Literacy strategies: semantic spotlighting

Despite a carefully planned lesson and a range of engaging reading strategies, your students are still struggling to understand the text you’re reading together. Sometimes it will become clear that your choice of texts maybe wasn’t the best, but most of the time, you just need a way in.

Helping learners to find that way in to text can be a challenge for teachers. This literacy strategy, semantic spotlighting, requires learners to isolate vocabulary in order to better understand it and then categorise it in terms of its semantic links. It sounds complicated but it’s really rather straightforward. Here’s how to use it using the wonderful ‘Millions’ as an example:

Instruct your pupils about what type of words to look for

In this example, students must identify nouns in the text. (Not all are circled here.)

Ask them to categorise the vocabulary into groups

Essentially what they are doing here is identifying the semantic fields. You may have to provide categories for weaker pupils but students should at least be encouraged to independently categorise the vocabulary at first. The categories that students could create are limitless, but try to encourage students to justify their choices. For example, the extract above may generate categories such as crime, wealth or life.

Ask questions about the categories

By asking very specific questions about the vocabulary, you are encouraging students to delve more deeply in to the text. This process should crystallise students’ understanding of the whole text. Questions such as:

  • Which categories are positive, which are negative?
  • How do the words in category X make you feel? What do they remind you of?
  • Why do you think the writer chose these words?
  • Is there a relationship between the different categories?
  • What’s your favourite word and why?
  • What do you think the writer wants you to think/feel at this moment?
  • Which semantic field best helps you to understand the text and why?

Once you’ve modelled this process with the class, asks groups of students to interrogate each other’s choices.

Next steps

You may wish for your students to do a small piece of writing to consolidate their ideas. This technique is particularly useful for improving language analysis. I used this strategy recently with a KS4 class in order to scaffold some writing about the semantic fields in poetry and it turned quite an abstract concept into an idea that they could analyse with confidence.

Alternatively, you could look at the words that students have pulled out from the text in more depth. Try playing some of these vocabulary games with the harder words; it’s a sure fire way of making them stick!

Whatever you choose, be mindful of the fact that this strategy is intended to improve reading comprehension and increase students’ interest, so diving in to the reading is often the best choice.

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