Making a topic web with the children in a class can be an important part of preparation for project work. A topic web is a kind of visual organizer. A topic web helps to represent the understandings and questions that the class has about a topic.
Note: This lesson planning aid is a companion to “Topic Webs in Project Work: Part 1—Creating the Children’s Web.”
Two processes are generally involved in making a topic web with the children—generating ideas and questions about a topic and organizing those ideas and questions into categories.
The categories enable the teacher and children to easily identify potential subtopics for investigation and plan for fieldwork (Figure 1).
Some teachers combine organization of the topic web with the process of generating ideas and questions. Other teachers prefer to work with the class on organizing the topic web after all of the ideas have been generated—for example, at the next group discussion time.
This lesson planning aid focuses on organizing the web as a separate activity. However, many of the early learning benchmarks listed in this aid will be met if the class organizes the web at the same time that the children are generating ideas.
Teachers who are using a topic web in a project for the first time often wonder if the children can understand the process of creating categories of ideas. But many teachers who have experience with projects report that preschoolers are usually able to understand this kind of sorting process. Some, particularly younger preschoolers, may need more guidance, or more time, than others. Typically, however, children soon begin to see how various ideas are related, or unrelated, to each other and how they can show that relationship on the web. Teachers who have been able to work with the same preschoolers over 2-3 years often report that the children’s understanding of the process is much greater during the second year.
Organizing the topic web with children can give the teacher an in-depth look at what they understand, misunderstand, and wonder about a topic. The process calls upon children to express and verbally support their points of view, providing a window on how individual children think as they explain their reasons for grouping items together.
Grouping ideas into categories or subtopics can help preschoolers meet a range of early learning benchmarks (see Benchmarks Addressed When Children Organize a Topic Web, below).
For teachers who use the Project Approach but are required to submit lesson plans, organizing the topic web with the class provides an opportunity for lesson planning.
Lesson Planning Suggestion: Organizing the Topic Web with Children
When planning a lesson about organizing a topic web with the children, you may want to consider three basic questions: What materials do you need? What preparations are important? What procedures do other teachers recommend?
If you will be developing categories as the children generate ideas and questions, you will need the materials listed in “Topic Webs in Project Work: Creating the Children’s Web.”
If you plan to have a separate meeting for organizing the items on the children’s topic web, it will help to have the following materials available:
- the children’s original web, with the title written at the center along with a visual representation of the topic (such as a photograph or sketch)
- a supported surface for mounting the web during the organization process
- writing instruments such as chalk, felt-tip marker, etc., that make marks heavy enough for all to see. You may want to use a new color to differentiate between the original ideas and the categories being created.
Many teachers find it helpful to make their own topic webs before involving the children. You can find more information about organizing teachers’ topic webs in the following resources:
- Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years (2nd ed.) by Judy Harris Helm and Lilian Katz (pp. 22-25)
- Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach (2nd ed.) by Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard (pp. 92-95)
Some basic preparations can help you lay the groundwork for meeting with the children to organize the topic web:
- Be aware of what individual children understand about sorting and grouping. If they are comfortable with such activities, your approach will be different from what you might do with a class that has less experience (see below).
- Help children understand the basic structure of webs (natural and human-made); that is, they are made up of interconnected parts, with the connections radiating out from a main point.
Some decisions that you make as you plan will depend upon the children’s ages and their experience with sorting and grouping:
- If another adult will work with you, who will write the categories and who will facilitate the discussion with the children?
- Will you develop some or all of the categories prior to meeting with the class and ask the children to decide how to group the ideas and goals into those categories? Or will you engage the children in the process of developing all of the categories?
- Will you begin by modeling the process of categorizing so the children can see what it entails? Or will you begin by asking them to think about and decide which ideas on the web seem to belong together?
- Will the whole class participate in the organizing process? Or will you work on it with just a few children at a time? (Some children who have little experience with comparing and grouping may benefit from working on just part of the web, with a few classmates.)
Introducing the Lesson. Typically, teachers use group meeting time for organizing the children’s topic web. If you have created the children’s web using sticky-notes, you and the children will be able to move them easily into categories that you write on the original web. If the web is on a whiteboard or chalkboard, you can write the name of each category that is developed, then “move” words by erasing them and rewriting them under the appropriate categories.
If you created the web in a computer program such as Word or Pages, you will be able to cut and paste words to place them into categories that the children develop. If you created the initial web on paper, you can post a new sheet of paper on the wall next to it, with the project title in the center and blank circles for categories drawn around it. You can write the children’s categories and the ideas that belong with them on the new paper.
It’s a good idea to start by explaining to the children what the task is—to decide which of their topic web ideas and questions are related to each other (or similar to each other) and to organize or sort them into categories or groups. You might explain that these categories will help them as they investigate the topic. You will probably find it helpful to read the web aloud to the children, starting with the name of the topic in the center and pointing to the words as you read them.
Organizing the Children’s Topic Web. You might begin by modeling the process of developing categories: “One of the sticky-notes says ‘Shoes have laces.’ This one says ‘Shoes have Velcro.’ Both are about parts of shoes. I’m going to put them together here on the web and write ‘Parts of Shoes’ here. ‘Parts of Shoes’ will be the name of one of our categories” (Figure 2).
Depending on the class, you could also start by asking, “What are some of the ideas here that you think could go together?” You might occasionally invite children to explain their thinking: “What makes you think so?”
As the discussion proceeds, you might want to remind the children what the groupings or categories are: “So far our categories are ‘Kinds of Shoes’ and ‘Parts of Shoes.’ What ideas do you have for other categories?”
You can expect that the children’s points of view will sometimes differ, and you may want to prepare for the possibility that some children may disagree with other children’s suggestions. For example, you might plan ways to ask for input from the whole group about differing perspectives: “M’kayla says we need a new category called ‘Keeping Shoes Nice.’ Ji-hi says that’s almost the same as our category ‘Taking Care of Shoes.’ Anybody have a suggestion about these two categories?” (In that situation, you might want to write both children’s ideas together on the web, rather than choosing one or the other.)
You may also want to be prepared to remind children to wait until later to talk about whether some of the ideas that appear on their topic web are “right” or “wrong.” You can plan ways to refocus attention on the purpose of the discussion, if necessary: “Right now, we’re just putting similar ideas together. When you do your fieldwork, you’ll be able to find out if animals wear shoes or not.”
You may find that the children cannot finish the task in just one session. In that case, you can plan how to follow up—with another meeting of the whole class or with a smaller group of children who are especially interested in finishing the process. It’s a good idea to plan to show the completed web to the whole class, to briefly remind them of the categories that they have helped to develop, and to show them where you will post the web so that they can revisit it during their project work (Figure 3).
Extending the First Experience
The categories of ideas and questions on the topic web can serve as subtopics of the main project topic. Groups of three to five children can investigate each of these subtopics during Phase 2 of project work. These small groups are sometimes called “subtopic groups,” “study groups,” or “interest groups.” For some suggestions about helping children start these groups, see the IEL Tip Sheet “The Project Approach: Phase 2—Getting Ready for Fieldwork”.
If you compare the children’s topic web to the planning web that you created, you may be able to easily identify children’s misconceptions or gaps in knowledge. This strategy can help you plan fieldwork experiences to address their misunderstandings and lack of experience.
Ideas for Later Activities
Once the topic web has been organized, additional opportunities to use it are likely to arise throughout the project; some of these activities will lend themselves to lesson planning. (Keep in mind that it is not necessary to incorporate all of these suggestions into a project. Some may be more suitable for your class than others are.)
For example, you might plan mini-lessons focused on helping the children make webs in small groups related to the subtopics that they have chosen to investigate. You might also be able to plan a lesson around creating a question table from the various questions listed on the topic web. (For more information, see Lilian Katz’s blog titled “The Question Table”.)
As the children complete fieldwork during Phase 2, you may find that they want to revisit the original topic web to add new information gathered during interviews, site visits, etc. You may also find that they see a need for some new or revised categories on the web as they collect their data. They may even want to make and organize an entirely new web that shows the data that they have collected. Such situations can be a pretext for lesson planning. (It’s a good idea to copy or photograph the original web, for comparison, before they add new information. Some teachers recommend using a different color of marker to write in new information.)
During Phase 3, occasions for lesson planning may arise as children show interest in comparing their initial web to the new web or when they look again at the original web to find out if they have answered all of their questions.
Documenting What Children Know, Do, and Understand
You may want to have another adult observe and take notes, or you may want to record the discussion electronically during the process of organizing the children’s topic web. Keeping notes about specific children’s engagement with the process can help you to be aware of the children’s understandings, skills, and dispositions. Is Jin-Yung confident about grouping similar ideas together, or is he unsure of how to proceed? Does Henry insist that everyone go along with his ideas, or does he listen to classmates’ perspectives? Does Audrey seem to be aware of what others are saying, or is she often distracted by birds on the window ledge?
A transcript of the conversation can go into each child’s file. Looking back over transcripts of topic web discussions can give you a sense of the group dynamics in your class: Do certain children dominate discussions? Do most of the children tend to respond to each others’ ideas, or are they “in their own worlds”? How have those dynamics changed over time?
The topic web itself is a way for you to document children’s knowledge and understandings at the beginning of a project. During Phase 2 or Phase 3, the children may want to develop a new web as they find new information about the topic; the new web documents their new knowledge and understanding. Comparing the new web to their initial web, which is usually much smaller and less detailed, is one way for the children to get a sense of how their own understandings have grown. Visiting parents may also be favorably impressed by this comparison, as well.
Planning to Include Children with Special Needs
Your lesson plans for organizing the topic web can include accommodations for children with a range of special needs.
If one of the children is slow to respond to questions or needs extra time to form sentences, you might plan to talk with her individually before the group meeting to hear some of her ideas about organizing the web.
If you think that a particular child may have difficulty sitting through the process of organizing the web, you may want to plan to get his input individually at another time.
Planning for Children with Home Languages Other Than English
Use some visual cues in addition to words—photographs, small sketches, stick-figure drawings, etc.—on the web to illustrate categories or ideas. Use transcripts of topic web discussions to help you to track changes in individual children’s English fluency and comprehension. If you are bilingual in languages spoken by the children in your class, consider making the topic web bilingual to benefit both the English language learners and the children who speak only English.
Illinois teachers of young children are often asked to include state early learning and development benchmarks in their lesson planning. The chart below suggests benchmarks that are frequently met when children organize their topic web. Other benchmarks may also be addressed.
1.A.ECb: Respond appropriately to questions from others.
- a child responds to the teacher’s request to organize the web by participating in the discussion.
- a child explains his reason for grouping two ideas together in response to a question from a teacher or classmate.
1.A.ECc: Provide comments relevant to the context.
- a child talks with a teacher and classmates about the process of sorting and categorizing.
1.B.ECb: With teacher assistance, participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners (e.g., peers and adults in both small and large groups) about age-appropriate topics and texts.
- a child participates in discussion of how an idea on the web is similar to or different from other ideas on the web.
- a child suggests a way to categorize an idea.
- a child explains his or her reasoning.
- a child listens and responds to ideas expressed by others during the discussion.
- a child talks about the topic web with classmates, family members, or visitors.
5.C.ECa: Participate in group projects or units of study designed to learn about a topic of interest.
- a child helps to sort and categorize ideas on the web in preparation for developing questions and subtopic groups.
8.A.ECa: Sort, order, compare, and describe objects according to characteristics or attribute(s).
- a child talks about similarities and differences between items on the topic web while helping to organize them into categories.
- a child helps to name a category on the topic web.
10.B.ECa: Organize, represent, and analyze information using concrete objects, pictures, and graphs, with teacher support.
- a child participates in organizing items on the topic web, discussing possible categories and groupings.
11.A.ECc: Plan and carry out simple investigations.
- a child helps to organize ideas and questions on the topic web as a step toward carrying out an investigation of the topic.
14.A.ECa: Recognize the reasons for rules in the home and early childhood environment and for laws in the community.
- a child avoids interrupting classmates and “takes turns” when helping to develop categories.
14.D.ECb: Participate in a variety of roles in the early childhood environment.
- a child helps to make decisions about how to organize information on the topic web.
30.A.ECb: Use appropriate communication skills when expressing needs, wants, and feelings.
- a child takes turns during the discussion about organizing the topic web.
- a child speaks clearly when sharing his or her ideas.
- a child listens to the ideas expressed by others.
31.A.ECb: Recognize the feelings and perspectives of others.
- a child listens and responds respectfully to ideas expressed by classmates and teachers.
32.B.ECa: Participate in discussions about finding alternative solutions to problems.
- a child talks with classmates about possible ways to organize the web (which items should be grouped together, etc.).
Beyond the Benchmarks: Experience, Knowledge, Skills, and Dispositions
When children help to organize the topic web that they have created, knowledge, skills, and dispositions may be involved that are not directly addressed in the benchmarks. For example, they may have opportunities to…
- Explain their own thinking. (For example, a child might say, “I think the ideas about ‘shoelaces’ and ‘high heels’ go together. Those are parts of shoes.”)
- Hone oral language skills during conversations with peers and adults about the ideas and questions they are sorting.
- Listen to and make sense of classmates’ perspectives on the categories that they are developing.
- Analyze their own thoughts and experiences to formulate responses to classmates’ comments and questions about their ideas.
- Notice the great variety of classmates’ perspectives on the topic.
- Explore and describe attributes of the ideas and questions collected on the web, including their similarities and differences.
- “Match” similar ideas and understand why particular ideas do or do not belong together.
- Keep more than one trait or attribute in mind at the same time.
Teachers or students who are learning to prepare lesson plans may find it helpful to consider some of the above benefits of involving a class in organizing a topic web, in addition to the ways in which benchmarks may be met.