Teachers: How To Use Semantic Mapping To Increase Vocabulary

Discover how semantic mapping can help your students to have a deeper understanding of everyday vocabulary while adding new words and concepts.

Semantic mapping is a strategy that can be used in all disciplines to demonstrate the relationships between ideas. When teaching vocabulary explicitly, it can be used as a tool for students to discover the relationships between vocabulary words. As semantic mapping builds on prior knowledge, and is an active form of learning, it can be a very effective teaching tool.

For example, perhaps you would like students to fully grasp the meaning of the word "oyster." (The choice of word will depend on grade level, as might be expected.) While most students will have a vague notion of what an oyster is, unless they encounter them regularly in their lives, the image associated with that word will remain vague, and will ultimately affect reading comprehension when they read passages containing that word. Sometimes, their ideas may be influenced by the media, and may be quite narrow. Semantic mapping will broaden the students' personal meaning of the word, and teach other concepts surrounding it, as well as additional vocabulary in many cases.

You will model how to do semantic mapping with the entire class, using the word, and then have the class create their own maps, either by branching off of the original concept, or using related ones.

Put the word "oyster" in a circle in the middle of the board. Ask students to brainstorm and think of the ideas that come to their head when they think of the word "oyster." Students may come up with words such as pearl, shell, ocean, sand, eat, stew, slimy, hard, gray, etc. Write these words on the board, and then show students how to categorize them. Branching off from the original circle, write the main categories surrounding the word. You may want to put a square around them. Categories for oyster could be habitat, food source, and physical characteristics. So, you will have the words habitat, food source and physical characteristics in little boxes surrounding the circled word, oyster. Then you will list the words associated with each main category. For example, under the square that has the words "Physical Characteristics" in it, you will list shell, gray, hard, slimy, makes pearls. For "Habitat," you would list the words ocean, sand and so on. Complete this process for each category. You may have some words/concepts that only have two categories, while others may have eight or nine.

This activity gives you an excellent opportunity to discuss the word with the students. You will find that some students thought that oysters could not be eaten, or that pearls are made artificially. The exercise will broaden every student's understanding of the word "oyster." If you would like to ask the students to write about oysters, the semantic map is a great place to begin. Each category that they have made can serve as the basis for a paragraph, which can result in a very well organized essay.

To extend the semantic map-making process, and give students additional practice, you may want to divide students into pairs or groups and assign a word. You could assign a word that arose from the activity, such as pearls, or you could assign words related to the topic in general, such as sea turtle. In the process, students may find that some brainstormed words defy categorization. This is okay. They can still be offshoots of the semantic map, as not everything will fit into a category. Just make sure not to put these stray words into a square or structure in the map that would indicate that they are their own category if there are no other ideas to accompany them. Otherwise, you risk going off on tangents.

Semantic mapping is an excellent way to teach vocabulary across the disciplines. Oyster is a good word for science teachers teaching about the ocean to use, as well as for literature teachers who are about to embark on a story involving sea life. A social studies teacher might want to pick a word she wants to explore in depth, such as "war" or "Indian." Even older students will benefit from looking beyond the standard meaning of these words and into the deeper meaning. This will lend a greater depth of understanding to their reading and help to make them more thoughtful writers.

Semantic mapping is a good vehicle for students to share their work with the class, thus becoming the teachers themselves. Teaching a concept to others will increase student retention of information greatly. Be sure to discuss the ideas in the map at length. By discussing them as well as writing them down, you are catering to different learning styles, and ensuring that all students are increasing their knowledge of vocabulary. You will find that by using this technique, you will deepen students' knowledge and increase their reading comprehension.

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