Visual representations of information are by no means an innovation in education. The use of graphs and charts to represent statistical information and time-lines showing the sequence of historical events have long been accepted tools, while in language teaching, the mind-map is already a common aid to brainstorming a topic. However, with the realisation that all learners are, to some extent, visual learners, the focus on process rather than product, and with increasing emphasis on developing organisational and thinking skills alongside language skills, visual tools such as graphic organisers are being increasingly employed.
A graphic organizer (also known as a concept map, mind map or relationship chart) is usually a one-page form with blank areas for learners to complete with ideas and information which are connected in some way. Some organizers are very specific; others are versatile. Often, the information on a graphic organizer could just as easily be written on a form or list, but the organizer offers certain advantages:
• Graphic organisers provide the learner with a different ways of seeing and thinking about information.
• Language barriers (words, grammar) are removed, so that learners can focus on the connections between information.
• The visual display conveys complex information in a simple-to-understand manner. Showing (as opposed to telling) how information is structured is a way of facilitating understanding. In most cases, dual-presentation (visual representation plus is more successful than either approach alone, regardless of whether the student is a visual or auditory learner.
• Analytical, critical, planning and creative thinking skills are developed. To create the map, the learner has to identify the relationships between items, examine the meanings attached to them, and prioritise the information and decide where each item should be placed on the map. Students are more likely to become strategic learners.
• A lot of information can be converted into a structured, easy-to-read, graphic display. A large amount of information can be displayed to provide the “big picture” of a topic.
• Changes can easily be made to allow learners to take different perspectives and clarify their thoughts. Organisers are easy to edit, revise, and add to.
• Creating the map helps the learner to generate ideas and see the possibilities associated with a topic as the map grows.
• Graphic organisers have multiple uses. They can be used to structure writing projects, summarise reading texts, organize and store vocabulary, and help in problem solving, decision making, studying, planning research and brainstorming.
• Subject-matter is comprehended faster and more efficiently. Because the demands of processing the language are reduced, content can be considered at more sophisticated levels.
• While organisers often represent an individual’s arrangement of information, they can also be used at group or class levels. A class flow-chart of the storyline of a class reader may help all the students to follow the plot.
• Since most graphic organizers use short words or phrases, and sometimes drawings, they can be used with all levels and with young and less-able learners
• The teacher is given a record of the learner’s thinking process. Graphic organizers can be used to assess students’ knowledge and understand of the content, thinking skills and creativity
Types and functions Graphic organizers can be classified either in terms of their design or their function. Functionally, graphic organizers can be grouped into two categories: those that depict basic information structures (whole-to-part, cause/effect, etc.) and those that serve specialised needs (project planning, goal setting). For the language classroom, the most common functions are:
• Comparing and contrasting
• Cause and effect
• Decision Making
There are a wide variety of designs for depicting the same basic information structures, but all serving the same basic purpose of visually revealing to learners how the information is structured. Some common designs include:
Clock, Cluster/Word Web, Describing Wheel, E-Chart, Fact and Opinion, Five W’s Chart, Flow Chart, Four-Column Chart, Goal-Reasons Web, Hierarchy chart, Idea Wheel, KWL/KWHL Chart, Ladder, Observation Chart, Persuasion Map, Planning Chart, Progress Report, Sequence Chart, Spider Map, Step-by-Step Chart, Story Map, T-Chart, Time Line, Tree Chart, Venn Diagram.
Choosing an organizer
Choosing the appropriate organiser involves consideration of function, purpose, the nature of the material/information, the classroom activity and personal preference. Some initial questions to consider are:
• Is only one topic involved, or are there many?
• Is it a complex topic?
• Is the information linear or cyclical?
• Are there similarities and differences, pros and cons?
• Is time involved?
• Are there hierarchical levels?
Six common designs and their functions are :
There is a very useful flowchart of how to choose a graphic organizer on the Enchanted Learning website: http://www.enchantedlearning.com/graphicorganizers/flowchart/
The teacher’s role
Learners need to be trained to use graphic organisers and it is the teacher’s job to introduce them gradually and systematically, beginning with simple mind maps to brainstorm topics and KWL charts to provide a purpose for reading a text.
|What I Know about ….||What I Want to find out||What I Learnt about …..|
The KWL Chart
Other typical uses include planning writing (the map or chart may be included in a portfolio), recording vocabulary thematically or in lexical sets, following the characters or story in a narrative and breaking down the content of a text.
Responsibility for graphic organisers can gradually be turned over to the learners. Typically, this happens in stages:
• The teacher constructs the graphic organiser, provides students with a copy, and tells them how and when to complete it.
• The teacher and students co-construct graphic organisers showing important ideas as the content is explored.
• Teams of students construct graphic organisers cooperatively with the teacher acting as a guide.
• The students construct graphic organisers independently.
In the early stages, it is a good idea for the teacher to keep a selection of organisers at hand so that learners have a choice and can experiment with a wider range of designs.
Graphic organisers are as useful for teachers as they are for learners. They are a valuable tool in lesson planning, syllabus design, report writing and research as well as providing an insight into the individual learner’s thought processes and learning style.
A graphic organiser generator is available on the Teachnology website:
Where to find graphic organisers
There are numerous educational websites which offer a wide range of graphic organizers to download (usually in pdf format) free of charge, with permission to print and copy for classroom use and advice on how to choose and best utilise them.
Education Oasis: http://www.educationoasis.com/curriculum/graphic_organizers.htm
Region 15: http://www.region15.org/curriculum/graphicorg.html
Links to other graphic organizer sites can be found at Webenglishteacher: http://www.webenglishteacher.com/graphic.html and at Teacher Tap: http://eduscapes.com/tap/topic73.htm
first published 11 September 2008