Tips and Tricks for Using Graphic Organizers


illustration, Venn Diagram, 28 Mar 2009, Flickr CC

What types of graphic organizers do students have trouble with?


Graphic organizers [GOs] are essential classroom tools. They help students identify and organize significant information, understand important relationships between concepts, and make sense of difficult texts and content. Charts, timelines, Venn diagrams, cause and effect sequences—these are just a few of these visual tools that can support student learning.

So what type of GOs do students have difficulty with? Trouble for students usually lies not with a particular type of graphic organizer, but rather in how it is used in the classroom.

Guidelines for Use
  1. Using these tools, whether they be charts or timelines, requires that students learn how to use them. In other words, for a graphic organizer to be an effective teaching and learning tool, students have to be taught how to use that tool. So, for example, if you want to use a cause and effect chart in your classroom, it is a good idea to devote some time to introducing its features (e.g., title, arrows, space for responding) and modeling its use. Be explicit about how to use the tool even if it seems obvious to you or some of your students.
  2. Keep it simple. There should not be a lot of words, shapes, or images on a graphic organizer. Visual clutter can cause problems for some of your students. Including too much information can be another problem. Students should be able to easily see relationships and connections between concepts and events on a GO. Including a lot of details or text will make it harder for them to spot those important relationships.
  3. Be attentive to how you visually group information and concepts in modeling the use of a graphic organizer or creating one for your class. Make the visual representation clear and clean for your students. GOs can help students separate the significant from the more trivial, but only if connections and groupings are visually clear.
  4. Evaluate the fit between your teaching goals, the task the students are completing, and the graphic organizer they will use to complete that task. Does the GO support your students in reaching the learning objectives? Does it represent concepts accurately? (Watch out for that cool tool that you couldn’t resist using.) I recommend filling out the graphic organizer yourself before using it—this is an excellent method for spotting a tool’s problems or misfit.
  5. Remember, graphic organizers are scaffolds and supports for learning. If students can access the text or understand conceptual relationships without these tools, don’t use them. As with all scaffolds, the idea is that students move towards independent competence and if students are already there, adding a graphic organizer could turn the task into uninspiring “busywork.”

All in all, unfamiliar GOs or ones that are visually busy and complicated can be the ones that cause students trouble. But thoughtful use can overcome these issues. Research and practice alike suggest that GOs can be powerful learning tools when used with care.

About the Author

Daisy Martin, Director of History Education at, recently co-authored Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms, published by Teachers College Press.