What’s a Mole Have to Do with the White House? How to Handle Polysemous Words in the Classroom

A mole is a very different concept depending on whether you’re sitting in social studies or science class: are you referring to a spy in the White House or the small burrowing mammal? Regardless, both meanings are related (they both go under the radar) and can cause confusion for students, particularly English language learners. Here’s what to watch out for in the vocabulary of your content area.

Words like “mole” are referred to as polysemous words because they have multiple, yet related, meanings. Polysemy is distinct from homonymy: in the latter, a word’s multiple meanings are unrelated, e.g., left (past tense of leave) and left (opposite of right).

From a teaching perspective, polysemous words can be especially tricky across disciplines since words often shift slightly in meaning. These semantic shifts may be easy for adults with a strong foundation in the English language to grasp, but the same is not always true for students.

To take a quick look at some potential trouble spots, let’s consider the following examples. In math class, a plot is a way to graphically represent a data set, but in English class, it’s the main story of a piece of literature, and in geography, it’s a measured area of land. Or how about a foot which is both the physical appendage you walk on and a unit of measurement? Or the table where you eat lunch versus the multiplication table you have to memorize?

As you’re introducing new concepts and subject-specific vocabulary, don’t forget to check in with your students, especially ELLs, to make sure they understand meanings in context. Of course, it’s impossible to account for all possible meanings of classroom vocabulary, but making a conscious effort to review and clarify polysemous words in your content area will go a long way toward making sure you and your students are on the same page.