Lesson Plans

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Branching Out With the U.S. Government

Lesson Question:

How can students use the Visual Thesaurus and other online tools to differentiate between the three branches of U.S. government and learn the duties — and limits — of each?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students will use their previous knowledge and social studies vocabulary to determine what each branch of government does. They will then investigate each branch in order to sort words and finally, write a short summary of the branches' role in governing the country.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • understand the concept of branches of government
  • study root and related words to define legislative, executive, and judicial
  • use the Visual Thesaurus to identify meanings of words specific to each branch
  • synthesize their understanding of what each branch does in order to write a summary of its duties and how it checks and balances the other two


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  •  "Sorting Out the Three Branches of U.S. Government" sheets (one per student) [click here to download]



Introducing the concept of governing:

  • Present students with the following multiple choice question to answer individually in their notes:

To govern is to...
a.      rule
b.      create order
c.      make free
d.      vote

  • Elicit votes for each of the four multiple choice options.
  • On a white board, display the Visual Thesaurus word map for govern and reveal  its meanings (by scrolling over the green meaning bubbles) — establishing that multiple choice options a and are both correct. To govern is to use power to make rules that ensure order, as needed by society. Point out that though voting is part of the process through which laws are created and upheld, voting itself is not the same as governing.


Determining how the United States governs its people:

  • Now that students have learned what govern means, explain to students that adding the suffix –ment changes the meaning to "a system in which a community is governed."
  • Point out that in the United States, the federal and state governments have three branches. Have students name them if they can and share what they know about each.

Using the Visual Thesaurus to identify and define the three branches of U.S. Government:

  • On the white board, look up "U. S. Government" and click on its red meaning bubble to reveal the three branches: judicial, executive, and legislative.

  • Display the official White House Web page's overviews of the three branches, having students articulate how each description echoes the word map they just explored.

Applying understanding of the three branches of government:

  • Distribute copies of the "Sorting Out the Branches of U.S. Government" handout, giving students time to complete it independently.
  • Encourage students to use the Visual Thesaurus and other online sources (e.g., the White House Web Site) to help them figure out the relationship between each word on the handout and one of more of the government branches.


Writing and sharing descriptive paragraphs:

  • Have students write paragraphs that describe each government branch's responsibilities and duties.
  • Choose three students to orally share their paragraphs with the class.
  • Discuss how each branch of government checks and balances the other two.

Extending the Lesson:

  • Interested students could choose one or more branches of the federal government, or their state's, to research. This might include agencies within the branch, the measures they are currently working on, names of the people who hold office or work there and their daily duties. They might start with USA.gov's pages on the Judicial, Executive, and Legislative branches. Or have them visit your state government's official Web page.
  • Have students explore the etymologies of the three branch names (legislative, executive, and judicial). What other contemporary English words are derived from those same roots. How do these words' roots relate to their present roles in the government?


  • Assess students' completed " Sorting Out the Branches of U.S. Government " sheets to see if they demonstrate understanding of the functions of each branch.
  • Assess students' paragraphs to check that they understand what the names mean and how they apply to what the branch does.

Educational Standards


Standard 4. Understands the concept of a constitution, the various purposes that constitutions serve, and the conditions that contribute to the establishment and maintenance of constitutional government

Level III (Grades 6-8)
4.  Knows some basic uses of constitutions (e.g., to set forth the purposes of government, to describe the way a government is organized and how power is allocated, to define the relationship between a people and their government)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
2.  Understands how constitutions set forth the structure of government, give the government power, and establish the relationship between the people and their government

3.  Understands how constitutions may limit government's power in order to protect individual rights and promote the common good

Language Arts

Standard 1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Level III (Grades 6-8)
6.  Writes expository compositions (e.g., states a thesis or purpose; presents information that reflects knowledge about the topic of the report; organizes and presents information in a logical manner, including an introduction and conclusion; uses own words to develop ideas; uses common expository structures and features, such as compare-contrast or problem-solution)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
7.  Writes expository compositions (e.g., synthesizes and organizes information from first- and second-hand sources, including books, magazines, computer data banks, and the community; uses a variety of techniques to develop the main idea [names, describes, or differentiates parts; compares or contrasts; uses cause-and-effect reasoning; examines the history of a subject; cites an anecdote to provide an example; illustrates through a scenario; provides interesting facts about the subject]; distinguishes relative importance of facts, data, and ideas; uses domain-specific vocabulary, such as appropriate technical terms and notations; provides concluding statement that articulates implications or significance of the topic)

Standard 7. Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of informational texts

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Reads a variety of informational texts (e.g., electronic texts; textbooks; biographical sketches; directions; essays; primary source historical documents, including letters and diaries; print media, including editorials, news stories, periodicals, and magazines; consumer, workplace, and public documents, including catalogs, technical directions, procedures, and bus routes)   
3. Summarizes and paraphrases information in texts (e.g., arranges information in chronological or sequential order; conveys main ideas, critical details, and underlying meaning; uses own words or quoted materials; preserves author's perspective and voice)  
Level IV (Grades 9-12)
1. Reads a variety of informational texts (e.g., textbooks, biographical sketches, letters, diaries, directions, procedures, magazines, essays, primary source historical documents, editorials, news stories, periodicals, catalogs, job-related materials, schedules, speeches, memoranda, public documents, maps)  
3. Summarizes and paraphrases complex, implicit hierarchic structures in informational texts (e.g., the introduction and development of central ideas, the relationships among concepts and details)
5. Uses text features and elements to support inferences and generalizations about information (e.g., vocabulary, language use, expository structure, format, arguments and evidence, omissions or ambiguities)

See also the Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy (PDF, pages 29, 53, and 55)

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