Receiving and Transmitting Meaning [09-01-2023]

In this blog entry we explore the form and function of the written word and its relationship to meaning. Language is a framework through which the combination of phonemic utterances and abstract symbols (in the case of written script) combine to convey meaning  to a collective consciousness familiar with its patterns and rhythmic structure. This is true of every linguistic system.  I can already hear questions formulating within the minds of my linguistic friends – what of languages with no written form? If the language in reference, either ancient or modern, remains in circulation or is still accessible, this is due to its historic preservation – suggesting an attempt has been made to document and transcribe it. Long term preservation is only possible through transcription of the language (his-story).  That said, the farther away in terms of time or geo/socio proximity the receiver is, the less precise the meaning may be ascertained.  This will be discussed in greater detail further on.

The second question to arise may be that of – if language consists of abstract symbols (sounds, gestures, letters, strokes and or pictorial images) -how is meaning conveyed?  Actually, before answering this question directly I’d like to point out that the question in fact gives us necessary justification for formal language instruction (first language, second language or foreign language) to include a systematic introduction to the awareness of phonemic, phonetic, syllabic and grammatic patterns inherent within the target language. Meaning takes two forms: that generated as a result of common beliefs (dictionary worthy) and that filtered through the personal perspective of the individual recipient (experienced). Both are often simultaneously in play, though the first more pragmatic form is that which is most commonly taught to second and foreign language learners of the language.  The following quote represents an analogy worth considering.

“Word meanings are like stretchy pullovers, whose outline contour is visible, but whose detailed shape varies with use” (Aitchison, 1997, p 65).

Once communicated to a larger audience, a word’s pragmatic meaning is generally understood by the collective consciousness that encounter it.  However, this broad understanding is transmuted through both the processes of transmission and reception (aka the writer and reader respectively).  There are of course limitations to the meaning that can be conveyed by a single word, for this is enhanced in its relationship to other words positioned within the context of a sentence.

The perspective of the writer and his/her state of mind at the time of idea creation will color the meaning of the word(s). This is especially evident in expressive written genres such as poetry or the literary narrative, in which the writer’s snapshot of the moment is communicated to an unknown readership. The reader’s interpretation of the meaning will similarly be filtered through his/her perspective and state of mind at the moment of reading. For example, reading as a requirement and reading for personal enrichment represent a dichotomy of perspective which could significantly impact the overall meaning of the text for the reader. Thus in formulating written communication the writer has a greater onus for word selection to ensure clarity of meaning is conveyed. In the case of a dialogue, those participating in the discussion have the opportunity to question and clarify in the moment – an opportunity not accessible to a reader.

It has always intrigued me that second language and foreign language classrooms encourage the unnatural accumulation of vocabulary lists, often through memorization, as separate from ideation within a sentence. My reference to the ‘unnatural’ is the amount of time spent focusing on spelling and dictation, as opposed to sentence formation.

Effective strategies for enhancing vocabulary within the language classroom

It goes without saying that any of the strategies below are more effective when built upon an existing foundation of phonemic, phonetic and syllabic awareness, as this instructional stage should never be skipped over just because it is abstract. The following activities, games and tasks can be valuable in enriching student vocabulary through an experiential approach not only within language classes but all subject areas:

1) Activies for Primary Classrooms

Earlier critique was not meant to suggest that teachers forgo the introduction of weekly vocabulary lists altogether, but rather create means for students to engage more actively with the vocabulary as this is the key to nurturing autonomy and enhancing meaning.  Students can be asked to create sentences / stories that enable them to understand the word(s) and how they may be able to use it. It is best if the sentence creation process is individual to each student, as this will ensure a deeper learning experience. As a second stage of development, students can work together in small groups either creating stories or dramatic role-plays that encompass all of the words.

Here are a few websites that provide resource ideas:

  • (HERE): teachers will find worksheet tasks, lesson plans and games that may be adapted for grade/subject level appropriateness.
  • (HERE): the blog and free resources published on this site can assist teachers and parents with introducing vocabulary relevant to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)
  • Destination Imagination (HERE)
Activities for Secondary Classrooms

Based on the good habits established within the primary level curriculum that foster student autonomy and self-regulation, secondary students do not necessarily require lists of vocabulary to focus on – as this process will emerge naturally when engaging in interesting content. If concerns or questions arise around the suggestion to remove prescribed lists – I ask the reader to consider his/her own tertiary experience. In fact introduction to new vocabulary occurs throughout life to the degree that one explores any discipline in a deeper way. It becomes natural to seek for greater clarity and meaning, so one uses the tools and methods they have acquired though their educational journey.

Here are a few websites that provide resource ideas:

  • (HERE): presents a list of valuable game resources for the secondary learner to engage in that focus on sustainability issues
  • (HERE): offers engaging ideas for introducing valuable concepts such as financial literacy…
  • The Critical Thinking Workbook (HERE)

I am confident many of the readers here have resources and strategies they use in nurturing students to better understand idea creation and interpretation when engaging with written communication, which I hope are shared.

Any comments or reflections based on your own strategies for enhancing meaning are most welcome!

The next update will be published on 1 October 2023!

Stay blessed,

L. Malungu

Aitchison, J. (1996). The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words – The 1996 BBC Reith Lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139164085

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