There is a fascinating book by Jean Aitchison titled Words in the Mind An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon. If you’re at all fascinated by linguistics as I am, I would recommend picking up a copy. I read the book in grad school and have recently picked it up again to research the concept of word webs.
The book digs into the question of how words are stored and retrieved in someone’s mind. Although it’s impossible to know 100% exactly how words are stored and accessed, the research does show some fascinating things that help us get a picture of what the mental lexicon might look like.
Unlike in our created external lexicons (dictionaries), words are not stored in our minds in alphabetical order. Aitchison states “Perhaps we should imagine [words] as linked together in a gigantic multi-dimensional cobweb, in which every item is attached to scores of others” (99). In other words, the mental lexicon might be conceptualized as some kind of cobweb like network that links words together. The idea of semantic field is also important when imagining our mental lexicon. The research suggests that words are connected to other related words. Aitchison says “…clusters of words relating to the same topic are stored together” (100).
Aitchison also pointed out that within these webs, “various types of relationships exist” (112). The main relationships she notes are 1. Coordination, 2. Collocation, 3. Superordination, and 4. Synonymy. Coordinates can be described as “words which cluster together on the same level of detail such as salt and pepper, butterfly and moth…” This category also includes opposites. A superordinate describes a word that is the cover term for other words. For example, there is the word color that is the cover term for words such as red, blue, green, etc.
Word Webs In The Classroom
Using word webs in class can be a great way to give students a visual of a particular vocabulary word and the words closely associated with it as it might be stored in ones mind. It’s a great way to help students expand their vocabulary. I’ve been using them in my class this semester with a lot of success. It’s also a very adaptable classroom practice that can be used in many different ways. Check out these ideas.
The basic idea of a word web is a word with associated words linked to it, as the example below shows.
Recently I taught my students color coding so we can add to the detail of word knowledge we put on our word webs. I introduced this idea by putting a color-coded word web on the board and asking them to discuss what they thought the colors meant. I helped them a bit with the idea of collocations, but they’ve easily picked up the color coding. Can you guess what my code is based on this word web?
In my class, we use green for synonyms and similar words, red for antonyms, and blue for collocations. By using color coding, our word webs become more complex and students can learn more about a word from them. I gave my students the following websites to help them find the various connections.
- Synonyms and Antonyms (green and red connections): http://www.thesaurus.com/
- Collocations (blue connections) http://www.freecollocation.com/
Various Ways to Use Word Webs in Your Class
Concept Preview: This is a great way to preview a topic or idea and build schema on it. Put students into groups and then give them 3-4 minutes to work together to make a word web for a particular word. You can have them do this on the board or on paper depending on your class size and the size of your whiteboard. Ask them to write as many connections as they can think of. The nice thing about this activity is that students will be able to share knowledge and learn from each other since they all have different ideas to contribute to the word web. After the allotted time, have each group look at the other groups’ word webs. If they don’t understand any of the other groups’ connections, encourage them to ask.
I used this activity before we talked about the idea of writing a paragraph. It brought up a lot of great ideas and connections that I was able to reference during our following discussion about paragraphs.
Key Vocabulary: At times, I also create word webs to help me explain challenging vocabulary words to students and to explain prompts. For example, I often have students do quick writes at the beginning of class, and I’ve started including a word web on the board along with the quick write question to explain a keyword from the prompt.
Word Web Cloze: Once students are familiar with the idea of using and making word webs, you can also use them as a form of vocabulary assessment. Create word webs for a few vocabulary words, but don’t include the center word, and have students put each word in the correct word web. You could use this template to write a vocabulary quiz.
Semester-Long or Assignment-Long Semantic Network Web: This is a collaborative class activity that lasts through multiple classes or the entire semester. The purpose of this activity is to help students develop their vocabulary related to a particular topic or theme that you are working on in class. Students can then reference the class’s word web as confusions arise or when they forget a particular word. It creates a great visual aid for students to see the key vocabulary from class and the words connected with those words as well as potential connections between vocabulary words.
For this activity, you’ll need to place several large poster papers on the classroom wall. These will stay on the wall during the duration of the course. Before and/or after doing a reading or any other activity that has new vocabulary that you want students to learn, give students a few minutes to add new words to the poster and research and add connections to the vocabulary words. You’ll end up with a collection of tiny word webs.
Let students know to write small as they would on lined paper to save space. If any connections can be made between the smaller word webs, encourage them to draw lines to indicate the connections. I also add to word web to help grow my students’ vocabulary. The blue line for collocations is one that is more difficult for students because they just don’t know them yet. I often go through and add collocations, so when my students are looking at the web, they start to make the collocation connections in their mind.
You can also use the class’s word web as vocabulary homework by telling the students to pick ___# of words from the web to research at home and come to class ready to add more connections to. Each class period the class’s shared vocabulary will grow and become more detailed. Another type of homework assignment that could come out of this is to ask the students to pick one of the tiny word webs and snap a picture of it or copy it into their notebook. Then assign them a task to do with each of the words on the web. For example, you could ask them to write a sentence for each of the words, look up and write down a definition for each of the words, research more connections and come to class ready to add to the word web, ask them to expand the word web by researching connections for each of the words surrounding the center word, and you could even use it as a place to pull vocabulary for a vocabulary quiz.
Character Web: This is a great way to integrate vocabulary development with a study of characters in a story or book being read in class. Instead of starting the word web with a specific vocabulary word in the middle, start the web with the name of one of the characters and then branch out from there. I think this works best when students are working in groups because then it also turns into a discussion activity because they will be talking about the characters and sharing their thoughts and impressions of them.
One way to set up this activity is to put students into groups and assign each group a character. Once they create their character web, have them present it to the class. Another way to do this would be to write the character’s names on the whiteboards or on poster papers around the classroom. Have each group start by one poster, but rotate them every few minutes to a new character.
What they come up with is a detailed visual representation of each character. See the two character webs my class created. They clearly capture each character, and it’s then easy to see the similarities and differences between them.
Character Quiz: You could also adapt this idea for a character quiz. Use the word web cloze handout linked above. Instead of asking students to put a word in the center, you could ask them to write the name of the character who should fit in each web. Alternatively, you could write the character’s name and ask them to create a web for him/her.
Do you have similar routines in your class? Share your ideas in the comment box below. Subscribe to TESOL Planner to get notified about new content.