What is a graphic organizer and how is it used in teaching?
A graphic organizer is a research-based tool that provides learners with a visual representation of information, concepts, or ideas.
Graphic organizers are often used to help children understand what they are reading. They can also be used to organize information in order to plan for a writing assignment or oral presentation or to take notes while listening to a lecture.
How can graphic organizers help students?
Students who have difficulty with reading comprehension, writing, or note-taking, or those who struggle with focusing during lectures, can use graphic organizers to help keep the information organized.
This visual organization helps make the information more concrete and easier to understand and remember.
Even students without academic challenges can use graphic organizers to help them see how information connects.
Graphic organizers can really be a helpful tool for anyone looking for a concise visual representation of information.
Additionally, for some students, a visual representation is easier to understand than a verbal one.
Also, when a student takes notes using a graphic organizer the notes are represented in such a way that make them easy to refer to at a later time. The organizers can be used as a study guide or quick refresher of previously learned information.
6 Types of Graphic Organizers
Below are six types of graphic organizers with specific examples of how to use each one to facilitate reading comprehension, reporting information (written or spoken), listening, and note-taking.
(Blank versions of these six graphic organizers, can be found in the resources section of our site. You can print them out and use them with your child or students).
1-Web Graphic Organizer
A web graphic organizer is often used to list ideas, facts, characteristics, and/or traits related to a single topic.
See an example below.
Common characteristics of dogs:
After students fill in the Web Graphic Organizer, they can report information (through writing or speaking) using the notes from the web.
To illustrate, here is a writing sample using the completed Web Graphic Organizer above: Dogs are furry animals with four legs. Dogs need exercise and like to go for walks. They also like getting petted.
Here are three ways to gather information for a Web Graphic Organizer.
1) A classroom teacher or parent can draw a Web Graphic Organizer on a board or piece of paper and fill it in based on information that they recently presented (through reading aloud, lecture, video, etc) to her student(s).
The teacher/parent can also ask the student(s) questions about what they learned and use their answers to fill in the Web.
For example, if a teacher just read a passage to her class about dogs she could verbally state and then fill in dog characteristics herself as her students watch or she could ask questions to the class (e.g., tell me a characteristic that we just learned about dogs) and fill in the Web with the answers provided by her student(s).
She could also do a combination of the two, filling in some circles on her own and some based on students’ answers.
You may want to do a combination to provide assistance if students are struggling to remember the information.
2) Students can take notes by filling in a Web Graphic Organizer as they read, listen, or watch a video about a topic.
As soon as they know what the topic is they can fill in the middle circle. As they continue to read, listen, watch, etc. they can fill in the outer circles as they come across a characteristic, trait, fact, idea etc. related to the topic.
For example, a student is listening to his teacher talk about dogs and needs to take notes. First he labels the inner circle “dogs.” As she mentions different characteristics about dogs, he fills in the outer circles.
3) Students can fill in a Web simply based on their own knowledge of a topic, even if no text was read and nothing was recently learned.
For example, if a student already knows about dogs, he can complete a Web Graphic Organizer based on that knowledge.
2-Venn Diagram Graphic Organizer
A Venn Diagram is used to compare information. In the example below whales and guppies are compared to each other. Whale characteristics are listed on the left and guppy characteristics on the right. In the middle, shared characteristics are displayed.
Once the Venn Diagram is filled in, students can report information (through writing or speaking) using the notes from the diagram. Here is an example of a paragraph using the filled in Venn Diagram above:
Whales and guppies have differences but also share characteristics.
Whales and guppies both live in water, swim, and have tails.
Two differences between whales and guppies are that whales are mammals, while guppies are fish, and whales are very large, while guppies are very small.
Here are three ways to gather information for a Venn diagram:
1) A classroom teacher or parent can draw a Venn Diagram on a board or piece of paper and fill it in based on information that they recently presented (through reading aloud, lecture, video, etc) to her student(s).
The teacher/parent can also ask the student(s) questions about what they learned and use their answers to fill in the Venn Diagram.
2) Students can take notes by filling in a Venn diagram as they read, listen, or, watch a video in which information is presented about two different topics.
First, they should label each circle (e.g., whales, guppies) and the middle space (shared characteristics) as shown in the example above.
Next, they should enter information as they come across it. After reading, listening, watching, etc. they can look at the information they have written down in the right and left circles and write the similarities in the middle space.
Sometimes the information for the Venn Diagram can come from two different sources.
For example, a student can read Romeo and Juliet and fill in the main plot points from the play in the left circle, then watch West Side Story and fill in the main plot points from the movie in the right circle.
Next, the student would list similar plot points in the middle space.
3) Students can fill in a Venn Diagram based on their own knowledge of any two topics they want to compare, even if they had not recently been taught or read about the topics.
For example, a student could compare baseball to football simply based on her own knowledge, or people to dogs, etc.
3-Hamburger Graphic Organizer
A Hamburger Graphic Organizer can be used to collect important points from a story (fiction or non-fiction), lecture, play, movie, etc., in sequential or chronological order.
Once the information is collected it can serve as an outline for a paragraph, essay or speech. The hamburger is very helpful for writing or speech preparation because it allows students to clearly see the main points in an organized fashion, helping them visualize the order of their upcoming written work or speech.
This is especially useful for students who have trouble organizing information and planning the order in which they will present the information.
Similar to the graphic organizers above:
- teacher/parents can fill in the information from a story, lecture, etc., as students watch
- teachers/parents can ask students questions about the story, lecture, etc. and fill in their answers in the boxes (providing them with assistance when needed)
- students can fill in the information in a hamburger graphic organizer themselves, as they listen to, watch, or read information
- students can fill in the information based on their knowledge of a story, lecture, etc. they have heard in the past
- students can use the information plugged into the hamburger graphic organizer to generate sentences for a paragraph, essay, or upcoming speech
Here I will present a short story and fill in the Hamburger Graphic Organizer with main points from the story. Then I will show how to use the outline from the Hamburger to write a paragraph about the short story in my own words.
Michael’s birthday party was on Saturday. He got so many presents he didn’t know what to do. His toy chest, closet, and drawers were already all filled up and he didn’t know where to put his new toys and clothes. His new stuff was all over his room and his mother kept coming in and telling him to find a place to put it.
Michael was so frustrated that he decided to take a break and look through his old baseball cards in the garage. While he was out there, he saw some of his toys from when he was in preschool. That was when he got his big idea.
Michael asked his mom if he could donate his old toys to other children who did not have a lot of toys. She said “Yes.” Now he would have room for all of his new toys and clothes.
Now I will illustrate how to write a paragraph in my own words about the short story above using the main points in the Hamburger.
A boy named Michael had a birthday party on Saturday and got a lot of presents. Michael didn’t know what to do because he had no room for all of his new toys and clothes, but his mom kept telling him to find somewhere to put them.
Michael got frustrated and needed a break. He went into the garage to look at his old baseball cards. Michael saw his old toys from preschool when he was in the garage.
He asked his mom if he could donate the toys to other children and she said he could. Now Michael had space for his new toys and clothes.
While this example illustrates writing a paragraph, an essay can be written from a Hamburger as well.
For example, if a student collected several points (from a book, lecture, movie, etc.) in each section of the Hamburger, each section would be an outline or guide, for the paragraphs of the essay.
A Hamburger Graphic Organizer could also be used to actually write the essay itself. For example, if you wanted your students or child to write a five-paragraph essay, they could put the opening paragraph in the “beginning” section, the three middle paragraphs in the “middle” sections with one paragraph in each section, and the concluding paragraph in the “end” section.
Once the essay is complete in the Hamburger Graphic Organizer, it can be transferred to blank paper.
You can draw a Hamburger Graphic Organizer yourself, making as many “boxes” as you want and as big as you want. For example, if you wanted a student to write a seven-paragraph essay, you could draw the top and bottom bun of the hamburger and five large middle spaces.
4-Story Mountain Map Graphic Organizer
A Story Mountain Map works very similarly to a Hamburger Graphic Organizer and information for the Story Mountain Map can be collected in the same way that information is collected for the Hamburger.
However, Story Mountain Maps are primarily used to highlight specific points of a fictional story (or movie).
Because fictional stories often build up to a main problem or conflict and then drop back down as the solution unfolds, story mountain maps are often used to show this rise and fall, with the climax of the story being at the top of the mountain.
Students can also be directed to look for the answers to specific questions when completing a Hamburger or Story Mountain Map.
See an example of a completed Story Mountain Map below (using the same story about Michael’s birthday party) with specific questions to guide the student.
Story Mountain Maps can also be used to highlight the important information from a true story as long as the story follows the pattern of building up to a main problem or conflict and then dropping back down as the solution unfolds.
Just like the Hamburger, points from the story can be put in each box of the Story Mountain Map to facilitate reading or listening comprehension, note-taking, or creating an outline for written work or an upcoming speech.
Additionally, filling in the Story Mountain Map with the points of a story, in sequential order, helps facilitate an overall understanding of the main idea.
5-Timeline Wheel Graphic Organizer
Similar to a Hamburger and Story Mountain Map, the Timeline Wheel allows students to list information in sequential order. Timeline Wheels are an excellent choice to show:
- what happens first, next, and last in a fictional or true story
- the dates or times events occurred in chronological order (e.g., timeline of World War II)
- the stages of development (e.g. how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly)
Below is an example of how to use a Timeline Wheel to display events in chronological order. In this example, a child outlines important milestones in her baby brother’s life.
Once the timeline wheel is complete the student can use the plugged in information as the building blocks for a writing piece or speech.
Here is an example of a paragraph written using the information plugged in to the Timeline Wheel above:
I was so excited when my baby brother was born in January 2007. At 7 months old he started crawling. He was walking by January of the next year when he turned one. My brother spoke his first word at 16 months old and started talking in full sentences by two. In December 2009, my brother learned how to use the potty. He was almost three. He went to preschool that September. In September 2012 my brother started kindergarten.
Information for a Timeline Wheel can come from fiction or non-fiction books/movies, lectures, real-life experiences, etc.
Students can watch a teacher or parent fill in the information in a Timeline Wheel, answer questions to help a teacher or parent fill in a Timeline Wheel, or fill in a Timeline Wheel themselves.
The wheel above has eight spaces for writing, but you can draw (or make on Microsoft Word) your own Timeline Wheel with more or fewer spaces. Additionally, all the spaces do not need to be filled in.
You can stop at the last point of whatever it is you are reporting.
6-KWL Graphic Organizer
A Know, Want to Know, What I Leaned (KWL) Graphic Organizer allows students to fill in what they already know about a specific topic, what they want to know, and then what they learned after getting information (reading, listening, watching, observing, etc.) about that topic.
See an example below based on a student who read a book about lizards and filled in the KWL Organizer before and after reading the book.
Ways to complete the KWL:
1) A teacher/parent can ask the student(s)/their answers to the questions in the KWL (e.g., if the topic is cows the parent can say:
“What do you know about cows?”
“What do you want to learn about cows?”
Then, after the child researches the information, the teacher/parent can say:
“What have you learned about cows?”.
As the child answers the questions, the parent or teacher can fill in the boxes while the student(s) watches.
Some teachers might do an activity like this with the whole class, taking answers from a few students and plugging them into the chart up on a board in front of the class.
2) Student(s) can also fill in the chart themselves, reading the questions, and plugging the relevant information into each box.
The KWL is an excellent tool for gathering information to prepare a writing piece or speech using the what I know and what I learned columns.
The KWL is also a good note taking tool which can be referred to later as a study guide.
For example, students can set up the first two columns before a teacher lecture and aim to fill in the last column during the lecture as they learn new information.
For students who have trouble taking notes, focusing while listening or reading (such as those with ADHD) or for students who learn best with structure (such as some students on the autism spectrum), graphic organizers are a great tool to keep them actively engaged while building note taking skills.
Graphic organizers guide the student to listen for specific information and fill it in along the way in a very structured format.
For students who have trouble writing in a straight line, you can take a ruler and draw lines in the writing spaces of any graphic organizer.
For students who struggle to listen while taking notes, teach them how to write down a few important words from each point, rather than whole phrases or sentences.
Show them specific examples of how to do this. For example, in the KWL graphic organizer above, a student can write “hibernate in cold” rather than “lizards hibernate when it is cold.”
After the lesson, the student can fill in the details.
Provide Guidance When Needed
Some children might need very specific examples of how to use graphic organizers with a lot of practice before being expected to use them efficiently on their own.
Provide your child or students with as much guidance as necessary, slowly fading back support as students become more independent at using the organizers.
The ultimate goal is for students to be able to use graphic organizers as independently as possible, asking for help when they need it.
What if Graphic Organizers are not helping?
Keep in mind that every child is different. Some respond to several strategies, others respond to a few, while others may not respond to any of the strategies you try.
If your child is significantly struggling with reading comprehension, writing, listening, note-taking or acquiring any other academic skills, despite consistent practice and guidance, talk to your child’s school and/or doctor.
They should be able to refer you to the appropriate professionals to determine what might be interfering with your child’s progress and what additional strategies might help.
Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting.
If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session.
This article discusses six popular graphic organizers, but there are dozens more that can help children organize information.
In a pinch you can always draw a graphic organizer and make several photo copies as well.
I also like these dry erase graphic organizers!
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Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”