As a young teacher, fresh out of college, I was eager to challenge the status quo. I wanted to prove that my students could learn without grammar quizzes and comprehension tests. I still had no idea what a graphic organizer was. But I clearly remembered the endless hours I spent as a student, mindlessly filling-in-the-blanks and circling a, b, or c.
My mission was to save students from the tyranny of the worksheet. Instead, I envisioned my classroom as a sort of French salon. We’d have lively discussions about literature. My students would absorb my passion for reading, and their writing skills would evolve naturally.
The first night, I assigned a story for homework and wrote up some open-ended 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, every 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 creative about filling the void.
It was several years before a colleague suggested I try using graphic organizers. And at first, I wasn’t impressed.
Sure the name sounded better than “work-sheet.” And they look friendlier, with broad, open spaces for students to share their thinking.
But could they ignite my students’ love of learning? Would they make it easier to plan and teach highly effective lessons?
Or were they just a fancy name for a worksheet.
Looking for resources? You can find graphic organizers for multiple subject areas and grade levels in our online store
Six Reasons to use Graphic Organizers Instead of Worksheets
On the surface, graphic organizers and worksheets are a lot alike. Some educators even use the terms interchangeably. Both provide a simple way to get students down to business. Just pass out some sheets of paper, and you have an instant classroom activity.
But there are some key differences that make graphic organizers a more effective tool for student-centered learning.
1. Use Organizers to Give Directions
One of the greatest benefits of graphic organizers is also the simplest: giving directions.
For me, giving directions was one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching. Even simple directions, like ‘read pages 75 to 83.’ could prove a challenge.
“What page do we start on?” “What book are we reading?” “Do we have to?”
Now imagine asking students to work in teams on a multi-step project or to engage in creative problem-solving. I quickly realized that giving directions aloud wasn’t enough. But even a list of directions didn’t always do the trick.
I still spent too much 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. Sometimes there was a box for them to fill in. Other times, they would check off tasks as they completed them.
As crazy as it seemed, students found it easier to follow directions when given in organizer form. And the organizers certainly made it easier for me to keep track of who was on track.
2. Get Students to Show Their Work
Graphic organizers are also a handy way to encourage students to show their work. (Though I prefer the phrase, “show your thinking.”)
When we ask students to answer a question, they tend to do so with as little writing as possible.
I can understand why. When my wife asks me to do the dishes, I do the dishes. I don’t stand there explaining the importance of clean dishes to healthy eating, or describe the benefits of one dish soap over the other.
For many students, writing about their process seems like a waste of time. If they got the right answer, what’s the problem?
But a graphic organizer makes clear that the explanation is part of the answer. When I teach the Polya process for solving word problems, the first step is to identify what’s being asked and what information is given.
If I ask them to write this in their notebook, it rarely happens. But when there’s a big empty box on their Polya Organizer asking for this info, it’s harder to overlook. And if they try to hand in a sheet with an empty box, I can tell right away that they haven’t actually completed the assignment.
3. Emphasize Depth Over Breadth
One obvious difference between worksheets and graphic organizers is the amount of open space. Worksheets tend to include many exercises, 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.
The layout of a graphic organizer is designed for depth over breadth. They’re best suited to asking a few interesting questions that allow students to go deeper.
4. Graphic Organizers Make Thinking Visual
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.
Organizers can be a great way to help students see the connections between ideas and organize their thoughts.
There are countless graphic organizer designs, each of which supports a different type of thinking. Hub-and-spoke style organizers emphasize connections between ideas, while side-by-side organizers help with compare-contrast. Flowcharts help students think through a series of interconnected steps, while Venn diagrams can be used to organize items into overlapping categories.
5. Organizers Scaffold Critical Thinking
Throughout my teaching career, I remained committed to student-centered learning, despite my initial struggles.
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. But they had become conditioned to answering a certain type of question: the questions they had already been given answers to.
They had spent years listening to lectures and memorizing lists of facts. They were used to grading systems that emphasized right answers over deep thought.
While the inquiry-based approach was highly engaging for many students, for others, it presented a challenging transition.
They had spent years in an aquarium. I was dropping them straight into the ocean, and expecting them to navigate the open seas.
I found organizers to be indispensable for making IBL accessible to more students. A good graphic organizer strikes a balance between providing clear expectations and structure, while allowing for deep and flexible thinking.
6. Use Graphic Organizers to Support Collaboration
As helpful as they are for independent work, graphic organizers are just as useful for collaborative learning experiences.
For students who are new to working in groups, effective collaboration can be a challenge. They often struggle to figure out all the steps required to complete a task. Let alone, how to divide those steps equally among group members.
Graphic organizers like the Team Story Analysis have a space for students to select a ‘job.’ Assigning jobs is one simple way to make it easier for students to decide who does what.
But a graphic organizer doesn’t need jobs to help with collaboration. Simply giving students a shared document helps them to keep their work organized, and keep track of what they’ve completed and what remains to be done.
7. They Provide an Authentic, Real-Time Assessment
Another benefit of organizers is that once students complete a task, you have an artifact to use for assessment, or to add to their portfolios. And the windows they provide into students’ thinking are much more authentic than a multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank assessment.
I even find organizers to be a useful tool for instant feedback. I can quickly scan the room, and the visual layout of the organizer makes it easy to see how far along my students are.
And I often start tasks with a question asking students to describe the activity or plan what they’re about to do. By reading these over, I can quickly redirect students who are on the wrong track.
This avoids wasted time and ensures they get more value out of the experience.
How to Use Graphic Organizers in Your Classroom
The simplest way to introduce graphic organizers into your classroom is to start with a learning objective. Ask yourself how you will know if a student has achieved that objective. Then, create a space where students can provide that evidence.
It can often be as simple as taking a few questions from a 20-question worksheet. Add space for students to explain their answers, and voila – instant graphic organizer.
Here are some examples of ways that organizers can make your job as an educator a bit easier. I’ve started with a few general ideas that apply to any subject, then follow with specific examples for reading, writing, and math.
General Purpose Graphic Organizers
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. For more on using Venn Diagrams in your classroom, check out this helpful resource from the New Zealand Ministry of Education.
Mind maps are another general purpose graphic organizer. While Venn Diagrams sort objects into categories, a mind map emphasizes the connections. Here’s a useful article to help you get started with MindMapping.
A Flowchart is an organizer that shows the steps in a process, with decision-points leading to one path or another. Flowcharts 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. Watch this short video for more on using Flowcharts in the classroom.
Using Graphic Organizers for 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 much of the fear and guesswork out of writing a paper. Once they had finished the outline, they just needed to add connecting phrases, and voila! They already had a rough draft.
Graphic Organizers and Reading Comprehension
I also found organizers to be useful for supporting reading comprehension. In many cases, a generic reading organizer was much more effective than comprehension questions written for a specific story.
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.
This process helps students 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.
Humanities and Language Arts Resources
5 Paragraph Essay Writing Graphic Organizer | Print and Digital Options$3.00 Add to cart
Lesson Plans and Classroom Activities
Integer Operations on the Number Line Graphic Organizer$1.00 Add to cart
Lesson Plans and Classroom Activities
Math Word Problem Graphic Organizer | Digital and Print$2.00 Add to cart
Graphic Organizers for Math
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. I’ve designed a number of organizers based on the Polya process, all of which can be found in our online store
- Elementary Grades Word Problem Organizer
- Middle and High School Word Problem Organizer
- Function Word Problem Organizer (for problems with 2 unknown values)
Proving Equations is a fun way to get students to apply conceptual reasoning to learning about variables, expressions, and equations. Graphic organizers help structure this activity and encourage students to show their thinking.
Finding the Right Graphic Organizers for Your Classroom
If you’ve never made a graphic organizer before, start with a process organizer.
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.
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 online 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 .
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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