Graphic Organizer Templates: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Using Graphic Organizer's for creating a greater depth of understanding.

What are graphic organizers?

A graphic organizer is a tool that helps students organize information in their minds. They can be used to help them understand the main idea of an essay, or it could simply be used as a way for you to get your thoughts organized before writing. Graphic organizers have been around since at least the 1950s, and they're still prevalent today. They work well with any type of text, but we will focus on using them with essays here.

Why use graphic organizers?

Graphic organizers do exactly what they say; they give learners an opportunity to organize their ideas. Why is this so important? Learning is facilitated by organizing information in our minds. To put it bluntly, organizing is learning. A graphic organizer is a visual representation of how knowledge is structured. In psychology, we would call this a schema, this is the foundation of how we build understanding. In this article, we are going to focus on how we would go about organizing our ideas. Like a carpenters tool kit, each graphic organizer serves a different purpose. Part of the educator's job is to sift through collections of graphic organizers to find the most suitable one for the job. The visual organizer structure determines how we treat the information we are trying to process. We need to make sure we use the right tool for the right job. For example, if we are comparing two things, we should probably use a Venn diagram. If we are organizing information into associated categories, we might want to use the mind map. The graphic organizer structure is essential and will determine how we eventually write about the content. If we plot historical events using a timeline, we will probably end up using timebase connectives which is central to a recount piece of writing. If students are to be truly independent, they need to understand what the task is asking them to do or, in other words, how are they being asked to organize the information. This metacognitive awareness makes choosing the right cognitive organizer easier. 

Fishbone Graphic Organizer
Fishbone Graphic Organizer

There are many reasons why teachers like to use graphic organizers when teaching students how to write:

1) Students learn more effectively by organizing ideas visually rather than verbally. This makes sense because our brains process visual stimuli faster than verbal ones. When students create a picture out of words, they are forced to think about what each term means individually instead of just thinking about the whole sentence. The result is that they remember the material better after creating the structure.

2) Using graphic organizers forces students to make connections between different parts of the paper. For example, if I ask my student to draw a Venn diagram showing where he/she has learned about the topic from his/her textbook, then I am forcing him/her to connect all these pieces together into one coherent piece. If I were only asking them to list everything without connecting anything, then there would not be much learning going on.

Make comparisons using a Venn diagram
Venn Diagram

3) By having students create them first, they can see exactly what needs to go where. In other words, they know exactly which part goes next to another part. Without doing this step, they may end up putting things down randomly and never really knowing where to put something until later.

4) Graphic organizers provide an opportunity for students to build knowledge. Fundamentally, they are used to aid the comprehension of students. As a reading comprehension tool, they scaffold the process of making meaning (which is fundamentally the act of organizing).

5) Visual tools promote the knowledge of students. When we use these tools we are building schema, organized packets of information that make retrieval easier. Providing an opportunity for students to get their ideas out of their head and onto paper bypasses the limitations of their relatively small working memories.

Drag and Drop Graphic Organizer
Drag and Drop Graphic Organizer


Different types of Organizers

As we mentioned, choosing the right type of organizer is a skill in itself. Many websites are offering pre-formatted graphic organizers, but simply having a large selection won't help teachers and children. The good news is that there are a few central ways to organize our ideas, and these have corresponding graphics. You don't need anything elaborate, simple black-and-white graphic organizers will do the job. We don't want to distract the learner away from the content, any extraneous load on the working memory might act as a distraction. 

How can we organize information?

  • Classification organizer: Grouping information into chunks/themes (e.g. Hierarchy chart step)
  • Sequencing organizer: Using time as the primary organizer - (Creating a timeline of events or sequence of events, plotting out chronological steps)
  • Causal organizer: Looking for causes and effects - (Making consequences steps)
  • Comparison organizer: Making judgements between two or more things

There are other organizer types, but the four listed above will cover most writing assignments and child encounters in the curriculum. Specialist tools include:

SCAMPER analyses Graphic Organizer
SCAMPER analyses Graphic Organizer


Graphic organizers as learning tools

David Hyerle created a wonderful book entitled 'Visual tools for constructing knowledge. The version that I am looking at now from 1996 looks a bit dated, but the content remains highly relevant. When your students are using a visual tool, they are indeed constructing knowledge. In other words, they are using this pedagogical tool for generating meaning. In many cases, educators see the graphic organizer as a bridge between brainstorming and pre-writing tools. A child is effectively taking their ideas out of their head and manipulating them in a visual space. This is why tools like a concept diagram or cluster diagram are so powerful. Once a learners ideas are outside of their head, their working memory has been freed up for the essential higher-order thinking needed for generating meaning. The humble graphic organizer will always remain a vital teaching tool.

What sort of diagrams could you use in the classroom?

  1. Star diagram
  2. Concept diagram
  3. Affinity diagram
  4. Flow diagram
  5. Three-part Venn diagram

Flow Chart
Flow Chart Graphic Organizer

How does a graphic organizer promote classroom thinking?

Using educational tools such as graphic organizers promotes critical thinking skills. Learners are not simply putting their ideas into boxes, when these challenging activities are facilitated collaboratively, students engage in many types of thinking. The map acts as a central point for a purposeful discussion activity. As the learners talk through their visual tools, they make links between ideas. This type of creative thinking is a form of structured idea generation. The learner is effectively in a feedback loop of thinking, talking and connecting. All academic topics will have a productive way(s) of organizing the content; with practice, students can identify the main organizing principle. Even a complex topic can be broken down into several visual representations, which will help a student to build robust knowledge. For example, when tackling a history project, you could start with a flow diagram. Students could then use a triple Venn diagram to compare the topic with two other historical events that they are familiar with. Using these popular thinking maps will enable your students to quickly get out of the starting blocks and start creating knowledge.


Adopting graphic organizers in your school

If you are still unsure how graphic organizers help learners with curriculum content, hop over to our extensive organizer library and see how they are categorized. Depending on the type of thinking you want to promote, you will be able to choose from a comprehensive set of effective learning tools that are free from distractive pictures and emojis. If your school is interested in developing a clear agenda for using visual tools, please do get in contact with us. We can talk about developing a strategic approach together.