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Topic Webs and Project Work

Originally published:

diagram of a topic web

Webbing is the process of organizing ideas into categories that radiate out from a central topic. For example, a web on the pizza parlor might include branches on ingredients, tools, jobs, and types of pizza. Subcategories can be used to elaborate on each category (e.g., cheese, sauce, and pepperoni might branch out from ingredients). Classroom teachers typically record such webs on chart paper and then display them as a reference along with project-related samples of children’s work and artifacts.

Teachers sometimes use the term topic web to describe two different types of webs: the teacher planning web and the children’s topic web. The focus of this blog is on successful topic webbing with preschool children. For more on the teacher planning web, see The Project Approach for All Learners (Beneke, Ostrosky, & Katz, 2019).

Books and videos about the Project Approach often portray webbing with young children as a whole-group activity. However, this way of webbing can be challenging for the teacher, who is trying to model using print, respond to the children’s ideas, and keep children engaged as they wait for their turn. It is easy for both the teacher and the children to become frustrated with the process.

An alternative strategy is to meet with children in small groups to gather their ideas. Once each child has had a chance to contribute, the web can be shared with the group as a whole. Such small groups can be informal. For example, a teacher can station herself on the floor or at a table during center time. She can welcome children who want to join her and record their ideas. Strategies that a teacher can use to support the webbing process include:

  • Active listening, or observing the child’s body language and expressions to help determine what they are trying to say.
  • Paraphrasing or restating the child’s contribution to be sure it’s accurate.
  • Asking questions to be sure you understand what the child is saying.
  • Maintaining good eye contact and expressing interest through tone of voice and expression.
  • Making it possible for a child to identify their contributions by writing their name or initials alongside, or in the case of very young children, attaching a print-out of their face alongside their contribution.

An initial topic web might not have that many categories or subcategories, but the initial web is just the beginning. As the project develops, and children learn more about the topic, the teacher can continue to record their ideas over time. They may even recognize and choose to correct earlier misconceptions.

These additions or corrections might be made during large or small groups, or they might be collected on the fly. For example, upon hearing two children discuss that pizza sauce is made of tomatoes, a teacher might say, “Wow! I don’t think that’s on our web. Should we add it at our next circle time?”

As the focus of the investigation narrows or changes, the original web might not be as relevant. In this case, the teacher can create a version of that web that is reduced in size and start a new web that reflects the current focus. Children can learn about editing by observing a teacher engaged in this process.

Could a project happen without webbing? Sure! But topic webs help ensure the success of ongoing project work because they help teachers and children to organize their thinking about their investigations.

Sallee Beneke

Sallee Beneke

Sallee (BenekeSalleeJ@sau.edu) is Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in ECE at St Ambrose University, Iowa. She coauthored The Project Approach for All Learners (2019) with Michaelene Ostrosky and Lilian Katz. Sallee used the Project Approach as a teacher and has worked to build the implementation of the approach via training and consulting. Sallee co-founded the IEL Project Approach Web site, and Facebook page with Lilian Katz, and she continues to contribute to the site.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024