Teaching Words with Multiple Meanings: Strategies for Young Learners

Words with Multiple Meanings

The student has just learned a new word, perhaps it is the word corner. The teacher tells the student that corner is the place where two lines, surfaces or edges meet to form an angle, as in, "I will meet you on the corner of Main Street and First after school." Later that day, the student is reading a book. A sentence doesn't make sense. The sentence is, "The hunter was cornered when the lion sprang from the grass." Was the hunter on a street?

This scenario repeats throughout our English-speaking world. Some words have more than one meaning, often quite different from each other. However, there are creative ways for teaching multiple meanings. Reading strategies, such as looking at the context in which the word appears, often helps the student discern the meaning.


Repetition is a common strategies used by teachers to aid students in remembering what has been taught. In language arts, repetition is the guiding light for teaching vocabulary and grammar, especially difficult subject matter such as the multiple meanings of words. The one drawback is that repetition can bore students and teachers alike.

For this strategy, begin by explaining that words sometimes have more than one meaning. Give an example. Ask the students if they can think of some. Define the words for the students or ask them to define them. Write sentences for each meaning.

Now, have the students read the sentences with you, but have a bit of fun by reading each sentence in a different tone of voice (soft, squeaky, grumpy, etc.) For instance, if the word is pet, use one intonation for, "She likes to pet the dog on the head," and different intonation for, "The yellow cat is my pet." Have the students repeat the sentences using the same intonation after you. This is silly, but the processing done by the brain when the various words are spoken in different voices adds stimulus that helps trigger memory. An alternative method for this is to sing the sentences.

Books that repeat a word in rhyme also helps reinforce meaning. In teaching words with multiple meanings, have students read books such as The Dove Dove by Marvin Turbin or Live Lions Live on Land by Carey Molter. Repeated reading of these books will assist students in meaning making of the vocabulary.

Teaching Context

As students mature, finding meaning in the context of a story is a strategy that they can develop with practice. An excellent way of helping them learn to use context when unraveling the meaning of a word with multiple definitions is to have them read a story in which words they know are presented differently. Science and history texts lend themselves excellently to this task.

Discuss the words that students will find in the text they will read. For instance, if you have chosen a story about the Great San Francisco Earthquake, list the words fault, crack, table, force, but do not tell the students what they will be reading, yet. Have students fill in the definition they know for each word prior to reading the story about the earthquake.

Explain to students that by looking at the entire text and the clues around the words they might not understand, they can usually guess the definitions. Have them read the story and underline the words from their vocabulary list. After they have read the story, ask them to list the second definition for each word, i.e., Fault, 1. responsibility for mistake; 2. crack in the Earth's crust.


Bat - the tool
Bat - the animal
Bat - the action


Younger students do well with flashcards when learning multiple meanings of words. For instance, a picture of a bat (the animal), a baseball bat and a bat hitting a ball will help students understand the various meanings. There are online sites that have free downloadable pictures flashcards, an invaluable resource for busy teachers. (See "Resources" below for link.)

Of course, this is also a repetitive activity, as the students will look at the pictures more than once. Modify this by making multiple sets of cards so that the students (in pairs) can play a matching game. When they turn over a set of matching pictures, they have to use the word represented in the picture correctly in a sentence. If they don't use the word correctly, the other student can try to make a sentence. If they are successful, they get the cards; if not, then the cards are turned back over.

When teaching multiple meanings, reading strategies that are fun and engaging will aid students in developing the skills and understanding they need to distinguish the meaning of the words.

References and Resources


  • Delta Education: Strategy Guide, Regents of the University of California, 2010, https://www.delta-education.com/downloads/samples_seeds/1327044.pdf
  • Changing Minds: Repetition Principle, 2011, https://changingminds.org/principles/repetition.htm
  • Some content from author's own experience.

Photo Credit:


  • ESL Flashcards: Free Flashcards and Printables, 2011, https://www.eslflashcards.com/
  • Scholastic: Super Match Game, 2011, https://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/adventure/grammar5.htm