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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 8 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT

The Ripple Effect
Word Meaning Expansion and its Application in Teaching Vocabulary
by Mu Fengying

When taking on a new class each academic year, I habitually ask my students what they expect to learn in my course. Vocabulary is among their numerous answers. One of the headaches of Chinese students in acquiring English vocabulary is the phenomenon of polysemy, words having more than one meaning. This feature cannot be effectively treated through translation or explanation. Translation attempts to provide an L1 equivalent but falls short in addressing a word's manifold meanings, collocations, and usages. It fosters the idea that there is a simple one-to-one relationship between the two languages when in reality, this is not the case. Explanation or paraphrasing can be clumsy, failing to make meaning explicit and understandable.

Theoretical assumptions

It is out of economy that polysemy exists in language. "By reusing words in patterns of repetition and combination, it is possible to get along with a number much smaller than the totality of meanings that we have to come up with in a lifetime" (Bolinger and Sears 1981:120).

Word meaning can be expanded by means of analogy and metaphor. Lakoff and Johnson argue that human beings think and talk metaphorically. They apply words and phrases to new concepts or objects to extend lexical meaning. Metaphor is a norm of communicating, not an exception (1980).

Figure 1
Sweetser sees word-meaning as frequently prototype-based with abstract domains of meaning deriving their vocabulary from the concrete rather than vice versa (1990:18). In simple words, a polysemous word usually has a core meaning and all the other meanings come from it by means of metaphor. I have observed that word-meaning expansion works like a ripple, which starts from a center and extends outward. The center or the core may denote a physical entity in the material world with a rather clear focus. Then it is extended to refer to other physical entities which it resembles. Finally, its meaning may be broadened to abstract ideas by metaphor.

Using the word leaf , its meaning expansion can be shown with a ripple diagram.

LEAF a usually green, thin, and flat piece of a plant attached to a stem

Figure 2
The core meaning of leaf is the thin and flat structure on the stem of a plant. From that comes the next layer of usage referring to anything that resembles a plant leaf, such as pages of a book, pieces of metal, or the folds of a table. From the meaning of a page of a book, it is extended to mean a period of a person's life, which is often recorded in a book. Hence, there are phrases like "turn over a new leaf," or "take a leaf out of somebody's book."

But the meanings of a word will often radiate from the center along several lines by focusing on different features of the original object. Accordingly, the diagram can be modified by the inclusion of spokes to indicate different meaning expansion routes. The following diagram more clearly indicates the link between the abstract and the concrete source.

LEAF : a thin and flat piece (of a plant)

Figure 3
The word 'foot' gives another illustration of the idea:

FOOT the lower part of a human leg that is in direct contact with the ground

Figure 4
From the diagram with spokes, we can see that the four expanded meaning areas of the word are related to the original core, but they have developed along different routes: One is based on location; another on length; another on function; and yet another on shape.

The simple drawing can aid understanding and memory supplementing a verbal explanation that may capture only the most salient meaning of the word.

Application in teaching

At the beginning, the teacher helps the students become aware of the following facts:

  • The majority of the English words have more than one meaning. (Let students glance through a few pages of a dictionary.)
  • The meanings of a word are often related. There is almost always a core meaning with all the other meanings coming from it. (Examine the meanings of one familiar word in a dictionary.)
  • Imagination and association are techniques to link the meanings together.

When explaining the last two points, the teacher introduces the three-layer diagram and works with the students in drawing detailed diagrams for a few words.

With words of different parts of speech, different treatment is called for. When illustrating the meanings of a noun, a simple drawing is helpful. Here is an example.

COVER: the thing laid over something to provide protection (e.g., a manhole cover)

Figure 5
To illustrate a verb, it is difficult to make use of drawings, but it is possible to use actions, which can serve the purpose as well.

PROBE: to search or examine the depth (of a wound)

Figure 6
TRIM: to make (a tree) neat by cutting or decorating

Meanings of an adjective can also be illustrated:

RED: of the color of blood

Figure 7
BRIGHT: sending off light/shining

Figure 8
Sometimes, because of differences in cultures and ways of perception, L2 learners have difficulty in understanding the meanings of a word. This happens most frequently with idiomatic expressions. Under such circumstances, the ripple diagram can link the original denotation and its metaphorical extension. Comprehension and retention will be made much easier for the learner.


DEVICE: a tool or piece of equipment

Figure 9
Without the diagram, it is hard to see the relationship between the original meaning of device and the meaning in the idiom. With the help of the diagram, we can see more clearly its relationship to the core meaning-it is like a drop splashed out from the main expansion route.

Diagramming can show the history or the culture or a word. For example, Chinese students find the word "doom" difficult to understand, because they are not familiar with the concept. The following diagram giving its etymology will help them remember its meanings and usages.

Figure 10
In actual teaching, diagramming can be made simpler. Once students are familiar with the concepts and the technique, the teacher only needs to activate their imagination by noting what the core meaning is and showing that the present meaning is either an inner or outer layer extension of the core.

This technique of vocabulary comprehension can be incorporated into different stages of reading: Before-reading to wipe out possible obstacles; while-reading to aid comprehension; after-reading to reinforce the words learned.

Students can also be instructed to work out diagrams of useful but difficult words individually (with the help of a dictionary) or in groups. In fulfilling such an exercise, students are forced to use available resources and to think for themselves. Research shows that mental activity has a powerful effect on memory. There is a tight relationship between "cognitive depth" and retention (Carter and McCarthy 1988:65).


From my teaching experience, I see several benefits in using the three-layer diagram in vocabulary teaching.

  1. It teaches students a powerful strategy in vocabulary comprehension, retention, and production. They learn how to make associations and to use their imaginations in the learning process.
  2. It gives the students an understanding of a word. The diagramming can illustrate not only many meanings of a word, but also the links between those meanings. With care in selection, it can also demonstrate collocations and idiomatic usage. Through the links provided in a diagram, students will more easily understand an abstract or alien concept.
  3. It is helpful in fostering target-culture awareness. Metaphorical thinking and language use are universal, but the actual associations are culture-specific. In diagramming the links between the meanings of a word, the teacher is also leading students to look at the world in the same way that native speakers do. This is especially true of collocations, set expressions, and idioms.

There isn't one best method to teach vocabulary. There are several helpful approaches one may use to acquire and enrich vocabulary, and the ripple diagram is surely one of them.

Mu Fengying teaches integrated skills to English majors at Xuzhou Teachers College in Jiangsu, China.



  • Bollinger, D. and D. A. Sears. 1981. Aspects of languages. 3rd. ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanvich, Inc.
  • Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. 1988. Vocabulary and language teaching. London: Longman.
  • Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Sweetser, E. E. 1990. From etymology to pragmatics: Metaphorical and cultural aspects of semantic structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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