Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

The Teaching and Learning of Multimeaning Words within a Metacognitively Based Curriculum

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

The Teaching and Learning of Multimeaning Words within a Metacognitively Based Curriculum

Article excerpt

THE STUDY explored the effects of an 8-week intervention in which a teacher/researcher used direct instruction to show the multiple meanings of 7 words to 4 deaf students ages 11-13 years in a school for the deaf. Applying conclusions from emerging research that links knowledge and strategy with metacognitive skills, the teacher/researcher used specific metacognitive strategies to facilitate both the acquisition of the concept of multimeaning words and the ability to distinguish one meaning from another while reading, and thus improved the students' reading comprehension. The study participants were able to increase their vocabulary of multimeaning words as well as their reading comprehension in general, and, overall, experienced an improvement in their observable understanding and confidence when approaching the task of reading.

Studies show that, on average, deaf students have a lower level of reading comprehension than their hearing peers (e.g., Qi & Mitchell, 2007). Multiple theories have been constructed to explain why (see the review in Trezek, Wang, & Paul, 2010). While there is no definitive explanation, many studies point to vocabulary deficiency as one of the answers. It has been proposed by many researchers that much of this vocabulary deficiency is related to the relatively limited access of deaf children to the multiple meanings of many high-frequency words (e.g., Paul &Gustafson, 1991).

Linguist John Taylor (2003) has argued that multimeaning - or polysémie - words pervade most everyday speech to the point where it is amazing that speakers understand the meanings of words at all. He uses the phrases a book on a table and a mirror on a wall to illustrate that the preposition on can be used and understood in a similar way even when what it conceptually describes is, in each instance, something different: The book is horizontally on the table, whereas the mirror is vertically on the wall. From this linguistic point of view, multimeaning words, while potentially perplexing to hearing readers, could pose an even greater predicament for deaf students trying to comprehend text that is written in a language in which they may not be fluent, such as English.

Most of the work on multimeaning words in relation to deaf education has been written by Peter Paul. Paul (1987) found that deaf students do indeed have difficulty with the notion that a word may have more than one meaning. While many studies have encouraged the teaching of context clues to deaf students as a means of enhancing their reading comprehension (e.g., Andrews & Mason, 1991; de Villiers & Pomerantz, 1992), Paul proposed that direct vocabulary instruction is sometimes necessary to ensure a higher level of understanding when one is reading. His approach to the teaching of multimeaning words in particular uses a three-step process to ensure that vocabulary instruction is not merely a rote memorization of words: (a) the activation of prior knowledge and general conceptual development of the words; (b) the implementation of appropriate activities in which the words feature in order to expand and reinforce the knowledge; and (c) the creation of opportunities for students to read old and new concepts in a variety of natural, meaningful contexts. Through the development of a conceptual framework for each meaning of high-frequency, problematic, multimeaning words, and subsequent integration and application of these words in a variety of activities and environments, it is believed that reading comprehension will increase.

Another important source for study of the relationship between multimeaning words and deaf education is research connected to metacognitive thinking in relation to educational practices and academic achievement. Kelly, Albertini, and Shannon (2001) not only provided a discussion of the problem of literacy in deafness, but also of the possibility that it is not just the strategies that are not working, but the approach. Kelly and colleagues looked at a sample of deaf college students at both higher and lower reading levels, and tested - in a variety of ways - the comprehension of a specific passage when read by the sample. The results showed that the deaf students often professed a better understanding of the passage than they were able to demonstrate. In testing the detection of an incongruent sentence in an otherwise coherent passage, Kelly and colleagues were able to assess whether the students were using self-evaluating skills to monitor their understanding of the text. The researchers concluded that most of the students, especially those at the lower reading levels, were not using such skills. A subsequent conclusion was that metacognitive skills needed to be taught to deaf students within a literary context. Manion and Alexander (1997) found that teaching metacognitive skills not only facilitated student learning within the specific classroom environment, but also helped students with continued use and long-term maintenance of specific information and strategies. While the strategies might be effective on their own, the use of metacognition would help the strategies work outside the classroom context.

It seemed to us, in thinking about the advancement of the work of Paul and his colleagues (Paul, 1987, 1996; Paul & Gustafson, 1991; Paul & O'Rourke, 1988), that metacognition would be the natural next step. While the three-step process for the teaching of multimeaning words is well formed in terms of classroombased instruction, we believed that the teaching of metacognitive skills in addition would further students' integration of both the concepts and the words themselves. So that we might test this supposition, five metacognitive strategies identified by Smith, Hynd, and Valeri-Gold (1990) were directly taught in the present study: making predictions, making a picture, relating what is in front of oneself to prior knowledge, verbalizing confusing points through self-monitoring, and employing self-correction. The criteria for selecting high-quality multimeaning words to be used in our research were found in a study designed for hearing students in grades 4-8 (Berwick, 1959), which suggested the elimination of all prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, personal pronouns, past participles, plurals, and proper names as possible multimeaning words. The explanation was that these words have connotations and nuances of meaning that are not discrete concepts. For this reason, the words chosen for the present study were words whose meanings have totally separate and discrete concepts. This would ensure that acquisition of the two meanings would occur without confusion, and that the meanings themselves would be sustainable.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the present study was to gauge the effects of a direct approach to multimeaning word instruction on four deaf students with limited language. The approach mirrored what had been laid out by Paul and colleagues (Paul, 1987, 1996; Paul & Gustafson, 1991; Paul & O'Rourke, 1988), and adhered to the development of metacognitive strategies suggested by Smith and colleagues (1990). The research was guided by the following question: What is the effect of direct, metacognitively based instruction in multimeaning words on students' ability to complete the tasks of (a) matching multimeaning words with their corresponding pictures and (b) reading sentences containing multimeaning words?



The present study was conducted in a state-run school for the deaf in an urban area in the northeastern United States. The school's communication philosophy was Simultaneous Communication (SimCom): Teachers were required to use voice and contact signing simultaneously. The school's main approach to methodology and pedagogy was cognitively based, which meant that the activation of schemata and the transference of knowledge played large roles in the classrooms. The intervention, conducted by the lead author, took place under the supervision of a cooperating teacher.


The four students who made up the class were all struggling readers who had been placed together in light of their severe language delays. The age range was 11-13 years. D was the only boy in the class. KR and K had both immigrated to the United States with their families within the preceding 3 years. KR's family did not speak English. D additionally had some mental retardation, and N had some medical conditions that required her to take a large dose of medication on a regular basis. Often, N was absent or very unfocused during instruction sessions. K had the best use of vocalization, which probably resulted from a higher level of residual hearing. Perhaps because of this, she was significantly faster at picking up concepts than the other three students and had a higher overall level of reading comprehension going into the present study. The cooperating teacher had never done any work with the study participants on multimeaning words.


The same instrument was used as a pretest and posttest in the present study. The instrument had two parts.

The first part was a two-section multiple-choice examination. Under each word were three or four pictures. The students were instructed to circle the picture (s) "connected" to the word. There were two correct pictures for each word, and 1 point was given for every picture that was circled that correctly connected to the word. The first section concerned the seven words the students would be learning (i.e., the target words): letter, sign, fly, fall, right, bat, and left. Five nontarget words were included in the second section so that we could see if the multimeaning concept transferred at the posttest: cold, show, wind, present, and like. Because there were seven words in the first section and two correct answers for each word, the highest possible score on the first section was 14. Because there were five words in the second section and two correct answers for each word, the highest possible score on the second section was 10. Therefore, the highest possible score overall was 24. The posttest items were identical to the items in the pretest, but were in a different order.

For the second part of the assessment, a video recording was made of each student reading and signing a series of 20 sentences. Among 15 of these sentences, each meaning of the seven target words was featured (e.g., The ABC letters are on the wall vs. Corduroy wrote a letter). In each of the other five sentences, a selected meaning of one of the nontarget words was featured (e.g., It is cold outside vs. / was sick with a cold). One point was given for every correctly read and signed multimeaning word in the sentence. The highest possible score was 20 points. Observation notes on the participants' behavior were made during the second part of the assessment. Additionally, the teacher/researcher wrote reflective notes on the progress of the class after each word had been introduced and studied.

Materials for the Intervention

Chart Paper on an Easel

Each new word to be explored would be already written on the top of a new page of chart paper with two or three lines coming out from its right side, like this,

indicating how many meanings the students would be thinking about.


Once the schemata had been developed for the meaning of the word, pictures would be placed next to the lines to represent the meanings.

Once the students had read the sentences, they would place smaller versions of the pictures next to the word on the chart paper at the end of the sentence they had read to show which meaning the word in that sentence connected to.

Sentence Strips on Colored Paper

The sentences the students read aloud had been written on different-colored strips of paper. This created a colorful and appealing visual display that the children really enjoyed.

Two Markers

One marker was used to underline the multimeaning word once it had been identified. The other marker was used to circle the words that helped the student know which meaning of the word was being featured.


Books were generally employed at the introduction of a word in order to develop schemata for all meanings. Books were also used to develop schemata before the students began reading a story featuring the multimeaning words.

Procedure for the Intervention

The intervention took place over an 8- week period; there were approximately three classroom sessions of 45 minutes each per week. The basic curriculum consisted of direct instruction on seven multimeaning words, with an increasing instructional emphasis on metacognitive strategies for recognizing multimeaning words and reading comprehension as the weeks progressed. As the students showed proficiency and ease in implementing strategies, more strategies would be introduced. For the purposes of the study, the intervention was segmented into four main stages:

1. Multimeaning word identification and discrimination. Cognitive strategy: making a picture in one's head.

2. Looking at the context. Metacognitive strategy: making a prediction.

3. Looking at all the words in the sentence. Cognitive strategy: identification of the words that helped the student know which multimeaning word was featured in a sentence.

4. Having the ability to answer the questions "How do you know that?" and "Where is the multimeaning word?" Metacognitive strategy: being able to show where one's basis for understanding lies.


Student N

During the first part of the pretest, in which the students were to circle all the pictures that connected to a particular word, student N circled two pictures for only one word, letter-, for all of the other words, she circled one picture. After the accuracy of the circled pictures was considered, N was given 6 points out of a total of 14 for the seven target words, and 5 points out of a total of 10 for the five nontarget words. In total, N got 11 points out of 24, for a 46% accuracy rate.

On the posttest, N obtained 100% accuracy with the target words, and 50% accuracy with the nontarget words, circling two pictures for every nontarget word but one, like (see Table 1). Her overall score on the posttest was 79%, an increase of 33 percentage points in her overall accuracy rate from pretest to posttest.

In Part 2 of the pretest, in which video recordings were made of students while they signed or read words, N signed the multimeaning words in the sentences with 40% accuracy. Of the 12 miscued words, 10 were the wrong sign/meaning choice, 1 was skipped completely, and 1 was an orthographic mistake in which the word right was signed night. On the posttest, she increased her overall accuracy to 60% (see Table 2). Of the 7 words that were miscued, 3 were nontarget words and the other 4 were the wrong sign or meaning choice among the target words. In a variation from the pretest, there was frequent apparent silent reading before signing of sentences during the posttest, and self-correction occurred twice.

Student D

For Part 1 of the pretest, student D circled two pictures for all but three words: left, cold, and present. Overall, D obtained accuracy for 50% of target words and 30% of nontarget words, for an overall accuracy rate of 42%. During the posttest, D circled two pictures for all the words and correctly identified all of but four of them, reaching 83% overall accuracy. The accuracy rate for target words was 100%, while the accuracy rate for nontarget words was 60%. Overall, D nearly doubled her accuracy rate from the pretest to the posttest, improving it by 41 percentage points (see Table 1).

On Part 2 of the pretest, D signed the multimeaning words with 45% accuracy. Of the 11 miscued words, 9 were incorrect sign/meaning choices and 2 were orthographic miscues for other words. D dropped to 40% accuracy in Part 2 of the posttest (See Table 2). Of the 12 words that were miscued, 5 were incorrect sign/meaning choices, one was skipped, and 6 were nontarget words. Observable behaviors included continued omissions of words, but with considerably less fingers pellings, and frequently taking time to read a sentence silently before signing it.

Student K

On Part 1 of the pretest, student K circled two pictures for every word. However, 29% of the target words and 60% of the nontarget words were identified correctly, for an overall accuracy rate of 42%. K had 100% accuracy with the target words during the posttest, while the accuracy rate for the nontarget words dropped to 40%. The result was a 75% overall accuracy rate, which was still 33 percentage points higher than her pretest rate (see Table 1).

On Part 2 of the pretest, K had a 30% accuracy rate. Of the 14 miscued words, 13 were fingerspelled. K significantly improved her accuracy rate on the posttest, to 75% (see Table 2). Of the 5 miscued words, 4 were nontarget words and 1 was an orthographic mistake. Observable behavior changes included rare use of fingers pellings, frequent smiling, a general look of extreme confidence, frequent sUent reading of the sentence before signing, and two self-corrections.

Student KR

During Part 1 of the pretest, KR circled no pictures for the words sign, wind, show, and present; circled one picture for the words bat, fall, like, and cold; circled two pictures for the words fly and right; and circled three pictures for the word left. Fifty percent of the target words and 10% of the nontarget words were correct, for an overall accuracy rate of 33%. On the posttest, KR circled two pictures for all of the words except two nontarget words, left and wind. She was 100% accurate with the target words, and her accuracy rate with the nontarget words also increased, to 70% (see Table 1). KR improved her overall accuracy rate 55 percentage points over the intervention period, to 88%.

For Part 2 of the pretest, KR correctly signed 9 of the multimeaning words, or 45%. Of the 11 miscued words, 2 were skipped completely, 2 were fingerspelled, and the other 7 were incorrect sign/meaning choices. KR improved her accuracy to 75% on the posttest (see Table 2). Of the 5 miscued words (25%) on the posttest, 3 were nontarget words. Observable behavior changes included reading the sentence silently before signing it in every case, signing the sentences with extreme speed and accuracy in most cases, and a general look of tremendous confidence.


The results suggested that the intervention was successful in three areas:

1. The illumination of 7 multimeaning words and their various meanings: All participants obtained 100% accuracy with the target words in Part 1 of the posttest.

2. The transfer of the concept of a multimeaning word in reading from the teacher to the students: Although the accuracy rate varied, aU participants circled two pictures for at least 8 of the 12 words on Part 1 of the posttest and one student circled two pictures in all cases, which showed that the students transferred the knowledge from the words that they knew were multimeaning words to the unknown words, which they assumed were also multimeaning words.

3. The facilitation of the use of metacognitive strategies during reading, such as making a picture, making a prediction, and self-correcting: The participants increased their scores by an average of 22.5 percentage points from pretest to posttest in Part 2 of the assessment, and observable behavior changes such as self-correction and reading ahead silently before signing sentences were evident in all cases.


The present study examined the teaching of specific multimeaning words and the discrimination of these words and their meanings through instruction in metacognitive strategies for reading comprehension. Over the course of 8 weeks, four deaf students were able to increase their multimeaning word vocabulary as well as their reading comprehension in general, with an overall increase in observable understanding and confidence when approaching reading. The results of this study and further research in this area can be used to facilitate the augmentation of reading comprehension skills in deaf students of all ages and abilities.



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