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Jump-Starting Research with the Visual Thesaurus

Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help identify effective keywords for search engine inquiries?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students will learn how to develop effective keywords for researching different topics using Internet search engines. Students will use the Visual Thesaurus in small groups to help them discover possible synonyms, hypernyms and hyponyms that can assist them in finding keywords that will produce the best search results for particular research topics.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • use the Visual Thesaurus to identify synonyms as a strategy for generating keywords
  • learn how hypernyms and hyponyms can assist in broadening or narrowing a research focus
  • critically analyze search engine inquiries using a variety of keyword combinations


  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • "Identifying Keywords for Search Inquiries" chart [click here to download]


Demonstrating an ineffective search:

  • Using a white board, demonstrate an ineffective search engine inquiry. For example, you could act as if you are trying to research how colonial settlers supported themselves in New Amsterdam by entering "jobs in New Amsterdam" into Google.
  • Point out that the first couple of resources that come up in Google are sites to help people find jobs in New Amsterdam, Wisconsin and in New Amsterdam, Indiana (as opposed to colonial New Amsterdam):


Revising keywords for a search inquiry, with the aid of VT:

  • Explain that selecting the right keywords is an essential search strategy that can save time and yield the most useful research sources. One way to find the best keywords is to use a thesaurus, such as the Visual Thesaurus, to consider synonyms of search words that have not yet led to useful research sources.
  • For example, display the Visual Thesaurus word map for "job" and then click on the first noun meaning in its meaning list "the principal activity in your life that you do to earn money. " Clicking on that meaning leads students to a host of alternative keywords (e.g. , occupation, profession and vocation).

Learning about hypernyms and hyponyms:

  • Explain that search engines automatically match the keywords that you enter with the words in the documents and sites that they have indexed. That's why if you search for "jobs in New Amsterdam," Google produces resources related to all "New Amsterdam's," in addition to the colonial one which you are researching.
  • In this case, it would be wise to search for a hypernym—or a more broad generic term that could apply to the New Amsterdam you have in mind (such as "colony"). The Visual Thesaurus shows the relationship between hyponyms (more specific terms) and related hypernyms (more general terms) with a "is a type of" dashed line:

Putting it all together by running a revised search:

  • Return to Google and run a search with a pair of keywords that you have revised from the warm-up exercise. For example, a search for "colonial occupations" yields the following results, all of which are resources for researching how colonial settlers earned a living:

Developing keyword searches in groups:

  • Organize the class in small groups, each seated around a separate computer work station if possible.
  • Distribute an "Identifying Keywords for Search Inquiries" chart to each team [click here to download] and explain that the left-hand column of the chart contains a list of research topics that have not yet been revised to yield the best research resources when using an online search engine.
  • Instruct each group to use the Visual Thesaurus to find alternative keywords for each research topic and to experiment with different combinations of those keywords to see which words yield the best research sources.

  • Emphasize that students need to use their judgment in deciding how to best use the Visual Thesaurus in finding the optimal keywords. For example, which words should be replaced by synonyms? Which research topics or words may be too narrowly focused and therefore need to be replaced with more general hypernyms? Which research topics seem too vague or broad and may need to be narrowed by the use of a hyponym (or more specific topic)?


Sharing search results:

  • Have each group share their findings with the class. Students may wish to write their list of most successful keywords for each topic on the board so that the class may see which keywords proved to yield the best results across groups. What generalizations can the class make about how to find keywords by using the Visual Thesaurus? Which of the research topics on the chart would students need to revise to be more narrow or broad? What strategies work best when trying out keywords in different search engines?

Extending the Lesson:

  • One way to extend this lesson would be to introduce students to the concept of Boolean searches and how the use of "operators" with keywords (such as OR, NOT, AND, etc. ) can help students narrow or expand their searches.


  • Check each group's list of keywords for the different research topics listed on the "Identifying Keywords for Search Inquiries" chart to assess if their final keyword combinations lead to the best resources for conducting research on each topic.

Educational Standards:

List of Benchmarks for Language Arts

Standard 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Level II (Grades 3-5)
1. Uses a variety of strategies to plan research (e.g. , identifies possible topic by brainstorming, listing questions, using idea webs; organizes prior knowledge about a topic; develops a course of action; determines how to locate necessary information)
2. Uses encyclopedias to gather information for research topics
3. Uses dictionaries to gather information for research topics
4. Uses electronic media to gather information (e.g. , databases, Internet, CD-ROM, television shows, videos, pull-down menus, word searches)
5. Uses key words, guide words, alphabetical and numerical order, indexes, cross-references, and letters on volumes to find information for research topics

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Gathers data for research topics from interviews (e.g. , prepares and asks relevant questions, makes notes of responses, compiles responses)
2. Uses a variety of resource materials to gather information for research topics (e.g. , magazines, newspapers, dictionaries, schedules, journals, surveys, globes, atlases, almanacs, websites, databases, podcasts)
3. Organizes information and ideas from multiple sources in systematic ways (e.g. , time lines, outlines, notes, graphic representations)
4. Writes research papers (e.g. , asks research questions, defines a topic, organizes information into major components and examines relationships among these components, addresses different perspectives on a topic, achieves balance between research information and original ideas, integrates a variety of information into a whole, draws conclusions)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
1. Uses appropriate research methodology (e.g. , formulates questions and refines topics, develops a plan for research; organizes what is known about a topic; uses appropriate research methods, such as questionnaires, experiments, field studies; collects information to narrow and develop a topic and support a thesis)
2. Uses a variety of print and electronic sources to gather information for research topics (e.g. , news sources such as magazines, radio, television, and newspapers; government publications and microfiche; library databases; field studies; speeches; technical documents; periodicals; Internet sources, such as web sites, podcasts, blogs, and electronic bulletin boards)
3. Uses a variety of primary sources to gather information for research topics
4. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate the validity and reliability of primary and secondary source information (e.g. , the motives and perspectives of the author; credibility of author and sources; date of publication; use of logic, propaganda, bias, and language; comprehensiveness of evidence)
5. Synthesizes information from multiple research studies to draw conclusions that go beyond those found in any of the individual studies
6. Uses systematic strategies (e.g. , anecdotal scripting, annotated bibliographies, graphics, conceptual maps, learning logs, notes, outlines, technology) to organize and record information
7. Scans a passage to determine whether it contains relevant information
8. Writes research papers (e.g. , includes a thesis statement; synthesizes information into a logical sequence; paraphrases ideas and connects them to other sources and related topics; identifies complexities and discrepancies in information; addresses different perspectives; organizes and converts information into different forms such as charts, graphs, and drawings; integrates quotations and citations into flow of paper; adapts researched material for presentation to different audiences and for different purposes)

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 1st 2010, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Suzy T. (La Jolla, CA)
Today's word, wrath, was linked to ire and ira. Ira was linked to such things as Individual Retirement Account and the Irish Republican Army. While there may be a tenuous connection to the Irish Republicans, it seemed like an error. Did VT slip up?

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