Various visual representations can help certain students learn. Sometimes these representations already exist, for example, as maps mounted on the classroom wall, charts or diagrams in an assigned textbook, or photographs available on the Internet. When graphics such as these are not available to teach a particular concept or assist students with a particular learning activity, teachers and paraprofessionals often need to create them or help students create them.

In this overview, we’re primarily going to explore three types of graphic organizers: concept maps, story maps, and flow charts. Many other types of graphic organizers can also be useful, but the three types we discuss here will have wide applicability for helping students deal with difficult concepts, the complexities of narrative (both for reading and writing it), and the sequence of steps in a process.

Concept Maps

Concept maps work well to help students understand difficult ideas. The simplest concept maps place the concept in the center (perhaps in a circle or rectangle) with its various attributes surrounding it (each in a separate circle or rectangle). The diagram below illustrates this simple form of a concept map for the concept “fairness.”

instruction unit5 overview concept map 1

More complicated concept maps may provide additional detail. For example, each shape (e.g., a circle or rectangle) surrounding the name of the concept might relate to one set of ideas about the concept. One shape might provide definitions, another might provide representative examples, and a third might present a detailed list of attributes. Such maps might actually have circles (or rectangles) surrounding circles (or rectangles). They might look something like the template below.
instruction unit5 overview concept map 2

Story Maps

Story maps are a lot like concept maps, except that they focus on the different features of narrative, such as plot, character development, setting, and theme. Story maps help students think about how stories are constructed. They can be used to prompt students to reflect on and discuss the construction of the stories they read, or they can be used to help students plan stories they are preparing to write. Because non-fiction is typically less complicated than fiction, outlines rather than story maps are typically sufficient to help students analyze readings from content textbooks or prepare to write reports and essays.

Other Graphic Organizers: Flow Charts

Flow charts are diagrams that show the steps in a process. They can help students learn how the steps in a particular process lead to particular outcomes, for example, how the water cycle works. Or they can help students learn to perform the steps in a process.

People who use flow charts often insert different shapes to represent different kinds of actions. But this level of complexity is not always necessary. The diagram below shows what a simple flow chart looks like.

instruction unit5 overview flowchart 1

Other Graphic Organizers: Several Options

In addition to the graphic organizers described above, educators can use other types as well to help students learn various concepts, analyze what they read, or prepare for writing assignments. For example, timelines help students keep track of the sequence of events. T charts can help them compare pros and cons or distinguish facts from opinions. Other frequently used graphic organizers include:

  • fishbone charts (sometimes called fishbone diagrams) to illustrate the various causes of a particular effect or event,
  • Venn diagrams to help identify comparisons and contrasts, and
  • crosswalks to show the alignment between two sets of items (e.g., the characters in a story and various personality traits, different tools and their various uses).

Classroom Use of Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers can be created in various ways. Educators can draw them freehand on the chalkboard or poster board. Or they can create them by using computer-based templates or software programs. Quite a number of relevant resources (e.g., templates and design tools) are available on the Internet.

Creating the graphic organizer can also be part of the lesson. The teacher, for instance, might ask students to list the steps in a process or the ideas related to a concept and then write them on the chalkboard, showing their connections with lines or arrows. In fact, the teacher might talk with students about the ideas and ask the paraprofessional to capture them in a diagram on the board!