Graphic Organizers for All

Details create the big picture.
— Sanford I. Weill

Teachers today know that graphic organizers are powerful learning tools to use in classroom instruction. But are we using them in a way that honors all types of learners? That’s what we will look at in this month’s newsletter.

 (We define graphic organizers as any visual diagram such as mind maps, cluster maps, webbing, KWL, Venn Diagrams, Semantic Maps, etc.)   

Some of the benefits of using graphic organizers include the following:

  • Develops simultaneous processing ability
  • Activates students’ thinking
  • Helps students understand the Big Picture
  • Helps students activate prior knowledge 
  • Links new information with the old (This is how the brain learns best!)
  • Assists students in retaining and transferring knowledge
  • Allows students to visualize unfolding of the learning process

Graphic organizers are excellent learning tools to use for all learners if they are used in meaningful and engaging ways. Students will quickly tire of them if they become the next photocopied worksheet, or if we are not intentional and transparent in teaching our students to see the relevance in using graphic representations. For example, students need to know that people in corporate boardrooms in America are using mind maps and brainstorm maps to plan and organize their thinking. (Bet they don’t fill in the blanks on pre-made organizers, either!) If you are doing a KWL with your students, do they know that this visual is used to model what good readers do before, during and after learning? Graphic organizers should be living, breathing documents that are created by the students for the students needs as learners.

 Below are some suggestions for using graphic organizers in ways that increase students’ engagement and understanding.

1. Make the graphic organizers BIG and ALIVE. 
Use chart paper and markers.  Have students work in groups of three to brainstorm ideas.   Have them post their graphic organizers around the room for other students to see.  Allow groups to walk around the room and look at other group’s graphic organizers. Have them bring along a clipboard and appoint a recorder so they can write any information that they didn’t include on their map.  Then when they return to their own maps, they can add the information they learned from their peers.
2. Resist always using pre-made fill-in-the blank organizers for students to complete.  Instead make an overhead model of a graphic organizer and model on the overhead the type of thinking this structure helps us to do.  (Do you want students to show compare/contrast, cause/effect, know how to explore a new word?) Then, allow students to create their own visual map as long as it meets the thinking criteria you are asking for in the lesson.  Students who want to use your visual framework may do so. You can also have some copies of your map for students who really struggle with developing their own schema.

3. Use graphic organizers to chart and show growth in the learning process.  At the end of a marking period, put up chart paper with a circle in the middle that states, “What we learned in (subject area) this marking period.”  As students share things they have learned, write the information on the chart and put their initials under their comment. (Students love seeing their names on the charts.) Create a new map each marking period. Take previous quarters’ maps out and add the new ones so students can see how much they have grown as learners. This is especially powerful for struggling learners, because they don’t visualize themselves as learners.

4. Use graphic organizers as a way to differentiate instruction. Some students struggle with finding main ideas or categories to use when organizing information in their cluster maps. Give those students what they need to succeed by providing them with a list of the categories of information to include on their map. Challenge the more advanced students to find their own categories.

5. Try using leveled organizers. See example.

6. Allow students to use computers to create their own graphic organizers. Students love working on computers.  This adds novelty, and the learning brain loves novelty. Some quality computer programs for graphic organizers are Inspiration and Kidspiration … (PS: These programs are easy to use!)
7. Give Vocabulary Maps a whirl! Mapping is an excellent strategy for learning vocabulary.  Vocabulary Maps allow students to explore a word in various ways.
a. Students can create their own Vocabulary Maps, or they can work with a partner or small group to create maps.  Have students keep a vocabulary journal in a spiral notebook or composition book.  This will give students a log of their vocabulary learning and will also keep you away from the copy machine!
b. Groups can create a map for different words and then teach each other their word using their maps. Keep the maps posted in the room so that students can keep learning from them.
c. Some categories for vocabulary mapping may include the following: (Teachers should select several categories that are appropriate for the age and subject level they are teaching.)

  • Guess the meaning (prefixes, suffixes, root words)
  • What is it/Describe the word
  • Antonyms/Opposite Words
  • Synonyms/Related Words
  • Analogies/Similes/Metaphors  (This is like…)
  • Examples from Text (number problems, experiments, etc)
  • Real Life Examples
  • TV/Movie examples
  • Use word in sentence
  • Connections to related concepts
  • Pictures/Drawings

d. Teachers can assign one or two “Must Do” categories and then allow students to choose two categories of their own.

e. Here are some examples of what vocabulary maps might look like: Vocabulary Map Examples

When we teach students intentionally and transparently about the uses and power of graphic organizers and use organizers in real ways that honor all learners, students are more likely to transfer the use of organizers into their learning lives in and beyond school.  Now we have given them a life-long tool for learning success.

Article Credits: Alicia Duncan, Joy Stephens, and Kathleen Kryza, with support from Michelle Leip