Word Trees


Word trees are a visual representation of a set of words, with a branching structure demonstrating the words’ interrelationships. Words that are more frequently or strongly associated to a given word are displayed with thicker or larger font, so that word trees are able not only to show categorized associations, but also the strength of these associations. NOTE: Some people and computer applications use word trees to show the frequency with which words occur together in a text, and the trees are exclusively computer-generated. While this is not the basis of the current activity, as an extension it may be interesting to use an app to create a word tree like this for a studied text and then analyze it. In the current activity students should be linking and organizing words and ideas based on their own conceptual associations, not on frequency of occurrence within a text or spontaneous speech.

Learning Strategies 

  • Connecting
  • Visualizing
Building Background, Classifying Information, Memory Development

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Launching Into New Content
  • Synthesis

Content Areas 

  • ELA
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Learning Strands 

  • Reading

Common Core Instructional Shifts 

  • Academic Vocabulary
  • Building Knowledge in the Discipline


Select a set of key words that relate centrally to a unit of study. Decide if you want students to make trees from a closed set of words, or if you want them to generate their own associated words. Create several model word trees to share with the students. Decide if and how you want to group students. Decide what you want students to write words on during the categorization and organization process. Options include index cards, sticky notes, whiteboards, and many different tablet apps.

Activity Steps 
  1. In groups or individually, students are given a key word or set of words.

    As with all complex tasks, you should initially model and scaffold this activity. Lower-level students should probably work from a closed set of 10-20 words. A closed set also works well for a shorter-duration activity. Higher-level students can generate their own associated words from one to five key words.

  2. If students are generating their own words, they can brainstorm a list of words associated with the key word(s).

    As students become more adept at this task, they can more often move towards open word generation activities.

  3. Next, students generate ideas that are associated with the words. Ideas can be phrases or full sentences.

    Students may need modeling of this step, since it is fairly different from other word association activities.

  4. Students organize the words and ideas in a hierarchical tree structure. Stronger links should be represented with larger font.
  5. Students can share and explain their work. Options for this portion include pair shares, a gallery walk, or a whole-class presentation. Students should discuss what they notice and learn, and how they learned from participating as well as observing each o

    You can lead students in a conversation about HOW creating organized associations can help to facilitate memory. Discuss how each new connection to a word represents a very literal neural connection in the student’s brain, and how more and stronger connections to a given word or concept make that concept more memorable and more accessible.

Adaptation for the Math Classroom 

Math units can include numerous vocabulary words, and word trees can help students connect those words to one another and through analysis can develop an understanding of how strong the relationships between the words are.

Downloadable Resources 
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