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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Synonym Web

The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.

Words change meaning based on the context in which they are found. As students develop into competent writers, they are often encouraged to use powerful words in place of flaccid ones. The ability to utilize synonyms, while understanding the differences in their connotations, is an important skill students should learn in early years. Though several words might be very similar in meaning, the slight differences between synonyms are what give them their individual flavor.

To that end, evaluating like terms with a synonym web is one way in which students can greatly increase their vocabulary and word analysis skills. Taking a sample word to examine, students then utilize both print and digital resources to list as many synonyms as possible. The real work comes, though, in classifying the synonyms using similarities found within the groups. Some synonyms might be more negative while others have a more positive connotation. There might even be variations in actions that are implied. Students shed light on the original word through analyzing and categorizing these synonyms.

Why It Works

When learning new words, teachers should be cognizant of whether the idea that is described by the word is a new concept or a known concept. If the idea that the new word describes is known, simply adding a synonym to that concept usually suffices as an explanation. On the other hand, if the underlying concept is unknown to the students, a much deeper explanation is required. Simply giving the idea a new label doesn’t work if the idea itself is vague or unknown.

If students are trying to envision the plight of a fictional character stranded in the desert, they might study torment to describe the character’s thirst. Though most students have not had the experience of going days without water and suffering from severe dehydration, they understand the basic idea. Using a synonym of torment, in this case suffering, to make the point that dying from a lack of water is beyond simple discomfort works for students because they already have a mental framework for the basic idea. This is the power of carefully chosen synonyms.

If, however, both the concept and the new term are unknown, merely providing a similar word will not be sufficient. When elementary students learn about metamorphosis, their teachers must do more than supply them with a synonym, such as transformation. Unless the concept behind the word is understood, the synonym will be powerless. Students will first have to do much reading, listening, and even viewing of multimedia materials to create a large enough schema to correctly apply the terms metamorphosis or transformation.

Exploring the various nuances of synonyms is inherently powerful because it expands the foundation of linguistic understanding. As students stretch out the roots of their domain knowledge, they add more and more labels for known concepts (i.e., synonyms). These new words, interconnected with what they already know, provide a broad foundation for interacting with new content.


Even though students can quickly draw a synonym web, don’t let its ease of creation fool you into thinking it’s easy. Higher-order thinking is required to successfully sort the synonyms.

1. Curate a list of words for students to choose from when selecting the focus of their synonym webs. The target terms should be both essential to the topic under consideration and broad enough to have multiple synonyms.

2. Plan for additional resources that students can access to generate synonyms. Whether using print materials (e.g., thesauruses) or online tools, students will need support to adequately create an ample list of accurate synonyms.

3. Model for students the thought process behind sorting synonyms into categories. This part of the task is the meat of the work and will be new for some students. They need to see and hear a successful example of how to classify terms before they can do it themselves.

4. If needed, provide a practice session before the first time students attempt a synonym web on their own. Choose a target term, generate at least ten different synonyms, and provide at least three separate categories. Give students an opportunity to practice sorting the terms and justifying their reasoning. Remember that a word might fall into more than just one category as long as the students can support their choice.

5. If possible, plan for students to work in partners on a joint synonym web. The conversations they hold while trying to categorize the synonyms will be just as or even more instructional than the final product itself.

6. Decide how/if the synonym webs will be graded. Since this is a highly generative task, several pairs each working on the same word will most likely create vastly different representations. If graded, it will most likely need to be for completion.

7. Allow an opportunity for groups to compare their synonym webs, especially if they studied the same word. Have them discuss why they put their synonyms into specific categories.


Ms. Pike’s sixth grade language arts class was looking at the mechanics of adding dialogue to personal narratives and fictional stories. As intricate as the grammar requirements were, her students for the most part successfully implemented quotations to further the plot and add much needed spice to their compositions. She quickly discovered, however, that her students included the word said too often.

Ms. Pike wanted to provide them with alternatives for said so that their papers were not so repetitious. Focusing on word choice, however, she wanted students to understand that the terms they chose to convey the action of speaking would do much to set the tone of the dialogue. Murmuring and stating, for example, communicated two completely different ideas.

“Before we revise our narratives, I’d like us to take a moment to consider how we share with our readers that someone is talking. In addition to the quotation marks you are using so well, we usually include a word like said. But how can we make more precise choices and move away from our reliance on said?

“Take a look at the synonym web I created for said. Using an online thesaurus, I jotted down a few words that are similar to said. You’ll notice that they are organized into four different branches. The top-left branch includes words that all have to do with telling – described, recounted, and related. The top-right branch, however, has more to do with speaking in a soft voice – whispered, murmured, and mumbled.

“Work with a partner and find more synonyms for said. Try to create at least three different branches using the computers or the few paper copies of thesauruses that we have here. When we are finished, we’ll have so many alternatives for said that we should never have to use it again.”


There are many different ways in which synonym webs can be altered to meet a variety of student needs. As stated in step 4 of implementation, some might benefit by having synonyms already generated for the target word. Whether the synonyms are created by the students or given by the teacher, the true focus of the activity is on sorting words into various shades of meaning. Saving them the trouble of finding a plethora of synonyms might just be what some students need to be successful.

Various types of synonym activities can be utilized to explore the power of words. Instead of a traditional web, students could string together sets of synonyms and examine how far apart the results are. In the figure below, a student found two synonyms for slender - lithe and fragile. She then looked up synonyms for lithe and fragile, finding supple and feeble. Following this pattern, she created a divergent string whose final words, malleable and decrepit, have completely different connotations. The upper part of the synonym string followed along a line of words that communicated the ability to move and bend easily. The bottom part, however, took a darker turn. Its synonyms focused more on a lack of strength or stability. This synonym variation is a wonderful way to discuss with students the importance of context.

A more challenging variation, for those students up to the task, involves bringing a string of synonyms back upon itself in the form of a circle. Called a circular synonym string, students start with one word and chain additional words together until they return to the original term. Going clockwise from the figure below, the initial word is sorrow and the first synonym is misery. Using a thesaurus, students then continue the string with subsequent synonyms. In this case, the synonyms begin describing emotional pain but quickly move toward physical pain, resulting in torment and pain at the bottom of the circle. From that point, students would continue searching for synonyms with the express goal of bringing the string back to sorrow. As the terms become more metaphorical, they inch closer and closer to the original term.

The key point to keep in mind with synonym webs or any of their variations is the power and purpose of the focal word. By exploring this term, students should be expanding their understanding and word knowledge of the unit or topic currently being studied. As they expand their background knowledge and play with words in a variety of ways, their frame of reference for the content will be greatly expanded.

Modifying This For Virtual Learning

Synonym webs can be just as easily made Google Slides as they are on paper. If using one of the linked Google Slides as a template, simply make a copy and delete the words. To make the expectations clear, make sure to communicate how many synonyms should be included in each web.

Additionally, the text boxes that contain each word can be outlined in black on the template file before sharing it with students. This visual reminder, as seen around the work sorrow in the circular synonym string, will provide extra structure to this wide open assignment.

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