prime Minister, Premier, Lord Mayor, Mayor, Councillor, …)

History stimulus example: rank in a medieval estate-based society

Below is a step-by-step instruction for how to set up a semantic gradient activity adapted from Reading Rockets:

  1. Create multi-ability groups of maximum four students
  2. Select a pair of gradable opposites, avoiding complementary pairs such as ‘on/off’
  3. Generate at least five synonyms for each antonym
  4. Arrange each set of synonyms from most to least extreme
  5. Combine both sets of synonyms from most to least extreme, with the least extreme words in the middle, and the most extreme words on each end
  6. Discuss choices with a peers. Use reference sources to help settle any disputes.
  7. Make adjustments to your arrangement based on your discussion.

References:

  • Blachowicz, C. L. (1986). Making connections: Alternatives to the vocabulary notebook. Journal of Reading, 29(7), 643-649.
  • Greenwood, S. C., & Flanigan, K. (2007). Overlapping vocabulary and comprehension: Context clues complement semantic gradients. The Reading Teacher, 61(3), 249-254.
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