Don’t Learn Vocabulary in Semantic Sets

It surprised me to hear that we should not teach vocabulary in semantic sets because it seems logical to class words according to groupings such as colors, fruits etc. But actually my own personal experience backs up the claim that the learner is likely to confuse the words. I still confuse ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ in Portuguese amarelo and vermelho, and maybe I wouldn’t if I had learned them separately, mastering ‘red’ first and then when it was concretized in my vocabulary, then I could have learned ‘yellow’.

Robb Scott, Editor, ESL MiniConference Online provided some information about this at

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Semantic sets according to his article are:

  • membership in a natural class (e.g., fruit names; addressed in the two studies and found to be confusing);
  • relationship of a class member with name of the class (e.g., apple & fruit);
  • similarity in spelling/pronunciation (particularly in the first few letters);
  • similarity in length;
  • belonging to a given object (e.g., keyboard, monitor, mouse, etc. belong to a computer);
  • having opposite meanings (e.g., long vs. short);
  • having largely overlapping meanings (e.g., lend, loan, rent, borrow; often confused in my experience);
  • belonging to the same category of words (e.g., nouns).

Instead of learning lists of semantic sets, it is recommended to learn by grouping new vocabulary around looser themes, such as going out to eat, planning a trip, or celebrating an anniversary.

Take care,

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Mary Ziller

I'm Mary Ziller. I tutor ESL at the IHM Lteracy Center in Philadelphia. I lived a year in Brazil where I became certified to teach English as a Foreign language.

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