Isn’t it always the way that the simplest ideas are the most effective? We can spend hours making worksheets, preparing PowerPoints and banging our heads against brick walls in our desperate attempts to make it stick. A simple idea which works and has multiple uses is the Holy Grail of teaching tools.
Enter lotus blossom diagrams. They sound a bit arty and a bit maths-y, but they’re great for helping with the nebulous concept of language analysis. And they’re easy to use even when the photocopier is on the blink.
Put simply, a lotus blossom diagram is a three-by-three grid which gives students the opportunity to explore a word or phrase in greater detail. If it helps, it bears more than a passing resemblance to a noughts-and-crosses grid, but let’s be honest – lotus blossom sounds a lot fancier.
The idea is that a word, phrase or idea can be placed in the middle and ‘exploded’. Students write associations and thoughts in the eight boxes around the edge which can then be further explored in subsequent diagrams. There are similarities with a mindmap, but the very specific number of boxes to fill can make it more manageable for less able students, as well as challenging students to push their thoughts further and consider things from another angle.
I’ve used the concept successfully when looking at “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Whilst students often rightly identify suggest that Helena’s claim that she is Demetrius’ ‘spaniel’ shows she puts herself beneath him and that she is a little pathetic at this point in the play, a lotus blossom diagram is a great chance to explore that noun further. Asking students to specifically hone in on the connotations of a spaniel often raises some interesting ideas, such as them having floppy ears and being soft! Perhaps not the most useful comments, but when they’ve got this out of their system, they have usually still got a good few boxes to fill. We might be able to consider a spaniel’s historical purpose – gun-dogs to retrieve game from the field – or what their modern status as a rather pampered lap-dog. Those who own a spaniel might even suggest the somewhat ditzy nature of the breed. By now, the diagram is usually fairly full.
It’s then a case of refining the associations. Floppy ears and being soft can usually be discounted at this point as I ask students to contextualise their ideas, but the idea that Helena is professing her loyalty to Demetrius and her intention to do everything for him offers fresh insight into the relationship. It’s even possible to unpick that idea that she is abasing herself in front of him by exploring the relationship between human and dog, and the specific behaviour of a spaniel, possibly linking this to the perceived intelligence of women at the time. Suddenly, students have a wealth of ideas to consider from one word, enabling them to write, as so many exam boards urge, ‘a lot about a little’. Such a diagram can be completed quickly, with no preparation and with just a pen and a piece of paper, meaning that this can be used with any text as necessary.
They’re also a great way to get students to produce a summary of a text in their own words. Particularly complex words or phrases can be placed in the centre and they can work through them individually or collaboratively, considering which synonyms best capture the same meaning. This was invaluable under the old GCSE specification when students were tested on their ability to precis a text which usually had two or three words of which they needed to demonstrate their understanding. A quick scrawl in the corner of the page and students can make a far better attempt at a task like this.
Finally, such a tool can also help students to develop their own writing. So often, we urge students to ‘use more ambitious vocabulary’ or ‘be more descriptive’ and then end up with arbitrarily chosen adjectives littered randomly across the text. Far better to get students to consider a specific word, selecting eight synonyms or associations which might help them to develop some imagery: ‘The black dress’ might then become ‘The funereal gown’ or the ‘The midnight-black dress’, phrases which immediately create an atmosphere.
As with any tool, lotus blossom diagrams require practice and discussion. The more frequently you use them and talk students through the process, the more likely they are to internalise the process until you might just hear – as I did one day – ‘Miss, can I lotus blossom this?’ It’s also a tool which can be used independently and collaboratively – in fact, it thrives on students working together in small groups or as a class, as each association may just spark off another idea. I suspect it’s even possible to take the diagrams far enough that connections can be made between quite disparate starting words: who hasn’t found themselves going round in one big circle when playing word association games, after all?
However, the greatest strength of a lotus blossom diagram is the structure it provides for students who may otherwise struggle with exploring language. I’ve found even some of the weakest students can come up with associations with the root phrase, whilst the limited boxes and the fact that not everything has to be ultimately relevant frees them to experiment and feel confident in their own ideas.
It truly is one of the simplest bits of kit I’ve come across as a teacher, but one which I return to time and again with every age and ability range I teach. I’m sure it must have uses beyond those I’ve outlined and even beyond my subject, so if there’s one thing you try this term, make it a lotus blossom diagram.
Jo @JoBullen1 is an English teacher and subject leader, writer and blogger. Read her blog at jobullen.journoportfolio.com
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