Have you noticed that educators today talk about worksheets in hushed tones? When our students work on them, we keep our fingers crossed, hoping our principal doesn’t “pop in” for a surprise walk through. But graphic organizers, now there’s a resource we can be proud of!
The name sounds better. And they look friendlier, with broad, open spaces for students to share their thinking.
But do graphic organizers live up to the hype? Will they ignite your students’ love of learning? Will they make it easier to plan and teach highly effective lessons?
Or is a graphic organizer just a fancy name for a worksheet?
The Worksheet-Free Classroom
When I began teaching, one of my top priorities was to keep worksheets out of my classroom.
I had just graduated from college and was excited for the chance to teach 7th grade creative writing at a New Jersey charter school.
At the time, I still had vivid memories of being a student myself. And there were few things I hated more than worksheets. I remembered spending endless hours, mindlessly filling in blanks, or circling a, b, and c.
I believed my mission as an educator was to save students from the tyranny of the worksheet. Instead, we would read stories and have lively discussions. My students would absorb my passion for literature, and their writing skills would grow naturally.
The first night, I assigned a story for homework and wrote up some open-ended, conceptual discussion questions for the next day. I couldn’t wait to hear my students dive in and share their thoughts on the reading.
But the next day, each prompt was met with dead silence. I prodded, I rephrased, I cold called. But nothing was working. Finally one student called out, “Can’t we just do a worksheet!”
This was the first of many “cold shower” moments in my teaching career. Those times when you believe so hard something will be amazing, only to find that you’re the only one who thinks so.
I quickly realized that engaging my students was going to take more than getting rid of worksheets. The worksheets filled a role. And if I wanted to get rid of them, I would need to be much more creative about filling the void.
Graphic Organizers Support Hands-On Learning
Over the years, I remained committed to student-centered learning. As I taught different subjects and grade levels, I always made sure to include projects and collaborative learning experiences. While the inquiry-based approach was highly engaging for many students, for others, it presented a challenging transition.
My students were used to answering a certain type of question: the questions they had already been given answers to. They had spent years listening to lectures and being asked to memorize. They were used to grading systems that emphasized right answers over deep thought.
For my less adventurous learners, the “blank page” didn’t represent freedom. The blank page was scary and overwhelming. They had spent years in an aquarium. I was dropping them into the ocean and exclaiming, “Swim little fishes!” But I hadn’t prepared them for the challenges of navigating the open seas.
I kept thinking back to that 7th grade student who begged for a worksheet. Deep down, I knew my students longed for independence and creativity. So I began breaking down open-ended tasks into smaller steps. If we were working on a paper, I gave them a list of all the steps they should take.
But even a list of directions didn’t always do the trick. I still spent a lot of time reminding students about deadlines, pointing out missed steps, or clarifying expectations. Over time, I found it was easier to create handouts that mirrored my step-by-step directions. Thus began my love affair with the graphic organizer.
Graphic Organizers vs Worksheets
On the surface, graphic organizers and worksheets are a lot alike. Some educators even use the terms interchangeably. But there are some key differences that make graphic organizers better suited to hands-on learning.
One obvious difference is the amount of open space. Worksheets tend to include lots of questions, with little room for each answer. The idea is to “drill” a student. With enough repetitions, they will eventually develop the intended skill.
But while repetition works in weightlifting, there is little evidence it supports meaningful learning. When students memorize lists of facts or procedures, they don’t develop deep understanding. As a result, they quickly forget the information or process.
Organizers provide structure, but still leave room for deep and flexible thinking. A good graphic organizer strikes a balance between providing clear expectations, while also allowing for more than one right answer.
We should be careful, though, about assuming every graphic organizer promotes meaningful learning. It’s not too difficult to just dress up a worksheet, add some extra space, and call it a graphic organizer.
Before using a graphic organizer in your class, consider what value it adds. Each organizer serves a unique purpose. That purpose may be to reinforce a process, help students see connections, or even just to clarify your expectations.
Graphic Organizers and the Writing Process
I was first attracted to graphic organizers as a way to save time and energy.
When I taught the writing process, I’d read the steps out loud. I’d write them down. I’d email them to parents. But beyond two or three steps, my students would eventually get lost.
Graphic organizers gave me a way to translate directions into visual form. This was a lifesaver for big projects and in-class activities.
Before we started a paper, I would give out a packet with an organizer for each step. First, was the Quote Analysis Organizer. To ensure their writing was evidence-based, the first step of our writing process was to find and analyze quotes from the text. Next, they completed a Thesis Web, which helped them develop their thesis and topic sentences.
Then came the Outline Organizer. This helped them connect their topic sentences back to their quotes. No need to worry about getting the margins and Roman Numerals right.
Year after year, students would tell me that this process took the fear and guess work out of writing a paper. Once they had finished the outline, just add connecting phrases, and voila! They already had a rough draft.
Reading Comprehension Organizers
Graphic organizers can also support reading comprehension.
One of my favorites is the Team Story Analysis. In some ways, this organizer is like a traditional reading worksheet. It asks students about main characters, plot elements, and figurative language.
But rather than asking questions about a specific story, it asks general questions. It even has space for students to write their own questions. This approach promotes deeper comprehension, but it also helps students to generalize the types of questions we generally ask about a story.
As a result, they begin to build an internal understanding of how writing is structured. Once they internalize the process, they no longer need an organizer. This is quite different from most worksheets, which give students something to do, but don’t move them any closer to independent analysis.
A Frayer Model is another popular graphic organizer. Like the story analysis, the Frayer Model scaffolds a process for making sense of vocabulary terms. Rather than memorizing words and filling-in-the-blanks, students use resources and think about different ways to understand new words. Eventually, students internalize the process and develop a skill set they can apply to unknown words in the future.
Interactive Math Activities
As helpful as they are for reading and writing, graphic organizers are at least as valuable in math class.
Many educators think of math as having “only one right answer.” But this could not be farther from the truth! Sure, there’s only one correct answer to “4 + 7.” But this type of question barely scratches the surface of conceptual math.
If we focus on calculation, it makes sense to give worksheets full of “exercises.” But with graphic organizers, we can help students go from calculation to concepts.
Organizers can help students solve challenging word problems. Part of the difficulty students have with word problems are the number of steps. They learn “strategies,” such as CUBES, that actually make them worse problem-solvers.
A simple organizer based on Polya’s process offers a better alternative. There are Polya organizers designed for elementary students and others for students in middle and high school. There are even problem solving organizers specifically for functions.
Another common challenge math teachers express is getting students to “show their work.” This is another area where graphic organizers are helpful.
If students write answers on looseleaf, it’s easy to just write an answer and move on. But if there is a big box asking them to explain their answer, it is much more difficult for them to turn it in and feel like they’re finished.
Number sentence proofs are a fun way to get students to ‘show their thinking’ with graphic organizers. Students develop algebraic reasoning while mastering grade level math standards such as fractions, or negative numbers.
While some organizers are great for specific activities, others support a more general set of ‘visual reasoning’ skills.
Some psychologists believe that all learning can be boiled down to our brain’s process of grouping and ungrouping objects and ideas. This theory is central to Gestalt psychology.
First, we create a mental group, such as “animals.” Then we notice there are certain animals called “dogs” that are different from others in the category. Eventually, we define other sub-groups, such as cats and monkeys. We also organize the information into sub-sub groups, such as Chihuahuas and Akitas. Our brain ultimately makes better decisions by getting very specific about what we include or exclude from groups.
A Venn Diagram is a well-known graphic organizer for sorting. In math you can use it to categorize shapes or numbers. In history or language arts, Venn Diagrams can help us organize our thoughts about different people or events. Venn diagrams are also useful in science, art, foreign language. Really, any subject you could think of.
Mind maps are another general purpose graphic organizer. While Venn Diagrams sort objects into categories, a mind map emphasizes the connections.
A flowchart is an organizer that shows the steps in a process, with decision-points leading to one path or another. They can be helpful for creating complex multi-step plans or for coordinating among team members. Software designers use flowcharts as a sort of outline when writing a complex piece of code.
Make Your Own Graphic Organizers
If you’ve never made a graphic organizer before, start with a process organizer. These are the easiest to make.
Just think about how you normally give students directions. Reading them out loud? Handing out a list of steps?
Then, turn those directions into a graphic organizer with a series of two-row tables. The top rows contain the directions for the step. The bottom row is a big empty space for students to do the work.
Another simple organizer is a T-Chart. These help students organize information into categories or take notes during a mini-lesson. In math, this could be a chart with “expressions” on one side and “equations” on the other. A history T-Chart might cover reasons for and against US independence from Britain.
Ready-Made Graphic Organizers
Making your own graphic organizers is a useful skill for any educator. Each of us has our own teaching style, and it can be hard to find the perfect resource for every activity.
Sometimes, though, it’s more convenient to download a ready-made organizer. There are too many days in the school year to reinvent every wheel.
Our Teachers Pay Teachers store has graphic organizers for a variety of subjects and grade levels. We have organizers for problem solving, story analysis, collaborative learning, and more. We even have one to help you plan inquiry-based lessons.
If you found this article helpful, please follow us on TpT. That way, you’ll be the first to know when we publish a new graphic organizer or throw a sale.
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About the Author
Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff