The purpose of the activity
Clustering involves organising sets of key words from a topic into specific groups in order to encourage learners to think about and discuss the meanings of words and the relationships between words. They can then use the words they have discussed in their writing.
The teaching points
The learners will discuss words and their meanings.
The learners use the words in discussion and critically analyse and negotiate the possible meanings.
The learners use other new learnt words.
Several identical sets of cards (up to 20 cards in each set), each card showing a key word or term that relates to the relevant subject content.
The guided teaching and learning sequence
1. Discuss a course-related writing task and identify key words or phrases that are relevant to the topic. Prepare the sets of cards, using these words and phrases.
2. Give each pair or small group of learners a set of the cards.
3. Describe the activity to the learners. The first time, model how to create two or three clusters and then ‘think out loud’ about your clustering decisions before asking the learners to work in their groups.
4. The learners work together to arrange their cards in clusters or groups according to the meanings of the words on the cards. If necessary, they can have a ‘don’t know’ pile; this discourages unsupported guessing. The learners should be able to give reasons for each of their decisions.
5. The learners agree on their clusters and then write, on a separate piece of paper, a general heading that describes each cluster. They place each heading above the relevant cluster. For example, for a text about hairdressing, cluster headings could include products, equipment, hairstyles or cutting. Word cards in the cluster ‘products’ might include shampoo, conditioner, styling mousse.
6. Each group then explains their particular arrangement to the whole group or to another small group.
Note: Different groups will decide on different headings for their clusters and each may be valid.
The clustering activity is effective at various stages of learning words that relate to specific topics and will help the learners to find and use the words they need for writing tasks.
Before teaching specific subject content, you can use clustering to activate learners’ prior knowledge of key words.
After new words have been introduced, you can use the activity to reinforce the meanings of these words and to enable learners to practise using them.
At the end of a unit of work, this activity can be used to review learners’ understanding of the words they have learnt.
When learners have become familiar with the activity, it may be useful for them to predict the headings they expect to find before they start actually grouping the words.
The learners can predict the meaning of the words in the ‘don’t know’ pile using the Pair definitions activity.