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Semantic Gradients

Semantic gradients are a way to broaden and deepen students' understanding of related words. Students consider a continuum of words by order of degree. Semantic gradients often begin with antonyms, or opposites, at each end of the continuum. This strategy helps students distinguish between shades of meaning. By enhancing their vocabulary, students can be more precise and imaginative in their writing.

Why use semantic gradients?

  • Helps broaden and deepen students' understanding of related words
  • Helps students distinguish between shades of meaning
  • Enhances students' vocabulary, which can help them be more precise and imaginative in their writing

How to use semantic gradients

  1. Select a pair of polar opposite words.
  2. Generate at least five synonyms for each of the opposite words.
  3. Arrange the words in a way that makes a bridge from one opposite word to the other. Continuums can be done horizontal or vertical, in a ladder-like fashion.
  4. Have students discuss their rationale for placing certain words in certain locations. Encourage a conversation about the subtle differences among the words.

OR

  1. Select a specific vocabulary word, e.g., large.
  2. Using a book you've read, a unit of study, or different writing samples, create a list of semantically similar words. The teacher can develop the list, or work collaboratively with students to generate a list. It may work best to think of your target word as being in the center of your continuum.
  3. Arrange the words in a way that illustrates an understanding of each word's meaning. Continuums can be done horizontal or vertical, in a ladder like fashion.
  4. Have students discuss their rationale for placing certain words in certain locations. Encourage a conversation about the subtle differences among the words.

Download this semantic gradients handout, with examples of topics or themes and words that relate to that topic.

When to use: Before reading During reading After reading
How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

Watch semantic gradients in action

Go inside Cathy Doyle's second grade classroom in Evanston, Illinois to observe how her students use this strategy to talk about the nuanced differences in the meaning of related words. A recent class read-aloud, The Seed Is Sleepy, is the springboard for a lively discussion about words that describe the relative size of things (for example, massive vs. gigantic, tiny vs. microscopic). Joanne Meier, our research director, introduces the strategy and describes how semantic gradients help kids become stronger readers and more descriptive writers.

Examples

Language Arts

This website includes lots of information about semantic gradients, including a demonstration of the steps involved in creating the continuum of words.

The lesson Solving Word Meanings: Engaging Strategies for Vocabulary Development provides 6th, 7th- and 8th-grade students with the opportunity to practice using context clues that are purposefully manipulated. Context clues are then combined with semantic gradients, requiring students to both select and generate related words along continuums.

Science and Social Studies

Teachers in grades K-3 can review their curriculum to see if there are word opposites that might lend themselves to semantic gradient word. For example, density of various rocks might work on a hard/soft continuum. Perhaps other content lends itself to considering a gigantic/tiny or hot/cold scale.

Differentiated instruction

for second language learners, students of varying reading skill, and for younger learners

  • Depending on student skill level, have them work in small groups or pairs. This activity encourages lots of instructional conversations about words, so carefully plan your small groups or pairings.
  • Teachers can provide the anchor words for the ends of the continuum. Another option is to let the anchor words develop from the student conversation.
  • Teachers can ask students to develop their own list of words based on something they've recently read or worked on.
  • Students could draw an illustration for each word on the continuum, or write a sentence that uses each word correctly.

See the research that supports this strategy

Greenwood, S.C., & Flanigan, K. (2007, November). Overlapping Vocabulary and Comprehension: Context Clues Complement Semantic Gradients. The Reading Teacher, 61(3), 249-254.

Stahl, S.A., & Nagy, W.E. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Children's books to use with this strategy

Exactly the Opposite

Exactly the Opposite

Crisp color photographs in this wordless book connect concepts defined in the titles. Another great picture book by Tana Hoban is Is It Rough? Is It Smooth? Is It Shiny?. Both are sure to generate rich language as each picture is examined and described multiple times. [May also be used for building observational skills in science.]

Fancy Nancy's Favorite Fancy Words: From Accessories to Zany

Fancy Nancy's Favorite Fancy Words: From Accessories to Zany

The stylish child whose love of words has become the basis of a series of books shares her love of words in this alphabetically arranged picture book glossary. Humorous illustrations are sure to generate additional words to describe Nancy's fancy, chic, attractive world.

Lemons Are Not Red

Lemons Are Not Red

This seemingly simple color concept book presents a series of statements followed by straightforward answers. The paired objects are related but broad ranging (from lemon to the moon) and so could easily generate additional words to describe both object and appearance.

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?

Clear, textured illustrations of animals and their special parts (e.g., tail, nose) focus readers on the special function of each. Not only is it likely to generate a description of the appendage but its function (what it does), and of the animal and its environment. Other books by Steve Jenkins, such as Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, may also generate rich descriptive language.

Bring on the Birds

Bring on the Birds

Stunning yet accurate illustrations accompany a gently rhyming, rhythmic text to introduce the behavior of a variety of birds. Brief information about the birds shown encourages young readers to want to learn more about these handsome creatures.

How Are You Peeling? Foods With Moods

How Are You Peeling? Foods With Moods

Who would have thought that fruits and vegetables could express a cornucopia of emotions? The expressive produce are labeled with the fellings they are showing. Readers of all ages can identify with this clever book and will gain the words to use when presented with stressful situations.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943