Vocabulary Skills and Semantic Skills

We are all familiar with the term vocabulary and know that this refers to the words at our disposal. It is important to remember that this not only describes the words that we are able to use when talking and writing but also to the words that we understand. You might be familiar with the terms expressive vocabulary…the words that we use, and receptive vocabulary….the words that we understand. As a child’s language develops, so their vocabulary grows but they are able to understand many more words than they use in their own speech. This remains the case throughout our lives and even as adults our receptive vocabulary is bigger than our expressive vocabulary. We are able to understand many words that we have heard or read but may never have any reason to use ourselves.

Teachers are under considerable pressure to ensure that they teach children the words necessary to access curriculum topics. As speech and language therapists we are often asked how to support children with language difficulties to learn and retain new vocabulary. In order to learn new words we need to fully understand them and be able to store them efficiently. Semantics is the study of word meanings. When we talk about “semantic skills” we are referring to the ability to attribute meaning to words.

In order to do this we need to make links and associations between new words and words that we already have in our vocabulary store. Making these semantic links allows us to fully appreciate the meaning of words and to store them so that we can find them again when we need them.

Stephen Parsons and Anna Brannigan who have written an article for this issue of the Link are the authors of Word Aware. Their books are full of activities that teachers can use to encourage children to make semantic links. They also advise on how to select the vocabulary to teach and techniques for teaching it.

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