Proficient readers use semantic maps to link between words and concepts.
Semantic maps are diagrams that feature words, or words and pictures. Sometimes known as "graphic organizers," these maps show the links between a new word and a set of related words or concepts.
Learning to create and use these maps will help many students increase their vocabulary by helping them recognize words and their meanings, addressing the Common Core Standards in Knowledge of Language and Vocabulary Acquisition and Use strands. Most importantly, the maps will help your students recall the meanings of words as they read the text. As you differentiate instruction, some students may prefer linear representations of the semantic maps, so you will want to provide options for each map you share with students. Offering choices and multiple representations aligns with UDL principles.
See the Slide Show Introduction to Semantic Mapping
Semantic mapping can help learners build rich word and concept understanding by building on prior knowledge.
When planning to use this strategy, consider the variability of the learners and how the principles of UDL, differentiated instruction, and technology can support them in understanding and creating maps displaying word relationships.
Give students a clear understanding of how semantic mapping can help improve their reading skills. After you demonstrate this strategy, have students explain it in their own words and show how they would use it to meet their needs.
1. After explaining the purpose of semantic mapping, hand out, post, or display the directions for creating a semantic map.
Example of directions for creating a semantic map
- Pick a word you don’t know from a text you are reading and mark the word.
- Use a blank map or begin to draw a map or web.
- Place the word you don’t know in the center.
- Pronounce the word.
- Read the text around the word to see if there are related words you can add to the map.
- Look up the word using an online dictionary or online thesaurus to find definitions.
- Find words and phrases that fit with the meaning. Pick pictures (from the web, from a magazine) or draw pictures that fit with the meaning.
- Add these words, phrases, or images to the map.
- If working online, print out the map.
- Read the text again, applying the meaning of the word to the text.
- Share and compare the map with classmates.
2. Show how online tools such as Inspiration, Visual Thesaurus, or Lexipedia can help with word and concept mapping. [See UDL Checkpoint 5.1: Use multiple media for communication.]
3. Ask students to explain what semantic mapping is in their own words to help them articulate the strategy.
Strategies and models are guides for successful strategy performance. As you model the process of building semantic maps, consider the multiple teaching strategies you can use to ensure your students become proficient.
1. As you model how to create a map, use a "think-aloud" approach to talk through each of the steps you are taking and why. Choose a simple map format for your first few demos. Pick synonyms and antonyms that students know well, and use brief explanations to describe words.
2. Provide students with examples and templates of semantic maps drawn from various sources.
Possible resources for providing students with examples and templates for semantic maps
- Create your own varied templates saved online for students to access
- Find videos on YouTube and TeacherTube using the search terms “graphic organizers for words,” thinking maps, mind maps, bubble maps, and concept maps
- Do a Google image search using the term,”graphic organizer”
3. Create an incomplete or poor example of semantic mapping and work with the class to revise and improve this “non-example.” Have the class talk through the qualities of a really good semantic map. Ask the students to use these qualities as their class-generated rubric.
Create varied opportunities for learners to practice and receive feedback from you and their peers. Ongoing practice and feedback in a range of contexts supports skill growth for all learners.
1. Provide a display with examples of semantic maps in the classroom on a class website, or in a print or online portfolio for students to use as examples when they practice. Post the class-created semantic map rubric in varied formats (on the board, on bookmarks, on the class blog, etc.) to facilitate student access.
2. Encourage students to create semantic maps online and offline using pictures, illustrations, and graphics, along with written words.
Give students lots of chances to practice making and using semantic maps in different settings and with words from many texts, recognizing that their needs and abilities may differ.
As you design activities to help your students practice semantic mapping, consider the following questions
- When will you choose, and when will your students choose, the words to put in the center of the semantic map?
- Who will work on the semantic map—the whole class, a small group, or students working individually?
- Which online and Web-based tools are available and which will be most helpful? Examples of online tools include Inspiration or the features in Microsoft Word.
- What kinds of support will your students need? Will you create templates?
- How will your students share and discuss their semantic maps? Should there be space for display in the classroom? Can there be an online portfolio?
Mr. Green's Grade 5 class will begin a social studies unit on the early American presidents the following week. As an American history buff himself, Mr. Green loves to read biographies. He wants his students to understand the personality of each president and how it may have impacted the president’s political career. By carrying out this kind inquiry, students would not only be learning about the men who shaped our country’s history, but at the same time would be engaged in vocabulary development.
Vocabulary development is an important goal for Mr. Green’s class because he has several children who have learning disabilities. Although they can sound out words when reading, they do not always recognize or remember the meanings. In addition, for six other students, English is a second language. These students need many context-rich opportunities to expand their vocabularies for reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Before the unit officially begins, Mr. Green plans a lesson to reintroduce the use of semantic maps (also called semantic or graphic organizers). He wants to demonstrate how using this strategy can support vocabulary development. The lesson involves his modeling the strategy, followed by an opportunity for the students to practice. It culminates in the class creating a glossary to be made available on the class website.
Goals: Mr. Green is focusing on the following Grade 5 Common Core State Standards for Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 5 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.5c: Use the relationship between particular words (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, homographs) to better understand each of the words.
Technology Tools: Mr. Green will rely heavily on his interactive whiteboard. Students will be using their tablets. They will use drawing and graphic software programs such as Inspiration to capture and organize vocabulary words. For this lesson, Mr. Green will direct students to a specific website, “Abraham Lincoln’s Personality” (the Lincoln Institute). The class will also access online dictionaries. He is going to try to have students use an application that allows them to record their definitions.
Assessment: Mr. Green will assess two work products developed by the students: (1) the semantic maps they produce and (2) the glossaries they create (in terms of number of words and appropriateness of definitions).
Mr. Green sets the context for the lesson by describe the upcoming unit on early American presidents. He goes into detail by providing information about the how, what, and why of the unit. He invites questions to clarify expectations for the students. Since the students know about his interest in the presidents, he motivates students by sharing a little-known fact about Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. Going a bit further, Mr. Green talks about how studying the presidents will give students a chance not only to learn about the personalities and characteristics of presidents but also to expand their vocabulary.
He explains that in today’s lesson, they will be using semantic maps (also called semantic or graphic organizers) to learn about Abraham Lincoln and to develop a glossary of relevant words. This is not the first time students will be using semantic maps. He reminds them how they previously used this tool to build their comprehension skills.
To elicit prior knowledge, he reviews three different types, using a chart displayed on his interactive whiteboard.
Students discuss how each might be used to build vocabulary based on what they know about using the strategy to build comprehension.
- Johnny: We used the web for comprehension by putting a concept in the middle and then expanding upon it. For vocabulary, we could put the name of the president in the middle, and then put adjectives around it to show his characteristics.
- Sue: For the Venn diagram, you could use words that were antonyms or synonyms as a way to describe the president during different times in his life.
- Sal: A timeline shows the sequence of events. You could add action verbs to each part of the timeline.
Mr. Green then opens a webpage that describes Abraham Lincoln’s personality as described in the book, Mr. Lincoln's Personality, by Richard J. Behn.
"In temper he was Earnest, yet controlled, frank, yet sufficiently guarded, patient, yet energetic, forgiving, yet just to himself; generous yet firm," wrote J. T. Duryea of the U.S. Christian Commission, which met frequently with President Abraham Lincoln. "His conscience was the strongest element of his nature. His affections were tender & warm. His whole nature was simple and sincere—he was pure, and then was himself."
Then Mr. Green opens a blank semantic map (which he previously prepared) with the title “Mr. Lincoln’s Personality.” He invites students to raise their hands to suggest words from the paragraph to fill in the bubbles of the web.
It was then important for Mr. Green to have students definite each word using their own words. One by one, students shared their definitions orally. If they needed help, he reminded them to check their definition against an online dictionary.
Wanting to capture these definitions, Mr. Green opens a template he has prepared to create a class glossary, President Lincoln Personality Glossary. He adds the words from the web. For each word, he records the word and the definition in the glossary for everyone to see. One of the students asks about where the glossary will reside. Mr. Green explains that he will save it on the class website. “In fact,” he adds, “you will later add your entries so we have a good-sized glossary.”
Mr. Green wants students to continue practicing using semantic maps to expand their vocabularies using the same webpage because it contains so much detailed information. He asks students to skim the page to locate the different headings in bold. Each heading identifies a key characteristic of Lincoln’s personality. As students call out the headings, he lists these on his interactive whiteboard.
Key Characteristics of Lincoln’s Personality
- Lincoln was honest
- Lincoln was charitable
- Lincoln was resilient
- Lincoln was instinctively cautious
He then divides the class into seven groups, each with three students. Each group is assigned one of the key characteristics. Mr. Green explains the first part of the task, which is also displayed on his whiteboard.
- Read the section you are assigned silently to yourself on your tablet. If you need help, use your headphones to have the text read aloud to you.
- When everyone is finished, discuss the text as a group.
- Look up any unknown words and share definitions.
- Find and highlight/underline words that describe Lincoln’s personality.
- Create a web of the relevant descriptive words.
- Add your own names at the top of the page with the date.
Each group then passes its web to another group, rotating the webs around the room so that everyone has a chance to see all of the webs.
Mr. Green encourages students to discuss the meaning of words. If students do not know the meaning of a particular word, then Mr. Green suggests that they ask another student for help. This gives everyone a chance to talk about the words and use them in context.
Mr. Green then explains that students will work on the class glossary. Back in their assigned groups, each group selects three words for the glossary. One student acts as the recorder, using the student’s tablet. Mr. Green clearly explains that a glossary entry must contain (1) the definition (based on the online definition) and (2) a sentence using the word that shows its meaning. In addition to text, students are encouraged to add images or graphics and to record their voices.
Mr. Green moves around the room to check on the work of each group. He assesses the glossary entries using the two stated criteria. As needed, he gives the group feedback so that they can improve their work. The next day, one by one each group’s recorder adds the group’s words to the class glossary on the interactive whiteboard, making sure that the words appear in alphabetical order. Mr. Green posts the completed glossary on the class website.
Mr. Green keeps a blog as a way to reflect on lessons and plan new approaches. After today’s lesson, he writes, "This introductory lesson worked even better than I imagined. The students were engaged, becoming even more interested as they became excited about Lincoln’s personality.” He writes that having students work together to focus on just one element of Lincoln’s personality worked well. He notes that later that day, he overheard students using some of their new vocabulary to talk about their favorite TV characters. He thought that the class glossary, a new technique, was working well, although time management came into play. He liked using the same strategy—semantic mapping—for both comprehension and vocabulary. Students were not confused, but rather the familiarity helped them see how productive a strategy could be for different facets of reading.
Of course, Mr. Green did not overlook weaknesses in the lesson. He recognized that some of the groupings were not ideal. He also wanted to find more technologies that could pronounce words for students and encourage recording. Since many students liked adding images to their definitions, he wanted to think about how to integrate more use of images into his teaching.
- Adolescent Literacy: What's Technology Got to Do With It? Resource Type: Info Brief/Article Category: Reading-Vocabulary Learn how technology tools can support struggling students and those with learning disabilities to acquire background knowledge and vocabulary, improve their reading comprehension, and increase their motivation for learning.
- Literacy iPad Apps for Educators Resource Type: Info Brief/Article Category: Writing A list of literacy apps for elementary, middle, and high school grades. Both free apps and apps with minimal fees.
- Teaching Word Meanings as Concepts Resource Type: Info Brief/Article Category: Reading-Vocabulary This article discusses specific techniques that have proven successful in teaching word meanings as concepts. “Concept of Definition Maps”, “Semantic Mapping”, “Semantic Feature Mapping”, “Possible Sentences”, “Comparing and Contrasting”, and “Teaching Word Parts” are explored and explained.
- Internalization of Vocabulary Through the Use of a Word Map Resource Type: Lesson Plan Category: Reading-Vocabulary This ReadWriteThink Lesson Plan utilizes word maps to strengthen vocabulary acquisition and critical thinking skills.
- Apthorp, H. S., (2006). Effects of a supplemental vocabulary program in third-grade reading/language arts Resource Type: Research Category: Reading-Vocabulary The study examined the effectiveness of Elements of Reading: Vocabulary on improving the vocabulary outcome of third-grade students. The year-long intervention utilized a randomized controlled trial to assign teachers in Title I schools to treatment and control conditions. Teachers in the treatment condition taught Elements of Reading (EOR) which utilized explicit vocabulary instructional strategies such as semantic mapping and context clues along with other effective vocabulary development elements (e.g., oral instruction, personalization and active engagement, ample practice). Journal of Educational Research, 100(2), 67-79.
- Bos, C. S., & Anders, P. L., (1990). Effects of interactive vocabulary instruction on the vocabulary learning and reading comprehension of junior-high learning disabled students Resource Type: Research Category: Reading-Vocabulary The study examined the effectiveness of interactive strategies, including semantic mapping, semantic feature analysis, and semantic/syntactic feature analysis, against definition instruction. Students were grouped into four intervention conditions: semantic mapping, semantic feature analysis, semantic/syntactic feature analysis, or definition instruction. Learning Disability Quarterly, 13(1), 31-42
- Phillips, K. M., (2010). Using graphic organizers to improve at-risk students’ reading comprehension of expository text Resource Type: Research Category: Reading-Vocabulary The study employed a randomized controlled trial design to examine the effectiveness of using student-completed or researcher-completed graphic organizers on students’ comprehension of expository text. The intervention was given 30 minutes a day, three days a week for six weeks. For the intervention groups, the researcher provided graphic organizer frames adapted from the Framing Routine (Ellis, 1999) and content materials from the science and social studies text. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 70(8-A), 2955.
Technology Tips for Teaching Semantic Mapping
- Share drawing and graphic software programs, such as Kidspiration, with your students. These tools help students organize information, and also create a fun and motivating learning environment.
- Use your interactive whiteboard to model how to create a semantic map using a “think-aloud” approach and programs like Lexipedia.