50 Shades of Meaning

50 Shades of Meaning


Vocabulary growth among language learners is foundational to reading development and higher academic achievement. As Beck, Mckeown, and Kucan (2002) state in Bringing Words to Life: “a large and rich vocabulary is the hallmark of an educated person” and “vocabulary knowledge is related to reading proficiency and in particular and school achievement in general” (p. 1). Growing Tier 1 and 2 vocabulary word knowledge and usage should be one of the highest priorities for ESL teachers at all levels.

The multifarious approaches to vocabulary development have ebbed between list memory, contextual inferencing work and other instructional tools. What remains clear, however, is that ESL (and all) learners need frequent exposure and rich instruction to learn not just meanings but deeper knowledge about words and their shades of meaning. I will offer some successful researched-backed approaches that I have attempted in my teaching of adult advanced and intermediate learners over the past several years.

Some preliminaries. First, my premise is that some explicit vocabulary instruction is integrated into instructional routines. Explicit means direct instruction; class time devoted to focused word study. In my setting, I choose 15 – 25 key academic words and idioms from a chapter in the class text book. I hand out a word list and focus on these words for the next 2-3 weeks of class. Second, I attempt to bring broad 8-10 exposures to the words through simple activities like charades, dictation, song lyrics or board activities. Third, I try to offer deeper focus on multi- definitional words which are “enlarged, sharpened, and quickened” and students learn “exact shades of meaning” (Garner, 2023, p. 50). Robust instruction is not just definitional, but drills into subtler semantic features and different meanings of words (Graves, August, Mancilla-Martinez 2013).


Here are examples of richer word instruction for the word conflict. Originally, it was defined in its noun form as ‘a serious disagreement or argument.’ Then we completed these in-class activities:

1. Various parts of speech and semantic meanings. The students match example sentences containing the word conflict with the corresponding definition choices:

A.  (Idiom) a conflict between the private interests and the official responsibilities of a person in a position of trust

B.  (Adj) experiencing or marked by ambivalence or a conflict of emotions.

C.  (N) a fight, battle or war

D.  (N) the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction

E.  (Adj) being in conflict, collision, or opposition


The conflict in Ukraine has lasted 11 months.

The novel’s major conflict was between the professor and a student.

He was so conflicted in mind that he could not decide.

The witnesses at the accident scene had conflicting perspectives.

The judge excused a juror who had a conflict of interest.   

2. Probing short answer (oral or written) questions like:

  • Can you give an example when you experienced great conflict in a decision.
  • Can leaders govern well when there is a conflict of interest? Why/why not?
  • Can interpersonal conflicts lead to relational growth? How?
  • Can religions with conflicting beliefs get along? How?

3. Continuum Graph. Students complete a continuum graph with statements like:

4. Synonyms. Another practice might look at synonyms of conflict by correctly placing the words in cloze sentences:

squabbled         clash          dissension          friction      quarrel

  • The two countries had a good friendship, but there was _______________________ about carbon emission regulations.
  • The 14-year-old and his mother first ____________________ lightly about vaping, but then it turned into an open ____________________.
  • The sand paper uses ____________________ to smooth wood.
  • The two boxers will ____________________ in an epic battle at the coliseum.


The goal is exposure, reflection, and practices that go beyond definitional information to get students actively involved in word meanings and creating numerous associations among words (Beck, Mckeown, and Kucan, 2002).  These are only a few possible ideas; countless words can be used and students can have fun as they become word detectives drilling down on words. Learners are cognitively stretched as they grapple with the multitudinous shades of meaning and, hopefully, this can be transferred out of the classroom and into real-life, vocational and other higher-learner environments.


Amer, A. A. (2002). Advanced vocabulary instruction in EFL.  The Internet TESL Journal, 7(11),


Beck I, McKeown M., & M. Kucan, L (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction.       

     Guilford Press.

Garner, B. (2023, May 23). How children once learned to write. National Review, 75(10), 50.

Graves, M., August, D. & Mancilla-Martinez J. (2013). Teaching vocabulary to English language

     learners. Teachers College Press.

Kelly, K (2022). The “just in time” evidence-based reading instruction (EBRI)Series: Parts 1, 2,

3, & 4. ATLAS Newsletter.


Stephen Hunt, ESL Instructor AOIE - Adult Options in Education