Graphic organisers – what’s the big deal?

You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz around graphic organisers. They’re often used in mainstream education, and this is having an influence on ELT and CLIL methodology. This post sets about answering two questions: why they are important, and how you can use them to best effect.

What is a graphic organiser, exactly?

Before we go further, I should clarify what we mean by a graphic organiser. Venn diagrams, matrices, tables, charts, bar charts, pie charts, time lines… these are all good examples. They’re also sometimes known as key visuals. A graphic organiser is a tool that uses visual symbols to express knowledge, concepts, or ideas, and the relationships between them. Why is this important? It allows us to grasp ideas very quickly, as the pictorial form serves as a kind of short-cut to meaning-making.

Sometimes this is used to great comic effect. You have to love this deceptively simple Venn diagram by Elise Towle Snow, for example.

NARWHAL UNICORN by Elise Towle Snow
Reproduced with permission from the artist Elise Towle Snow at ArgyleWhale
Another artist, Chaz Hutton, has gained a huge Instagram following through his ability to exploit the humorous potential of a concise bar chart, flow chart or Venn diagram to express some of life’s complex existential dilemmas. You can see a

selection here.

Why should I use graphic organisers for teaching English?

Put really simply, graphic organisers help us cut out the background noise, and get directly to the main points.

I was first introduced to the importance of graphic organisers while studying for a postgraduate qualification in CLIL. There’s no doubt that in CLIL teaching, the potential to overload students with new content and new language at the same time is pretty huge. Graphic organisers help us manage the amount of processing required for the students, and enable us to keep it at manageable levels. But graphic organisers aren’t only useful in CLIL contexts – they’re a useful component of any teacher’s toolbox.

Imagine writing a text describing the life cycle of a frog to an A1-level primary student. Think about the language control issues you’d encounter. How many sentences would you need, as a minimum? What structures would you need? What unfamiliar vocabulary (frogsporn, tadpole, lay, grow …)? Can you do it without using phrasal verbs like turn into? How can you convey a sense of progression and the passing of time if students don’t already know vocabulary like first, then and next? What would you need to do to support their comprehension of the text?

Tricky, right?

Now imagine showing the same learners a labelled flow chart: a picture of some frogsporn with an arrow pointing to a tadpole, and from there another arrow pointing to a frog.

It’s fairly obvious which of these scenarios is going to result in something that’s easier for students to understand.

Graphic organisers can be really empowering for students.

  • They present information visually, in a way students comprehend at a glance.
  • They can be used to by-pass difficult vocabulary and structures.
  • They can make complex concepts accessible.
  • They allow us to keep the cognitive challenge of a task high while controlling the language.
  • They give structure to critical thinking.
  • They can scaffold speaking and writing production.
How should I use graphic organisers?

There are two main ways you can use a graphic organiser:

1. As a way of analysing a text or checking comprehension

Learners read or listen to a text, then complete an organiser with the information they’ve understood.

2. As a prompt for production

Learners look at information in a graphic organiser, either text or artwork, which then forms the basis of a speaking or writing task.

How can I choose the right graphic organiser?

It’s important to select the right kind of graphic organiser for the kind of information you want to explore. Different information requires different types of graphic organiser. Imagine you are reading a story text with young learners. You might consider doing all of the following tasks. How could you present the answers generated in visual form?

  • A brainstorming task about the topic before students read the text
  • An activity analysing the personality traits of two characters. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • An activity requiring students to sequence a chain of events from the story.

Mind maps are a great tool for brainstorming, activating prior knowledge or revising content knowledge. KWL charts (What I know, What I want to know, What I learnt) are also particularly useful when starting a new topic as a way to activate prior knowledge, engaging students with the topic and require them to think about their learning process. For any comparing and contrasting task, consider using Venn diagrams or Caroll diagrams. Flow charts and timelines are useful for sequencing tasks. Remember that before students can write, these visuals can still be used – young learners can draw pictures to complete Venn diagrams and flow charts, for example.

There are tonnes of examples of graphic organisers if you search online. Here are some other quite simple ones which you might find useful.

  • The ‘diamond 9’ formation, where students have to organise cards into a diamond with the most important at the top. You or your students can write the cards here. It’s great for ranking tasks.
  • A fishbone diagram, which can be used for identifying cause and effect
  • Story maps (which come with various degrees of complexity) help students summarise a text, either in writing or with pictures.

Which graphic organisers do you use with young learners (and beyond)? I’d love to hear your ideas and favourite activities in the comments.

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