Word Maps

A word map is a visual organizer that promotes vocabulary development. Using a graphic organizer, students think about terms or concepts in several ways. Most word map organizers engage students in developing a definition, synonyms, antonyms, and a picture for a given vocabulary word or concept. Enhancing students' vocabulary is important to developing their reading comprehension.

How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

Why use word maps?

  • They're useful for helping students develop their understanding of a word.
  • They help students think about new terms or concepts in several ways by asking the following questions:
    "What is it?"
    "What is it like?" and
    "What are some examples?"
  • They help student build upon prior knowledge and visually represent new information.

How to use word maps

  1. Introduce the vocabulary word and the map to the students.
  2. Teach them how to use the map by putting the target word in the central box.
  3. Ask students to suggest words or phrases to put in the other boxes which answer the following questions: "What is it?" "What is it like?" and "What are some examples?"
  4. Encourage students to use synonyms, antonyms, and a picture to help illustrate the new target word or concept.
  5. Model how to write a definition using the information on the word map.

Download blank templates

Collect resources

Language Arts

See example of a completed word map for the vocabulary word "harbor" and examples of using synonyms, antonyms and the student's description. See example >


Teachers can use word maps to teach new and unfamiliar terms in various math units. See example >


Teachers can use this strategy to teach unfamiliar vocabulary terms in science units. See example >

Social Studies

Learn how word maps can be integrated within a geography lesson to teach new concepts and terms. See example >

Differentiated instruction

For second language learners, students of varying reading skill, students with learning disabilities, and younger learners

  • Give students who need extra help the chance to work with a partner.
  • Allow students to use pictures to illustrate when appropriate.
  • Adjust the number of words students need to map.
  • Provide students with sentences each containing the target word. The sentences should provide enough context clues to enable students to complete a word map.
  • Instruct advanced students to refer to the dictionary, encyclopedia or other reference books for help in completing the word map. Ask them to compare their definitions and the dictionary definition.

See the research that supports this strategy

Baumann, J. F., & Kameenui, E. J. (1991). Research on vocabulary instruction: Ode to Voltaire. In J. Flood, J. D. Lapp, & J. R. Squire (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English Language Arts (pp. 604-632). New York: Macmillan.

Colorín Colorado. (2007). Using Science to Develop ELLs Language Skills.

Jones, R. (2007). Strategies for Reading Comprehension: Vocabulary Word Maps.

Jones, R.C., & Thomas, T.G. (2006). Leave No Discipline Behind. The Reading Teacher, 60(1), 58-64.

Schwartz, R. M., & Raphael, T. E. (1985). Concept of definition: A key to improving students' vocabulary. The Reading Teacher, 39, 198-205

Texas Education Agency. (2002). Teaching Word Meanings as Concepts.

Children's books to use with this strategy

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

By: William Steig
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

When a young donkey named Sylvester comes across a magic pebble, he saves himself from a confrontation with a lion by wishing himself into a rock. Frantic parents search for Sylvester until they stop for a picnic on a large rock. Rich language and humorous cartoon illustrations make this a memorable classic.

Big, Bigger, Biggest

Big, Bigger, Biggest

By: Nancy Coffelt
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

One animal's claim is followed by others who are successively bigger, smaller, etc., each using rich (and richer) descriptors.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

By: Beatrix Potter
Genre: Fiction, Fairytales, Folk Tales, and Tall Tales
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Peter’s disobedience almost gets him cooked while his siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail enjoy a tasty supper in this timeless and satisfying tale. Potter’s carefully detailed and highly realistic illustrations amplify the fantasy and dramatize Peter’s possible consequences.


I enjoyed reading about Word Maps. Actually they're like
graphic organizers for words and students can relate to that.
Interesting reading.

I would love to use this strategy I my 1st grade class as well. Vocabulary is one area my higher level readers need to be challenged in, especially since we are reading 2nd grade level books. I would complete a word map as a group, then let them work in partners. I think the children would love to share their work with the group, and even with the class after reading a new book.

I love to use word maps in kindergarten. We do these a lot together as a class to discuss new vocabulary. We also use a lot of pictures on the map as needed to help students create an understanding of the word. We do it on chart paper during whole group reading.

This looks like a great tool to use when promoting vocabulary development. I like how it can be modified for any grade level and can work with any content area. It challenges the student to think beyond the meaning of the word. I also like that it is a 'visual' graphic organizer.

I can't wait to try this in my first grade class now. My students are advanced readers and I'm always looking for fun ways to challenge them. This would be great to use a dictionary for practice and you can incorporate so many things with word association while doing this.

My kids are ELL students. I should also state that the word maps are done on chart paper, so they are fairly large.

How can I use word maps in groups? I don't have a lot of time and what I usually do is assign one word to a group of 4/5 students. Each group does the research and comes up with something similar to Example 2, and then we share our completed words and the rest of the class takes notes. Then I post each completed word map where they are visible to the students.

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