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Review ~ Visual Thesaurus

The Visual Thesaurus is a versatile learning resource for students and teachers that successfully creates and maintains a place for word lovers to gather on the web.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Jennie Roloff

I never thought I’d say this about any teaching tool, but I feel that the Visual Thesaurus is as perfect as a resource can be. In the interest of an objective and balanced review, I looked for what might be lacking, but I came up empty-handed.

Visual Thesaurus allows you to explore words and wander among word families and synonyms in a way that will surely fascinate the curious learner, especially the visually inclined. After watching the very helpful tutorial videos, I spent close to an hour just exploring the site, clicking on links from word to word to word. It’s an incredibly fun program to play with and feels very intuitive, which is an important characteristic in education technology since if a program is too confusing no one will use it. I’ve gone back again and again just to see what else I can find.

The Thinkmap technology used in the Visual Thesaurus creates a visual web for each word that is looked up. This word then appears in the center of the screen and related words branch off in all directions like a web. The parts of speech of all linked words are clearly labeled, with nouns marked with a red circle, verbs with green, adjectives with yellow and adverbs with purple. Determining a word’s meaning is as simple as placing the mouse pointer over the colored circles.

When you click on a connected word, that word moves to the center of the web and all the branches shift, shrink or appear according to relevance. The Java-powered applet that runs the visuals responds quickly and allows for nimble navigation around the entire system. I used it on both Apple and Windows systems and saw no compatibility issues whatsoever. The only thing that could be considered lacking is the inclusion of example sentences with definitions, but this is a small issue.

In addition to access to the thesaurus, which is customizable to suit user needs, an online subscription gives you the ability to create word lists, browse interesting blog articles on lexicography or teaching, and access a myriad language learning resources. There are crosswords, spelling bees, and numerous other vocabulary activities. The site also has tools and resources for students and teachers alike. Learners can share their lists or study tips and teachers can swap lesson plans or discuss good books for the classroom. The desktop version limits access to the thesaurus itself, for which internet access is optional (though needed for audio pronunciation), so if internet access is an issue for your institution, it’s still a solid reference to add to your library.

As a teacher of academic writing, I constantly struggle to give students more effective tools and guidance regarding vocabulary and proper word choice. I feel that Visual Thesaurus is just such a tool. Teachers could compile relevant word lists to support students’ learning in the classroom, or individual students could explore the thesaurus themselves, expanding their vocabulary while focusing on word variety. Any school that is able to, should, I think, get an institutional subscription.

Reviewed by Jennie Roloff for TEFL.NET November 2010
Jennie Roloff received her BA in International Affairs from The George Washington University and her Masters in TESOL at Teachers College Columbia University Japan (TC Japan). She is currently an instructor at Kanda University of International Studies, located in Chiba, Japan, and co-manager of the TC Japan Writing Center.

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