Why use a graphic organiser?

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Why use a graphic organiser?

We all know that there can be resistance to writing in the EAL classroom. To break this barrier, we need to consider the reasons for this, which are often due to a lack of scaffolding and under-confident learners. Working through a process of reading a model text, deconstructing it and then reconstructing your own text by following a scaffold, leads to more satisfactory outcomes.

It’s not just the content that EAL learners have to consider. It’s the genre, the features of this, and the organising of ideas. When each of these stages are broken into segments and scaffolded, then the learner can focus on one aspect of writing at a time. The organisation of ideas is the most challenging part, so teaching how to use a graphic organiser is beneficial before the drafting stage.

Brainstorming and planning

Using a graphic organiser is immensely helpful when brainstorming and planning. Brainstorming and planning allow learners the necessary ‘thinking time’ before beginning to write a draft text.

“Brainstorming is a way to get the ‘ideas creation engine’ running. It means ‘opening your mind and letting ideas pour out’.”

(Scrivener, 2011)

Brainstorming can initially be done either in English, or in a learner’s first language, to maximise the number of ideas gathered. Once it is completed, Scrivener suggests modelling a planned layout for the writing, in which learners can substitute their own content. This ‘layout’ is best presented as a visual graphic organiser (also known as a concept map). It usually consists of one page, where learners can organise their ideas visually and connect them in some way. The connection of ideas is the primary focus at this point, rather than the use of accurate grammar and vocabulary. 

Developing strategic skills

The process of concept-mapping also helps develop learners’ critical, analytical and creative thinking skills. When learners identify relationships between ideas, examine meanings, prioritise and decide, they are effectively approaching writing strategically.

For example, the use of a model text allows readers to analyse words before starting the writing process. Ramirez (2017) suggests that, “by increasing comprehension with graphic organisers, teachers can aid learners in being able to integrate and evaluate content present in diverse media and formats.”

Assisting with listening activities

Graphic organisers arranged in a grid form can help learners deconstruct listening texts. Parrish (2018), for example, talks about the importance of graphic organisers when engaged in listening activities, showing how they can provide a scaffold for recording and then organising important ideas.

Working collaboratively

Graphic organisers are ideal for tasks carried out in groups. When a task is completed collaboratively, speaking, listening and vocabulary extension naturally develop – along with other learning skills, such as problem-solving, decision-making, planning and brainstorming. All of these skills aid the faster understanding of subject matter.

Types of graphic organisers

The key feature of a graphic organiser is its visual representation  In his online article ‘Graphic organisers’, Steve Darn states,

“With the realisation that all learners are, to some extent, visual learners, the focus is 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.”

There are many different forms of graphic organisers. They roughly fall into two groups: specific, such as a flowchart; and versatile, for instance, a brainstorm ‘cloud’. Selecting the most suitable concept map for each style of writing is important, as it will be used to direct the writer to order sentences and paragraphs in a cohesive manner. 

There are lots of possible designs, which can be used for similar functions. Below, we give some suggestions of how to match different functions to particular styles of organisers. 

Function What type of graphic organiser could I use?
Describe Spiderweb – this lets you add detail to a single topic by creating sub-topics. A cluster cloud is similar, and allows more complex ideas to be connected with each other.
Compare/contrast Venn diagram – circles represent the things being compared, with similarities found where the circles cross.
Classify Tree diagram – the main idea is subdivided into increasingly smaller components, like a family tree.
Sequence Flow chart – one idea leads to the next, in a cycle.
Show cause and effect Fishbone skeleton – the fins break down different considerations in a way that is useful for argument writing.
Plot events in chronological order Continuum timeline – this provides a start and finish point, which is useful for showing a plot or timeline.
Analyse Chart – to show problems, consequences and suggestions.
Evaluate Plus/Minus/Interesting (PMI chart) – this allows a strong emotional reaction to be translated into a broader, more considered view.


Sample resource

The graphic organiser template that accompanies this article is taken from one of the Learning Village‘s EAL Scaffolding Resources. It can be used in a number of different ways. Here are a couple of good options.

Option 1: Reading or listening text deconstruction
Learning outcome: learners will be able to identify between main and supporting ideas and record these in a visually organised manner.
Activity: learners search for the main ideas in a text and record them in an individual section of the organiser. Underneath, they joy key notes, which give details.

Option 2: Organise content ideas for writing a description, report or similar genres
Learning outcome: learners will be able to organise their ideas to show a plan for different paragraphs using the topic and supporting sentences.
Activity: once learners have done a brainstorm, they can categorise their thoughts. For example, if they are writing a report on a country’s culture, they can write each of their main ideas in a different box – perhaps covering food, clothes, festivals and manners. Beneath these subheadings, they can jot down the details they will write about. Once finished, they can systematically write a paragraph with a topic statement followed by details. Their writing will be based on the notes in each box.

Miranda Howell, EAL Specialist


Darn, S. Graphic Organisers //www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/graphic-organisers  [accessed on 8/12/2021]

Lindstromberg, S. (2004). Language Activities for Teenagers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 

Parrish, B. (21/10/2018). Using graphic organizers as scaffolds while listening. //www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2018/10/21/graphic-organizers-scaffolds-while-listening/ 

Ramirez, S. G. (25/1/2017).   Increasing Comprehension in ELT with Graphic Organizers. //www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2017/01/25/increasing-comprehension-elt-graphic/  
Scrivener, J. (2011). Learning Teaching: The Essential Guide to English Language Teaching.  3rd edition. London: Macmillan

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