Lesson Plans

Put the VT to work in your classroom

Taking Apart the Top 25 Social Studies -Ism's

Lesson Question:

How can students define important Social Studies doctrines and identify these ism's in action throughout history and current events?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students investigate how adding the suffix -ism to a word can alter its meaning and how a popular ad campaign uses this concept to promote its products. Students will then analyze some important Social Studies ism's, their morphology, and the belief systems they represent.

Length of Lesson:

One hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:


  • understand the significance of the suffix -ism
  • use the Visual Thesaurus to define different Social Studies ism's and their corresponding base words
  • synthesize their knowledge of Social Studies ism's by researching and identifying examples of the different ism's in action throughout history and current events


  • student notebooks
  • white board (optional)
  • computers or iPads with Internet access
  •  "The Top 25 Social Studies ism's" charts (one per student or group) [click here to download]

Related Link:


Analyzing "Solutionism" ad campaign:

  • Introduce students to The Dow Chemical Company's latest advertising campaign "Solutionism" by either visiting their "Solutionism" web page or by playing a YouTube video of one of their many "Solutionism" commercials featured on the page.
  • Ask students to identify (without using the made-up word solutionism) the common theme or idea that all the Dow Solutionism ads are trying to promote
  • Establish that every one of the Solutionism stories provides a different example of how Dow scientists are working to improve different aspects of society and the environment — from providing cleaner water and quieter passenger trains to improving wind power efficiency and cooking oil.


Investigating the significance of the suffix -ism:

  • Hold a brief discussion about why Dow chose to create a neologism (a newly invented word) for this ad campaign. What does adding the suffix -ism to the end of solution communicate about Dow?
  • Provide students examples of other "ism" words by performing a wild card search on the Visual Thesaurus by entering *ism into the VT search box and clicking "LOOK IT UP."
  • Display the word map for a particular doctrine ending in –ism (for example abolitionism) and reveal its definition (e.g., "the doctrine that calls for the abolition of slavery").
  • Students should notice that the synonyms that cluster around the red meaning bubble of doctrine are all different ways to refer to established belief systems and even ism itself is considered a word to convey this same meaning.

  • Discuss with students that Dow (by adding ism to solution) is expressing that their company philosophy or doctrine is based on providing valuable solutions to society.

Introducing the top 25 Social Studies ism's:

  • Explain that Social Studies is full of isms – or political doctrines, beliefs or practices that governments and political organizations tend to follow or base their policies on. Distribute the following chart of "The Top 25 Social Studies isms."
  • Note: The majority of these terms are listed in Robert Marzano's Academic Words Lists for General History/World History (Levels 3 and 4 – corresponding to grades 6-12), contained within Building Academic Vocabulary.
  • Organize the class into small groups or partnerships (depending upon computer or iPad availability), and distribute to each student a "The Top 25 Social Studies ism's" chart [click here to download].



VT definition of base word in ism

How does the doctrine relate to the base word?

Where have you seen or read about this idea in practice?

1. absolutism




2. authoritarianism




3. capitalism




4. colonialism




5. communism




6. conservatism




7. constitutionalism




8. despotism




9. expansionism




10. fascism




11. federalism




12. feudalism




13. imperialism




14. individualism




15. internationalism




16. isolationism




17. liberalism




18. Marxism




19. militarism




20. nationalism




21. neocolonialism




22. populism




23. radicalism




24. socialism




25. totalitarianism





Defining and researching examples of ism's in action:

  • Direct students to use the Visual Thesaurus to complete the second and third columns of the chart by defining the base word for each ism and to analyze how each base word relates to the doctrine, belief, or practice represented by the word ending in –ism.
  • On the white board, model for students the action of right-clicking on word ending in -ism to reveal the menu that allows you to "Search Google" for additional resources.
  • Have students use the right-click menu feature to further investigate each Social Studies ism and to choose one particular example from history or from current events that illustrates that ism. For example, students might use an image of an American stock market chart to illustrate capitalism or the quote "the sun never sets on the British Empire" to illustrate colonialism.


Sharing and evaluating examples of ism's in action:

  • Ask groups to either verbally share their completed charts or to post them on the wall to invite other students to view them.
  • Discuss with students how the different ism's relate to one another. Which ism's coexist in the same word maps? For example, if you look up authoritarianism, which other ism's share its meaning?

  • Discuss: Which ism's are synonyms or share ideological similarities? Which ism's are antonyms or stand for opposing ideals? How do some opposing ism's sometimes coexist in the same society?
  • Discuss: Which terms do government and political organizations use to describe their own practices and doctrines and which terms are more often used to label or criticize other governments or organizations?

Thinking critically about the nature of Social Studies ism's:

  • Share the following quotes about the nature of ism's in general. What are John Lennon and the character Ferris Bueller saying about ism's as political doctrines? How do they relate the concept of ism's to the concepts of peace and individuality? Do students agree or disagree with these messages?
"Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism
All we are saying is give peace a chance"
— John Lennon, from the song "Give Peace a Chance"

"Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself."
— the character Ferris in the film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"

Extending the Lesson:

  • This lesson features Social Studies ism's primarily related to economic and government policy. However, there are many important Social Studies ism's related to world cultures. Challenge students to come up with a list of such isms by searching in the VT search box *ism and identifying and researching some of them. There are many isms that relate to philosophy (e.g., humanism, rationalism, transcendentalism, Confucianism, etc.); religion (e.g., fundamentalism, monasticism, monotheism, Buddhism, etc.); and art (impressionism, surrealism, cubism, etc.).
  • There are also more ism nouns in the VT database that express the sense "belief in the superiority of one —— over another" (Oxford) as racism, sexism, etc. How have those social studies concepts ignited historical events?


  • Check students' "The Top 25 Social Studies ism's" charts to assess if they accurately identified each base word definition and how it relates to the social studies ism.
  • Assess students' analysis of how the different ism's on the chart relate to one another and are evident throughout history.

Educational Standards:

Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy:
Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words or phrases based on grades 6-12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
    • Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
    • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
    • Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
    • Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.
    • Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).
  • Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Lesson Plans.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday October 25th 2012, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Kim D.
This is an fabulous article and lesson plan. It also provides ideas in how to use this program as a complete lesson built around words that really make students think beyond just memorizing the definitions!

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.