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.

 

 

Graphics Organiser spidergram

 

Advantages
A graphic organiser (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 organisers are very specific; others are versatile. Often, the information on a graphic organiser could just as easily be written on a form or list, but the organiser offers certain advantages:

  • Graphic organisers provide the learner with a different way 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, organise 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 organisers 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 organisers can be used to assess students' knowledge and understand of the content, thinking skills and creativity.


Types and functions
Graphic organisers can be classified either in terms of their design or their function. Functionally, graphic organisers 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:

  • Describing
  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Classifying
  • Sequencing
  • 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 organiser
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 :

  • spider - adding more details to a single topic
  • fishbone - cause-and-effect factors associated with a complex topic
  • cluster - a network of ideas based on a stimulus
  • cycle - recurring cycle of events, with no beginning and no end,
  • continuum - topic with a definite beginning and end and a sequence in between.
  • Venn diagram - similarities and differences

Download visual table 21k pdf

There is a very useful flowchart of how to choose a graphic organiser 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 Learned about .....

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:
http://www.teach-nology.com/web_tools/graphic_org/

Where to find graphic organisers
There are numerous educational websites which offer a wide range of graphic organisers 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.

Links to other graphic organiser sites can be found at Teacher Tap: http://eduscapes.com/tap/topic73.htm

Written by Steve Darn, Freelance Trainer, Izmir, Turkey

 

The plans and worksheets are downloadable and in pdf format. Where indicated, there is also audio available to be downloaded. Audio is supplied in mp3 format. To download audio, right click on audio file in the Attachment below and save to your computer. If you have difficulty downloading the materials see the download section of the Help page.


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Comments

A very useful and interesting article - and love some of the weblinks you've included.  It's all sparked a lot of ideas.  Now I'm wondering how I can use Graphic Organisers more effectively in teacher training... both in training newer teachers how to make better use of them and in using them better myself!

In the twentieth century, due to developing technologies in printing, the use of graphic organizers grew substantially. Additionally, graphic organizers entered the realm of education in the late twentieth century as ways of helping students to organize their thoughts (as a sort of pre-writing exercise). For example, a student is asked, "What were the causes of the French Revolution" The student places the question in the middle of a sheet of paper. Branching off of this, the student jots down her ideas, such as "poor harvests," "unfairness of the Old Regime," etc. Branching off of these are more of the student's thoughts, such as "the nobles paid no taxes" branching from "unfairness of the Old Regime." This concept map thus graphically organizes the student's ideas and knowledge, while serving as the basis of the student's essay answer.

A very useful article that clearly explains the range of graphic organisers in use and gives great links to further free resources. Many thanks.

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