Lexical Ambiguity

Did you know....?

The use of a specialized vocabulary with a novice in a domain creates a "mystique" about the subject (Lemke, 1990). Furthermore, the use of specialized language that is unfamiliar to the student portrays the subject as more difficult than it is, a subject that can only be mastered by geniuses.

People connect what they hear to what they have heard and experienced in the past (Lemke, 1990; Konold, 1995) so if a commonly used English word is used differently by a technical domain, the students hearing the word for the first time in class may incorporate the technical usage as a new facet of the features of the word they already know.

Domain-specific words that are similar to commonly used English words but have different meanings in statistics are said to have lexical ambiguity (Barwell, 2005).

Lexical ambiguity and the acquisition of a linguistic register associated with a field has been shown to create problems for learners in science (Garvin-Doxas & Klymkowsky, 2008; Lemke, 1990), mathematics (Durkin & Shire, 1991b; Shultz & Pilon, 1973), and statistics (Kaplan et al., 2009, 2014; Lesser et al., 2009, 2013; Makar & Confrey, 2005).

There are some easy ways to address lexical ambiguity in the classroom . Instructors can

  1. preempt difficulties by careful use of language in their teaching (Albert, 2003; Lesser et al., 2009; Rangecroft, 2002).
  2. be aware of students’ everyday use of lexically ambiguous words and address the differences in meaning explicitly in the classroom (Lavy & Mashiach-Eizenberg, 2009: Rangecroft, 2002), through the use of multiples modes and representations (Lesser et al., 2009, 2013) and by exploiting the differences between the uses (Adams et al., 2005).
  3. help students to build their voices in the technical domain (Adams et al., 2005, Durkin & Shire, 1991a, Lemke, 1990), through vocabulary activities and writing assignments (Adams et al., 2005; Durkin & Shire, 1991a; Lesser et al., 2009, 2013).

Some words that have been shown to be lexically ambiguous are random, spread, association, independence, normal, average, and bias.

HILT Activities for Lexically Ambiguous Words