Skip to content

Strategies To Build Your Learner’s Ability To Understand Semantic Structures

How To Build Your Learner’s Ability To Understand Semantic Structures

A key objective of semantics is to explore how we understand word meanings and use them appropriately either in individual words or in phrases, sentences, and longer linguistic units. Semantic skills allow us to:

  • understand signifiers
  • recognize and name categories or semantic fields
  • understand and use descriptive words (including adjectives and other lexical items)
  • understand the function of objects
  • recognize words from their definition
  • classify words
  • understand vocabulary notions

At a more advanced level, semantic skills enable us to perceive semantic inconsistencies, for example, polysemous words with multiple meanings or metaphors. Semantic skills are essential for understanding the world around us and developing the ability to express ourselves in a concise and meaningful way.

Some children face major difficulties across the entire spectrum of semantic skills while others have difficulty in more specific areas, such as understanding how words are grouped in semantic fields or providing word definitions. In other cases, children may have acquired a considerable number of words but have difficulty in finding the right word when they speak and cannot express themselves accurately about a subject they know well. A typical example is children that struggle to find the right words when they speak. These children usually end up producing circumlocutory speech, without being able to effectively convey their intended message.

Very frequently, children who face motor coordination disorders, such as children with apraxia, may also experience deficits in the semantic organization of their language as well as in syntax.

Semantic development  signifies the process by means of which we acquire words, their meanings and the links between them. Throughout this process we constantly form and revise strategies to acquire the meaning of individual words, draw links between them and eventually create a semantic network that is constantly reorganized, thus continuously modifying our internal representation of language.


Children with semantic deficits may face the following difficulties:

  • Difficulty in following spoken instructions
  • Use of a very limited vocabulary to express themselves
  • Difficulty in understanding the links between words, for example, recognizing words that belong to the same category and synonyms
  • Difficulty in understanding phrases that use figurative language
  • Difficulty in following discussions and participating in them
  • Difficulty in retrieving vocabulary
  • Difficulty in sharing spontaneous thoughts as they interact with other people


  • Point out and discuss new words as you read together

Make comments and ask questions to draw your learner’s attention to a new lexical item or a new concept, as you read together.

For example, when you read a book and encounter the word ‘sailing boat’, a helpful step is to prompt your learner to look at the picture of this boat by saying: “This type of boat is called a sailing boat.”

Then, you can encourage your learner to discuss the word further, by saying things like: “Look at this sailing boat! How is it different from other boats?”

  • Point out and discuss new and interesting words throughout the day

Make comments and ask questions about the things you see or the people and the situations you face during common activities such as driving somewhere by car, watching TV or looking at billboards.

Board games with words that can be broken down in their constituent parts such as Scrabble are another great way to introduce new vocabulary.

  • Choose and read books on a specific subject

Choose and read books on a specific subject (for example, one day at the beach or a visit to the zoo) to expose your learner to a wide variety of words on a specific topic. This will allow them to categorize words as themes in their mental lexical network and enable them to comprehend, learn and remember the new words more effectively.

  • Play a synonym game

Play a synonym game where you say a word such as “big” and then take turns with your learner saying words that have similar meanings such as “large”, “huge” and so on.

If your learner cannot find a synonym for a particular word, use this as an opportunity to teach them a new word. You can play the same word game with antonyms (words that are opposite in meaning), by saying a word such as “big” and asking your learner to say a word that has an opposite meaning.

  • Build a semantic map

Help your learner to build a semantic map using a large piece of cardboard paper. A semantic map is a graphical “map” showing the connections between words that are related to a specific theme or concept, such as:

Things you did in the summer

Things you can see on a farm

Things that make someone a powerful superhero

There are several ways to create a semantic map depending on your learner’s ability level and interests. For example, you can draw a box or circle with the main topic in the center of your cardboard paper and then draw lines branching off the main topic. At the end of each line you can add words or pictures. The child may draw their pictures, glue pictures from a magazine or choose stickers that depict each word they have thought of.

Make sure you store the map in a place where you can have it handy whenever you want to. This way you will be able to refer back to it and add more words or review the existing words with your learner, as time goes by.

  • Play the “Simon Says” game

The classic “Simon Says” game can be used in several ways to practice understanding and following instructions while exposing your learner to a wealth of new words in a fun way! Depending on your learner’s ability level, you can provide them with instructions that become progressively more challenging and familiarize them with prepositional phrases. For example: “Simon says, put the ball under the chair behind the table.”

"PICTURE CARDS | Semantic Toolkit: Tackle WH-Questions" is a wonderfully practical pack of Picture Card activities features all you need to get started with clear learning goals and strengthen your learners’ WH-question comprehension skills while boosting their semantic awareness of everyday lexical items!

Alice Kassotaki - Speech Language Pathologist MSc, BSc

copyright Upbility 2022


Suggested articles for parents: 

More Articles on 

Mental Health Therapists Material

Special Needs Teachers

Free Poster Download  "Stop Telling Children To Be Careful"

Suggested e Books on child Psychology 

Social Skills e book:

Previous article Empathy in autism: Breaking the stereotypes