LearningTip #38: Getting the Details
To Fit Together While Reading,
Writing, and Studying

By Joyce Melton Pagés, Ed.D.
Educator, President of KidBibs

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National Geographic World Atlas for Young Explorers

The Kingfisher Young World Encyclopedia

The World Almanac for Kids 2004 

The Dorling-Kindersley Science Encyclopedia

Details. Minor details.  Trivial details.  Meaningless, unrelated details.  That's what a lot of students think when they're struggling with learning information.

The biggest challenge is to help students see that the details are related.  When students see how the details are related to each other, they discover that the information is easier to learn.   This also helps students respond more meaningfully to the information.  They may even discover the relevance of the information to their own lives. 

Semantic maps can help children develop the strategies to learn and mentally organize the details.  Through semantic mapping, students can use the "bubbles" and lines to show the mental connections between the terms and concepts.  Whether the teacher is using semantic maps in his/her instruction or the student is developing his/her own semantic maps, the cognitive processes which the child employs through semantic maps helps him/her put the pieces together in a meaningful, learnable whole.

The following semantic map is about transportation.  This topic or category is prominently placed in the center of the semantic map.  The semantic map is then read from the center to the outside.   The details which describe or support the topic/category are on the outside.

Semantic Map

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On this map, the primary level or "bubble" is "transportation."  It is the most general topic or category that all of the other terms support.  The secondary level is the "land, water, air level" on this semantic map.  All of these terms are of equal importance and relationship to the primary topic, transportation.  The tertiary level is the detail level (including "automobiles, bicycles, trains," etc.); these words attach to the secondary "bubbles" as shown on this semantic map.

Teaching Children How to Read Semantic Maps

Using Semantic Mapping Strategies in a Variety of Ways

Helping Children Who Have Difficulty Reading Semantic Maps

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Teaching Children How to Read Semantic Maps

1.  Keep semantic maps simple. Start with only the primary level and two or three secondary level "bubbles."   Use topics that the students are very familiar with so that their knowledge of the topic helps them understand how the semantic map reflects their mental connections related to the topic.

2.  Use color, size, shape, and framing to help children identify the levels of the semantic map.  The primary level term should be prominent in the middle of the semantic map.  It may have a thick oval frame, a larger size, a bright color, or a different shape to draw attention to it.  The secondary level "bubbles" are parallel in importance and relationship; they should be the next smallest size and all framed (oval, rectangle, etc) in the same way.  Finally, terms at the tertiary level all reflect the same framing and smaller size to represent details.   Other, more minute, details can be mapped out from there as needed.  Color can be used to reflect the levels (one color for the primary level, a different color for the secondary level, etc.). Another way to use color is to make the secondary level "bubble" and its related tertiary level details the same color to reflect the relationships (as shown in the example above).

3.  Use a "bicycle wheel" analogy to help students read semantic maps. Tell them to remember that the hub of the wheel in the center is the starting point that turns the wheel around.  Likewise, the "bubble" in the center of a semantic map is the main topic for the map and it provides the starting point for reading or building a semantic map.  The spokes are like the details of the semantic map.  There are many spokes that support the wheel; there are many details which support the main topic for the semantic map.

4.  Use semantic maps often in meaningful ways. The more experience children have with semantic maps,  the more comfortable they will feel with them.  Use semantic maps to introduce content and to summarize information.  Show students how to use semantic maps to support their reading, writing, and studying.

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Using Semantic Mapping Strategies in a Variety of Ways

Semantic maps can be used in many ways to support student reading, writing, and learning.  The strategies described below are for teachers to implement with a class.  But every one of these strategies can be implemented with an individual child in a homework or homeschooling situation.

1.  Before and After Semantic Map for Informational Reading.  Before the students read or have their learning experience, provide them with a semantic map [on a transparency] which includes the primary "bubble" and the secondary "bubbles."  Have the students tell you what they know about the topic and subtopics.  Attach these details to the "bubbles" on the map (using one color of marker).  Have the students read, view an educational video, take a field trip, or provide them with some other learning experience.  As a class, revisit the semantic map.  Move from "bubble" to "bubble" having the students generate the new information that they have learned.  Record this information in a different color of marker.  Erase any ideas from the "before reading" phase that students learn are untrue.  This strategy helps the students link new information to what they already know, mentally organize the details into categories, and notice how much they learned because of the before and after reading phases of the map.   Further, if students know that they will be adding to the semantic map after they have finished their reading, the map keeps them focused on what they are reading and, as a result, strengthens their comprehension of the information.

2.  Big Picture Semantic Map for Informational Reading.  Since students comprehend by relating that they are reading to what they already know, it helps for them to have a big picture of what they will be learning.   By showing and discussing a big picture semantic map with categories (primary level) and subcategories (secondary level), the students have direction for their learning.   If students will be reading a magazine article, tradebook, or textbook chapter, the article name or chapter heading can often be the primary level.  The next level or subheading (in terms of size and placement) may be the secondary level of the semantic map, etc.  The Big Picture Semantic Map gives students an understanding of where they are going with the content to be learned and enables them to mentally organize the information while they're reading, thus strengthening comprehension.

3.  Open Semantic Map for Informational Reading. When students lack prior knowledge related to the content to be learned, they experience difficulty learning new information.  Activating what students already know about a topic before they read tells teachers whether they need to build background for the students to support their comprehension.  Further, it helps students relate new information to what they already know.  With an open semantic map, the teacher gives the students the topic or category and has them brainstorm words related to the topic; these words are listed.  The students can then identify categories which emerge out of the terms which they generated.  The categories (which emerged out of the terms) become the secondary level of the map and the brainstormed terms are mapped to the appropriate secondary "bubbles."  This strategy builds vocabulary through the sharing of experiences during the brainstorming.   Further, identifying categories which emerge out of the terms requires higher level thinking and helps the children develop strategies for cognitively organizing information.

4.  Theme Semantic Map for Stories.   Use a semantic map to guide discussion of a theme before students read a story.   This can help children better relate to the characters while they're reading the story; this strengthens story comprehension.  For example, a semantic map for a story about an Olympic athlete competing might have "competition" as the primary topic.  The secondary level subtopics might include "ways we compete," "how we prepare to compete," and "how it feels when we compete."  Activating students' experiences with competition---soccer, basketball, gymnastics, spelling bee, etc.---can help them understand how the main character might feel in his/her situation.

5.  Read-along Semantic Map. This strategy supports comprehension by having students write while they're reading.   Provide the students with a semantic map which includes the primary and secondary levels.  Have them read silently to map the details in the text (tertiary level) to the appropriate secondary level "bubbles."  When students are reading informational writing (textbook, encyclopedia, etc.), the chapter or tradebook title can often define the primary level.  The next level of heading goes in the secondary level "bubbles."  Then the student reads to map the information to those "bubbles."  This strategy provides students with a big picture before they read.  The writing keeps them focused on organizing the information cognitively while they're reading; this strengthens student comprehension of the information.

6.  Planning Map for Writing. The planning phase is a very important part of the writing process.  It helps the writer generate and organize his/her ideas before s/he begins writing.  When constructing a semantic map, the topic [to be written about] is placed in the center.   The student can then write the categories of ideas in the secondary level "bubbles."  The details should then be mapped to the secondary level.   The student can then use the planning map to draft his/her writing.  A report writing strategy which employs semantic maps in the planning phase is included in LearningTip #37. Investing time and thinking in the before writing phase engages the writer's processes, strengthens communication, and improves the quality of writing.

7.  Study Map. Sometimes older students feel overwhelmed with a lot of terms and details that they are trying to learn.  They can merge lecture notes and reading notes in their semantic map.  Building these terms and details into a semantic map can help students see the relationships that exist between the terms and provide a study strategy which supports effective learning of the information.

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Helping Children Who Have Difficulty Reading Semantic Maps

Some children have trouble with the "scatter" of semantic maps.   They have trouble finding the starting point for reading them and they can't sort through the surrounding levels in a meaningful way.  Sometimes giving students a more linear way to approach the content helps them experience greater success.

1.  Pyramiding.   Draw a triangle, or pyramid.  Put the primary level in the top (point) of the pyramid.  Draw a horizontal line across the pyramid under the primary level term.   For a transportation pyramid, the word "transportation" would be written in the point.  Under the horizontal line, the words "land," "water," and "air" would be written.  Draw a horizontal line under those words.  Then draw vertical lines (from the topic horizontal line to the bottom of the pyramid) between the "land" and "water" sections and between the "water" and "air" sections.  This forms the secondary level and provides the framework for the tertiary level.  Now draw vertical lines from the base of the pyramid up to the base of the secondary level section.  Insert the tertiary level details in these spaces under the appropriate secondary level term.   The pyramid that is constructed is now read from top to bottom with a clear starting point.  Colors can be used to help students align the tertiary level details with the secondary level term.

2.  Outlining.   Some children feel more comfortable with traditional outlining in the following format.  They use the top to bottom structure and the indentation of levels to understand how the terms relate to each other.  Outlines are considerably less flexible than semantic maps, but they are preferred by some students. 

I.  Transportation
    A.   Land
        1.  Automobile, truck, van
        2.  Bicycle
        3.  Bus

    B.   Water
        1.  Ship
        2.  Boat
        3.  Submarine

    C.   Air
        1.  Airplane
        2.  Blimp
        3.  Helicopter

Semantic maps can be very helpful in supporting student learning of content.  The details start to make sense within the context of related terms and categories.  Strategies which support summarizing and comparing can also help children learn information.  Providing students with meaningful learning strategies strengthens their learning of the content and supports the development of learning strategies that last a lifetime.

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