Lesson Plans

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Seeing Words in a New Way

Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help you see a word's meanings in a new way?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students are introduced to the basic functions of the Visual Thesaurus by comparing and contrasting the use of a traditional dictionary and the use of the Visual Thesaurus to explore a word's meaning.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  1. Synthesize a word's list of dictionary definition(s) by creating an informational word poster
  2. Explore a word's meaning(s) and related terms by conducting a word search using an interactive Web site (the Visual Thesaurus)
  3. Compare and contrast the process of using a traditional dictionary vs. using the Visual Thesaurus to explore a word's meaning


  • Visual Thesaurus
  • student notebooks
  • dictionaries (one per group)
  • large drawing paper or poster board (one per group)
  • markers (enough for each group)
  • computers with Internet access

Warm Up:

Small group work with dictionaries:
  • Arrange students in small groups of three or four students each and provide each group with a dictionary, markers, and a large sheet of drawing paper or poster board.

  • Explain to students that you will be assigning each group a word to "teach" to the class through an informational poster. They can present their word in any way they choose, but they are not allowed to just copy the word's numbered list of definitions from the dictionary onto the poster. They may want to paraphrase the dictionary's definition in their own words or they could use graphics such as a picture or a comic strip to represent the word's definition(s). Emphasize to students that they may use their dictionaries for assistance, but you will not be able to help them with finding words, figuring out their definitions, or creating posters to display their findings.

  • Orally assign each group a word, without assisting groups with spelling or help with dictionary usage. Here is a list of suggested words: foil, bill, opaque, na�ve, pneumonia, quick, broad, bug, puerile, dash. (Note: How many words you assign will depend upon your class size and number of groups. If you need additional words for groups, then assign words that will challenge your students due to non-phonetic spelling or multiple parts of speech.)


Discussing dictionary difficulties:
  • Have each group post its "word lesson" on the board and give a short description of how they used the dictionary to learn more about their assigned word. Have groups identify what was difficult or tricky about the process and to reveal what questions they may still have about defining or using their words. [For example, some groups may have had difficulty finding their words in the dictionary since they initially could not spell the words correctly (e.g., opaque, pneumonia, na�ve, puerile). Other groups may have been overwhelmed with the various uses of their words (e.g., foil, bug, dash, and bill could be used as verbs or nouns; quick and broad could be used as nouns or as adjectives). And some groups may have had to look up additional words they did not know that were used in defining their original word (e.g., a group defining "pneumonia" may have had to look up "respiratory").]
Modeling the Visual Thesaurus:
  • Choose one of the group's words and model using the Visual Thesaurus to map its meanings on a white board. For example, search for the word opaque by first intentionally misspelling it as "opake" in the search box. After clicking on "Look it up" and then choosing "opaque" in the "Word Suggestions" list, you can show the class the visual map of opaque's meanings and related words. You can also click on the little speaker icon near the word to let students hear the word's pronunciation. Explain to students that the two small golden circles that are attached to the center "opaque" by solid lines show the different meanings of opaque that are adjectives (scroll over these two circles to show how opaque can mean "not clearly understood" or "not clear; not transmitting or reflecting light�"). Then show students that meanings are connected to related or similar words (i.e., solid, unclear, cloudy, etc.) by grey dashed lines and to antonyms (i.e., "clear") by red dashed lines. Point out that the Visual Thesaurus functions as both a dictionary and as a thesaurus since it supplies both definitions and a collection of related words or synonyms for each word in its database.
Revisiting words using the Visual Thesaurus:
  • Provide groups with Internet access and have each group look up its word in the Visual Thesaurus (www.visualthesaurus.com) by typing the word into the search box and exploring its multiple meanings and related words by clicking on "Look it up." Explain to students that they can also map the meanings of the related words on their word maps by clicking on those words that are positioned in the outer ring of words. When they click on one of those words, the wordmap will reposition itself to focus on the new word's meanings and related words. When they want to return to the original word map, they can just click on the "Back" button in the upper left-hand corner of the display to see their previous searches and wordmaps.

  • After groups have had a chance to freely explore their word by using the Visual Thesaurus, have them answer the following questions in reference to the word's web graphic: How many central rays formed around your central word? Are there different colored circles surrounding your word? If so, why? If not, why not? Is your word connected to other words by solid lines, dashed lines, or a combination of both? What do these different lines represent? What did you notice when you clicked on some of the related words that exist at the ends of your word's "branches"? Which of these related words produced the most complex web and why?


Comparing and contrasting the dictionary and the Visual Thesaurus:
  • After groups have explored the Visual Thesaurus map of their assigned words, have them look over their previous word lesson posters and make any revisions to their work if necessary. How was the process of using the Visual Thesaurus different than the process of using the dictionary? What were the advantages of seeing a word as an interactive visual map instead of as a numbered list of definitions on a page?

  • Give students the opportunity to ask any questions they may have about the Visual Thesaurus and how it works. (Note: Refer to the online manual for the Visual Thesaurus if you or your students have additional questions about how the Visual Thesaurus works or about how it works. The online manual can be accessed by clicking on the "Hot It Works" button on the home page's tool bar.)

Extending the Lesson:

  • Have students read an article from a newspaper or a magazine and identify five unfamiliar words in the article. They could then use the VT to search for the words' meanings and related words. Which word had the most complicated or intricate word map? Why? Could they identify which branch of each word web was the most applicable to the word's usage in the article? Based on their word searches on the VT, have them come up with a synonym for each word they chose from the article that most closely matches the word usage demonstrated in the article.


  • Groups' word posters can be assessed for accuracy and clarity.

  • Individual students can be assessed for their contributions to class discussions regarding the process of using the Visual Thesaurus to explore a word's meaning(s).

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

2. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate and form viewpoints of visual media (e.g., evaluates the effectiveness of informational media, such as web sites, documentaries, news programs; recognizes a range of viewpoints and arguments; establishes criteria for selecting or avoiding specific programs)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)

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