Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Visual Thesaurus in Action in the Classroom

Teachers from across the country write us about how the Visual Thesaurus helps their students increase reading comprehension. Now a federally funded study is taking a closer look at the connection between the Visual Thesaurus and reading. Developed by researchers at the prestigious Education Development Center, Inc. in Boston, the study is following eighth grade students with learning disabilities who've been introduced to the Visual Thesaurus. Their findings show that the Visual Thesaurus can significantly help students struggling with reading comprehension.

The lead investigator, EDC Senior Director Dr. Judith Zorfass, emailed us about her observations:

"The students were excited and the teachers were delighted with the students' interest in heavy, concept-laden words and their meanings. They were surprised that many students, who previously were reticent about participating in class discussion, were able to select relevant word meanings from the Visual Thesaurus and use them appropriately in context."

When we received Judy's email, it inspired us to contact her to ask what practical lessons teachers can learn from her research. We spoke to Judy and her associate Alise Brann:

VT: Tell us about what you're doing in the classroom?

Alise: We've been working with two teachers who were "team-teaching" this class - a special education teacher and a social studies teacher for the content area. We used the social studies text (CD-Rom and print versions), the Visual Thesaurus and Smartboards. We looked up specific words that were really crucial to the students' understanding of the text. For example, there was a section about how Genghis Khan was a ruthless leader - so "ruthless" became a target vocabulary word.

VT: And you looked it up in the Visual Thesaurus and projected it on the smart board?

Alise: Right. The social studies teacher wrote down the sentence on chart paper so that the students had it in front of them. The teachers then modeled the process for the students. They said, "ruthless," what do we think this means? The students had some really great suggestions for the word. One student thought it meant "merciless;" another thought it meant "mean." While the students brainstormed, the social studies teacher wrote all of the ideas they suggested on the chart paper. Then we went to the Visual Thesaurus and checked out the words.

At first the kids were a little hesitant, but by the time we got to the end of the chapter they were calling out words and asking us to click on them in the Visual Thesaurus. They really got into it and also liked being able to hear the words pronounced. And they were very excited when they saw that some of the synonyms for "ruthless" were identical to the ones they had suggested. One of the words was "tigerish," which the students thought was hilarious. That led to a really nice discussion because the kids wanted to go further and expand on that word in the Visual Thesaurus.

Judy: I'd like to add a thought.

VT: Of course.

Judy: I want to note from Alise's anecdote that there were three good teaching strategies in operation in the classroom. The first was starting with the word in a context. The second was tapping into prior knowledge, which is talked about in the literature. And the third was the discussion and the sharing of ideas. The students became actively engaged with the word as they learned its meaning. That's what I distill from Alise's explanation.

VT: It sounds like visually representing a word like "tigerish" highlighted the third point you made.

Judy: You're right. The word play and investigation allowed the students to open up new doors to explore synonyms and antonyms. This inquiry process is an important aspect of language development - and an important part of what we're trying to do.

Alise: It was also great to have the special education teacher walk around the room and engage the students in dialogue about the vocabulary while the social studies teacher was modeling the lesson on the chart paper, which gave the students another visual representation to refer to. The students could see their suggestions and say, oh yeah, we thought of those ourselves. This goes back to what Judy just said about a process of inquiry, especially for these students, who are struggling with comprehension.

Judy: I think something to also consider is the sequence of prompting questions asked by the teachers. The teachers had to be familiar with two different areas: the content and the overarching goals of the social studies curriculum. The teachers also had to be very familiar with the students and their levels of cognitive understanding, language development and reading levels.

The exercise helped teachers understand how to reconcile the two areas. The Visual Thesaurus was almost like a bridge. The teachers worked with this tool to ask the right kinds of prompting questions to direct students to explore a certain word and then relate it back to the social studies lesson. This was a multi-dimensional exercise and the teacher was the essential player in helping to make those connections.

VT: Very interesting. From your experiences with this research project, what other advice can you give to teachers who want to use the Visual Thesaurus in the classroom?

Judy: I think teachers have to think carefully about modeling the learning process. In our case, they couldn't introduce the Visual Thesaurus to struggling middle school students and expect them to just make maximal use of it.

Teachers have to give students a process in their own mind about how to use the Visual Thesaurus, a set of steps to follow that gets them use it in a way that relates to what they're learning. That's different from just playing with the tool. We're talking about really building an understanding of key concepts.

Alise: The guiding questions that the social studies teacher created and the types of things that they discussed in the classroom kept the students thinking about why they were clicking on words, what did it mean, and how did they make sense of it. The teachers did a lot of modeling -thinking aloud to show how to go through the process.

Judy: I think it's important to add that we're working with the Visual Thesaurus to support reading comprehension, and there may be different processes and different ways of using it if you were to focus on writing skills.

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