Vocabulary building is central to progress and confidence in the study of a foreign language. Vocabulary in a foreign language is like putting in golf. What right do I have making such a arbitrary comparison? In golf they say “You drive for show and putt for dough.” In foreign language grammar is the flashy driver–if-clauses anyone?–but solid, sophisticated vocabulary is where the dough is. Voilà!

Part of the problem with vocabulary in a foreign language is presentation. All too often the words are presented as lists organized alphabetically and/or by part of speech. This presentation does not lend itself to any lasting connections, nor does it help students think categorically. It also artificially groups words as those fit for beginners and experts. I tell my students that vocabulary is all about situational awareness. I add that nobody in “real life” says, “Okay today we’re just using vocabulary about feelings…family tomorrow.” Language learners need to be more dynamic thinkers.

For instance, a Spanish student might see acampar (to camp) and acabar (to finish) on the same list but miss the connection between acampar (to camp) and tienda de campaña (tent). There are thousands more examples like this in any language. I am sure of it. Connections can be semantic (e.g. synonyms, antonyms, word roots), spacial, sound based, etc.

I try to get my students to think visually across columns. The template below has become my go-to graphic organizer. It is a simple word map. This map can be used at any level in any language. It can be used to bring together words under a common theme (e.g. family, weather) or, even better, it can be used as an icebreaker to help students think more spontaneously, outside the comfort of side-by-side columns.

Here is how it works.

Version #1

1) Give students the blank word map [Image 1]. You can print it out, share it electronically or simply draw it up on the board. 2) Provide students with a central word to start. This is A in Image 2.  Students then fill in four words, B, C, D, E related to A and then 2 more words, F and G, related to to of those words. It’s that simple.

Think of this as six-degrees of separation for vocabulary. There are in fact six unique words per word map in this version! The best lists will not only center students on the vocabulary at hand but also encourage them to make and justify creative connections. In my model [Image 3] I got from Grecia (Greece) to Guantes (Gloves). I imagine my students–and yours too–can make even more creative connections.

Version #2

1) Give students the blank word map [Image 1].  2) Provide students with “outlier” words to start. This is F and G in Image 2.  Students need to get from F to G by filling in logical connecting words in A-E [Image 3]. In my model I got from Grecia (Greece) to Guantes (Gloves) [Image 4]. This version would work best for upper level students capable of using and explaining more inductive reasoning.

Give it a try and let me know how it works. For more on visual organizers and infographics in the language classroom, have a look at this previous post.


Word Maps
Image 1: Blank Word Map








Copy of Copy of Word Maps
Image 2: Word Map Relationships


Copy of Word Maps (1)
Image 3: Model Word Map








Word Maps Version 2
Image 4: Point to point