Research School Network: Polysemy in the classroom Identifying the differences between the academic language that pupils encounter at the end of primary and the start of secondary

Polysemy in the classroom

Identifying the differences between the academic language that pupils encounter at the end of primary and the start of secondary

by Huntington Research School
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The Linguistic Challenges of the Transition, ESRC-funded project, based at the School of Education at the University of Leeds, aims to identify the differences between the academic language that students encounter at the end of primary school and at the start of secondary school.

If you are interested in learning more about vocabulary at the transition, then sign-up for our free twilight, 3.45 – 5pm on April 22nd here:…

Polysemy: the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase

a. Man released from prison after 28 years for murder he did not commit.
b. Prince Harry and Ed Sheeren release video for World Mental Health Day.
c. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the air.

If we were to ask children aged 9 – 13 if they know what the word release means, I would anticipate a very healthy number would say they do. And they’d be right…to an extent. But would they be secure enough in their knowledge to avoid responses like the following when asked to expand on statement [c]

There’s more pollutants and they’re like carbon dioxide, so cos it’s getting thicker, less oxygen, other less gases, like bounce back off. So they’re getting less released so there’s holes in there, which makes it more warmer.

There’s a degree (another polysemous word!) of understanding in that response for sure. Equally, the gaps in understanding cannot all be laid at the door of a shaky grasp of the word release’. Furthermore, a sentence, or verbal response scaffold may have helped the pupil be more articulate – after all, very few of us offer wonderfully eloquent verbal responses off the cuff. Nonetheless, perhaps a more thorough unpacking, exemplification or modelling of what is meant by release’ in statement [c] may have enabled that pupil to access that learning more successfully.

Of course, release’ will not be the only word that might cause issues. Indeed, science as a subject area is replete with problematic polysemy: energy, atmosphere, solution, force and concentration to name a few. It would be impossible to efficiently identify and teach every word that provided barriers in this way (and then at which point would we decide to unpick with pupils the nuanced differences between polysemy and homonyms!).

Yet being more attuned to the extent of the challenge presented by words can only be beneficial, and dedicating even 5 minutes of lesson time to more explicit instruction around key items of vocabulary has benefits for pupils in terms of growing and strengthening their word hoard [see the document attached for some ideas on vocabulary strategies].

Huntington Research School is participating in a fascinating research project, Linguistic Challenges of the Transition led by colleagues at the School for Education at Leeds University. The project is exploring the range of academic language encountered by students at secondary school, with a focus on how this differs to academic language at primary school.

The data gathered will provide information not only on the sheer quantity of words pupils are exposed to in different subject areas, but also the nature and context of that language. With the bulk of the data now crunched from contributing schools, we are beginning to build up a picture around some polysemous words. For example, in the KS2 data concentration’ has popped up only once and in its more generic sense of concentrating on work. That meaning has also been seen in KS3 English texts, but there have also been references to concentration camps, and then of course science materials have been referring to concentration in a solution, and gases moving from areas of high to low concentration.

For a year 7 pupil, thrust into the unfamiliar surroundings of a proper’ science lab for the first time (already struggling to transition to this rabbit warren of a new school) the polysemy of concentration is not going to be high up their list of priorities, unless a teacher emphasises and brings it to their attention.

The role of a teacher, or groups of teachers, in selecting which words to amplify to pupils is a crucial – though tricky – part of curriculum planning. To help, once the data analysis from the project is complete, we aim to produce a glossary of polysemous vocabulary from different subject areas to suggest potential starting points for key words for instruction around the transition between year 6 and 7.

This selection process can form part of a strategic approach to vocabulary instruction, not necessarily limited to the transition from primary to secondary. Some other consideration for such an approach would also likely include:

- Being aware of which words are polysemous, and what other meanings/​contexts they would be found in
- Considering what strategy to use when teaching a new word
- Considering what assessment methods we can use to check pupil understanding of key vocabulary
- Ensuring we support pupils to move from learning the meaning of the word to using it and applying it themselves

In this way, staff and in turn pupil awareness of polysemy in the classroom will become a useful tool when structuring lessons, schemes of learning and indeed the curriculum, especially for the crucial transition from primary to secondary.

To read more about the project and the language challenge of the transition, try this blog.

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