What is a Word Web? and Why it’s a Brilliant Way to Teach Vocabulary

Blog cover photo what is a word web? and why it's a brilliant way to teach vocabulary.

What is a Word Web? At first glance you might think that a word web is a simple way for students to record the definition and related words to a specific focus word. Although this thought would be correct, I’m here to tell you that a word web used correctly can be so much more than that. It’s not necessarily the word web itself that is going to significantly expand students’ knowledge of the focus word, it’s more of HOW you use the word web in your classroom that matters. A word web is also often referred to as a vocabulary word map. A word web/word map is the first turn on the cross country road trip that ends with students’ deep knowledge of the focus word.

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By 2022 you’ve probably heard folks say that choosing an arbitrary word list and having students look up the definition, write a connected sentence and memorize it isn’t the best way to teach new vocabulary words. It won’t take long to figure out that these exercises don’t increase students’ reading, writing and conversational language. 

But, that’s how I was taught new vocabulary words in school, weren’t you? That being said, I remember ZERO words that were on those arbitrary word lists. If anything, I remember getting frustrated trying to memorize the definitions of words I had never seen before and probably would never use in conversation. These weren’t even words from books we were reading as a class, they were just copied out of a textbook that my teacher was told she had to use in her classroom. We call this the “assign, define and test” strategy.

Ditch the "Assign, Define & Test" way of teaching vocabulary. Focus on providing students opportunities to use new vocabulary in conversation.
Develop a word conscious classroom by giving kids the chance to use new vocabulary in conversation every single day!
A quote by vocabulary educator guru Janet Allen about how knowing how to teacher vocabulary is very difficult.
Teaching vocabulary is challenging! Let’s dig into the research to see what works.

So, if that doesn’t work, what does? In the words of my favorite vocabulary guru Janet Allen, “Knowing what didn’t work was easy. Finding and reading the research to word knowledge was also not very difficult. Knowing how to implement that research in effective, interesting ways turned out to be the hard part.” 

The HOW is where most teachers I know get stuck. If the only strategy you know how to implement in your classroom isn’t an effective one, where can you find one that is? Don’t worry my friends, I’ve got you every step of the way.

Before we get too far down the road of non-“assign, define and test” vocabulary teaching strategies, I want to make something crystal clear. I create and share a LOT of vocabulary worksheets. To be exact, almost every post on this blog points you to a resource to take your vocabulary teaching to the next level. And 75% of those resources are worksheets. 

So, one would think this worksheet model would be the “define” section of the “assign, define and test” strategy we are trying to stay clear of. But, I am here to scream from the rooftops that this is so far from the truth. It is HOW you use the worksheet that matters most.

⭐️ Today, you are going to learn that it’s not actually the word web that works magic, it’s HOW you use the word web that makes your magical spell truly stick.

3 examples of vocabulary word webs.
Word webs/maps are the perfect way to introduce a new word in your classroom!

Whether you’ve read every post on my blog, or this is your first, you will quickly learn that I believe the special ingredient for teaching vocabulary is to provide students with multiple opportunities to TALK about words. When they’re not talking ABOUT words they should be talking WITH the new words we’ve just learned. 

I primarily create, share and use vocabulary worksheets in my classroom as conversation starters. I rarely ask students to complete a worksheet themed around a vocabulary word and then never have them go back to it again. These worksheets/resources/note taking sheets (whatever you want to call them!) act as a place to stop and jot thoughts before joining a small group or classroom conversation. My students travel to morning meeting, small groups and reading circles with their vocabulary notebooks, note taking worksheets and personal word lists. 

The words I teach become members of our classroom. We hang them on the word wall, we use them in conversation, we practice and play with them at home, we incorporate them into our projects, we share them with our friends from other classes… I could go on all day. 

⭐️ To truly create a classroom that fosters a love of words you have to LOVE these words yourself. If you’re not in love, put your best acting face on, and get in love quickly. You need to act like these words are the best thing since sliced bread.

Photo of students working on a vocabulary activity together. To show that the words I teach become members of our classroom.
Teaching vocabulary is so much more than having students look up words in the dictionary!

So, all of this to say that the way I use a word web/word map for vocabulary instruction is far different than how you may have seen it implemented in the past. I use it as an avenue for introducing a new word, sparking conversation and helping students connect the focus word to words/concepts they already know.

What is a word web?

A word web/word map is a style of graphic organizer that is themed around one focus vocabulary word. The focus word usually goes in the middle or on the top and other related words, phrases, examples and meanings radiate out from it. This helps students to explore the meaning of the word in depth and make connections to other words or phrases they may already know. Some common areas on a word web are: definition, synonyms, antonyms, examples, non-examples, origin, stems and part of speech.

💻 If you’re looking to incorporate technology into your vocabulary lesson, encourage students to explore the focus word on a digital word web site. Learn more in my blog post, Say Hello to the Virtual Word Web!

How can you easily implement word webs/word maps in your classroom?

As a class, we learn a new word every week, to kick off this word learning, we fill out a word web together. I have students grab a clipboard and gather on the rug. We huddle up as if we’re about to learn a top secret football play that no one else can know about. I make sure to get very excited about the new focus word of the week. I then pass out the word web/word map sheet. I use this to spark a conversation about related words we already know and examples of when and where the focus word may show up in real life situations. I project this word web onto the board, and all together we take notes and make connections.

Word web examples to show how word webs can help students make connections to words they already know.
Use word webs during your whole class lessons, not just as independent work.

Another way to use the word web is as a pre-teaching/warm-up tool before you introduce the new focus word. Before your lesson, you could ask students to use a dictionary, thesaurus or digital word web generators to help them fill in their word web graphic organizer. This can be done with a partner or independently. Then, you could come back together as a class to discuss their findings, and to make sure everyone has the correct understanding of the word and synonyms that relate. 

Whether you’re using the word web during your lesson or before, the most important thing is that you’re leading a conversation about the new focus word. I will never stop saying it, getting students to TALK about words is how you get vocabulary words to stick!

Example of Vocabulary Word Map

An example of a word web/word map filled in for the focus word "glacier"
There are many styles of word webs/word maps. You can adjust the items students are asked to fill in depending on the theme of the focus word.

Depending on the word theme of the month (character trait, social studies vocabulary, etc.), I mix up what aspects of the focus word that the web is asking students to identify. Sometimes we only focus on the definition, synonyms and antonyms. Other times, I want them to share when they would hear this word, who would say it and what type of emotions go with this word. 

It’s not rocket science which word web I use when. Before I decide, I try to fill it out myself. If I’m not successful, students won’t be either. Words will quickly lend themselves to one style of word web versus another. If you have trouble filling out the first style of word web for the word of the week, try style 2, style 3, etc. 

⭐️ Word webs are simple to create, but even simple things take time. Since your teacher time is so precious, I’ve created 7 Vocabulary Word Web Graphic Organizer Templates that require zero prep and are adaptable for any type of focus word. Whether you’re teaching science vocabulary words, or just a handful of rich words from your read aloud text, there is a word web in this pack that will work for you!

Time Management Pro Tip

As I’ve shared many times in past blog posts, I choose one word a week for our classroom vocabulary lessons. Do the math, this equals 4-5 words a month. Each month I choose a theme, whether it’s a whole month of character trait words or words related to our social studies unit, etc.

Slow and steady wins the race here folks. It really doesn’t matter what words you choose, just make sure they are relevant to your classroom and students lives. If they are words kids will never come across again, they are less likely to use them in conversation, thus less likely to remember them.

A teacher at the copy machine preparing his vocabulary resources for the entire month.
Work smarter, not harder to prepare a whole month of vocabulary lessons!

Don’t forget, it’s all about depth of knowledge of quality words, not memorizing a large quantity of random ones!

⏰ To save yourself time each week, at the beginning of the month, choose your 4-5 focus words for the next few weeks. To help students develop a routine, use the SAME vocabulary activities each week for all 4-5 weeks. Once you choose the words and activities, prepare your resources in bulk. For me, that means making 4-5 vocabulary activity/worksheet packets for each student. Just like that, you have a whole month of focus words, lessons and activities! Learn more about my 5 favorite vocabulary activities, here!

Classroom Management Pro Tip

Example of a word study/vocabulary folder and notebook to help keep students organized.
Organization is one major way to help make your classroom less chaotic. Have students keep a separate folder for each subject area, so they always know where their notes are!

As you start to teach 4-5 words per month the worksheets/note taking sheets you have students use will add up fast. Come up with a way to keep all of these activities organized, whether it’s in a word study/vocabulary folder, or in an interactive notebook.

Make sure to model how kids can refer back to their folder/notebook when they can’t remember the meaning of a past focus word. This notebook/folder will act as an archive of all of the words you’ve taught this year. 

Of course, now that you know all of the secrets to effective vocabulary teaching, you’re going to be teaching a LOT of words 😉. So, develop a routine of cleaning out students’ vocabulary folders every so often. I suggest every 3 months or so. Make sure they keep 1 artifact from each focus word, like the word web! This way no words are left behind!

❤️ Remember, it’s more about HOW you use the word web than which word web you choose. Use these as conversation starters and let it flow! All in all, the purpose of any vocabulary activity should have the end goal of getting students to use these words in conversation. That is the special ingredient for getting vocabulary words to stick!

I invite you to comment at the very bottom of this post with your success stories themed around using word webs in your classroom, or please share any other tips and tricks for building a word learning routine.

I look forward to continuing to share low investment, high return ways to spice up your vocabulary lessons. Until next time, make today meaningful, friends 💕 .

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Learn more about Vocabulary Word Webs/Word Maps in these related articles!

Published by Liz Siracusa (Vocabulicious)

* Elementary Educator * Instructional Literacy Coach * Vocabulary Lover * The history behind Vocabulicious is simple - I love to help students growth their vocabulary, and I want to help YOU make your classroom a word conscious environment. I’m excited to share all of the vocabulary activities I have had success with throughout the years, plus great mentor texts to use for interactive read alouds. I live in Burlington, Vermont and enjoy hiking, biking and running!

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