Language and literacy

Helping child learning

Activity: Use a semantic web to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students respond well to verbal activities and often become more engaged when a teacher starts out a lesson with finding out what they know about a certain topic.

This approach is also useful for the teacher, as she or he gets to understand what they already know and this helps with ongoing planning.

One way of doing this is to use ‘semantic webbing’, an approach that is often used to identify the key themes of a reading selection before and after the reading experience. Semantic webbing need not be confined to a reading selection.

At the beginning of learning about a new topic, the teacher asks the students what they know about that topic.

In the Australian curriculum (Year 4) one of the content descriptions is for students to “Understand that Standard Australian English is one of many social dialects used in Australia, and that while it originated in England it has been influenced by many other languages”.

One of the elaborations suggests that students can show they have mastered this by “identifying words used in Standard Australian English that are derived from other languages, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, and determining if the original meaning is reflected in English usage, for example ‘kangaroo’, ‘tsunami’,’ typhoon’, ‘amok’, ‘orang–utan’”.

  • Find out what our students know about languages, so the teacher, or preferably a student, might put the topic “language” in a circle at the centre of the whiteboard.
  • Students then brainstorm as many associations as possible with the topic.
  • Perhaps one student acts as recorder, or the person who gives the word writes it in a list to the side.
  • The next step then is to discuss and categorise all the words, and connect with lines, making a web of all the ways they are related on the board.
  • The teacher can then guide students towards discussing words used in the SAE language that are derived from other cultures.
  • Students should be asked what they already know about this topic.
  • Ask what they would like to know about the topic.
  • Any questions can be recorded for later, or included as topics for research.

The important aspect of this activity is that students themselves are a resource and collaborate with other students by sharing their own knowledge and previous experiences.

Semantic web example

The semantic web below illustrates what Arrernte children know about merne (plant food).

An example of a semantic web

(You can find out more about Merne at


Weaving the literacy web: creating curriculum based on books children love by Hope Vestergaard is an especially useful resource.

Image: Semantic web; Michael Colbung, University of Adelaide