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Diagram of defining a word in different ways

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. 

Key Information



When To Use This Strategy

Before reading
After reading

Appropriate Group Size

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?”
    • 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,  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 (opens in a new window).

Jones, R. (2007). Strategies for Reading Comprehension: Vocabulary Word Maps (opens in a new window).

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 (opens in a new window).

Children’s books to use with this strategy