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Concept Mapping

As teachers, we often find that we are hard-pressed to really gauge whether or not our students truly understand what we are teaching them. Sure, we have oral and written tests and we ask students to present in front of the class, but do we check whether our students fully comprehend the ideas we are conveying?  One tool we don’t often consider is the concept map. This article will attempt to show how concept maps can be used in the classroom and, as Ligorio (2002) states, how they make the knowledge acquisition process visible.  A concept map provides teachers with something tangible to confirm student comprehension and, in turn, provides these students with an invaluable resource for review.

How can I use concept mapping in my class?

Concept mapping is not something that applies only to higher level students: it doesn’t need to be technical or expansive as long as it illustrates the relationship between words and concepts. Let’s start small and look at a class of five-year-old students who are learning about weather and clothing.  When putting together a concept map, consider the lexical set you are reviewing (or preferably teaching!), and assess which relationships you want to highlight, as below:

Vocabulary Category Weather
shirt clothes hot
coat clothes cold
dress clothes hot
sunglasses accessories sunny
gloves accessories windy
swimsuit clothes hot
t-shirt clothes hot
pants clothes cold
umbrella accessories rainy

Presenting data to a group of five-year-old students in this way is in no way visually appealing, nor does it provide any motivational inspiration for young learners to ‘want to learn’. Transforming it into a concept map – or having the students complete the concept map themselves (with your help) – is more engaging, more visually stimulating, and more valuable as a learning tool.

 Getting the desired effect from concept mapping.

In order for concept mapping to really have its’ desired effect, students need to create their own meaning associated with the new (or previously-learned) target language. By creating a concept map for students to complete, students may often feel confronted by needing to add copious amounts of text to a map. In order to avoid this frustration, and to steer away from the concept map not having its desired effect, a teacher can encourage students to draw pictures in instances where a student is unable to convey their meaning in a textual means.

For teenage young learners, the perfect opportunity for concept mapping comes with storytelling. Students who are using decodable readers tend to be at the developmental stage where understanding of the story is high, but ability to express this understanding in cohesive sentences is low. Introducing a concept map for a story allows students to express their understanding quickly, easily and with concrete results.  An example of a story concept map could be as easy as the one below.

Concept Mapping and it’s continued benefits.

For teenage high-level students, grammar is a tool which gives them a competitive edge over their peers, but it is not always so easy to teach. As teachers, we are aware of the need to appeal to different learning styles but, when it comes to grammar, visual-learning students are often left behind. Creating grammatical concept maps is a great way to involve these students. I have observed many higher level classes where the teacher’s instruction of grammar is near perfect – as is the students’ initial comprehension – but retention of the complex ideas and rules associated with English grammar is low. By adding in a concept map, which students themselves create, we provide them with a visual review tool that they can keep, and which will aid them with:-

  1. The homework you have assigned them.
  2. The homework their school has assigned them.
  3. The grammar questions they encounter in their exams.
  4. Everyday communication.

As teachers, we don’t have a lot of time to divert from our compulsory curriculum, but the advantages of concept mapping far outstrip any extra time it may take. Its comprehensibility to all types of learner means it will actually save you time otherwise spent explaining and re-explaining.  Additionally, it exercises visual learning skill, encourages participation and collaboration, and provides a useful aid for referral and review. There’s no reason why their homework shouldn’t be complete, or why they can’t spell that particular word you taught them only last week!