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Graphic organizers are like power-ups for your English Learners (and just about everyone else!)

Graphic organizers aren’t new. I’m pretty sure that Ptolemy was using some sort of Venn diagram to explain longitude and latitude. And I’ve seen photos of cave drawings that looked a lot like cause and effect timelines.

They’ve been around a while.

But . . . I still think that we don’t use them enough. The visual and textual combination of a great graphic organizer is the perfect tool for connecting people, places, ideas, and events. We use them to make sense of new information, to show dynamic relationships, and to make connections to prior knowledge. All in a visual format that makes sense to our brains.

And as handy as they are for your mainstream students, think video game power-ups when you use graphic organizers with English Learners (EL) and multilingual students. A power-up gives a gamer extra strength, or a new weapon, more speed, and sometimes just the opposite – the game slows down while your character retains the same speed.

For your kids who are learning English or who might be reading / writing below grade level?

Graphic organizers = video game power-ups

When we integrate graphic organizers into our instructional designs, EL kids get extra power that can help them understand and grasp new ideas . Last week, I got the chance to learn with and from seven other teachers as we shared successful EL teaching strategies. And trust me, the information flow was pretty much one way – from the smart people in the room straight to me. But from that conversation, a few things became clear:

Graphic organizers lighten the cognitive load
One of the biggest hurdles for classroom teachers is finding ways to ease the language burden without compromising the academic content.  Graphic organizers allow ELs to arrange their thinking about foundational content like people and places without being super concerned with commas and periods and style and sentence structure and other language details.

A good organizer gives an EL the chance to process
You’re going to get a lot of crickets if you’re hoping for any sort of conversation without allowing your English Learners to first activate prior knowledge and, second, to access what English skills they have to express what they know. Using a graphic organizer before and during learning, provides the chance to think before they speak. (Not a bad strategy to use with ALL your kids.)

Focus on just a few different organizers
Especially early on. If you’re going to use a Venn Diagram, stick with the Venn Diagram. Don’t be messing with your kids by giving them a different compare and contrast tool like a T Chart or then some other fancy matrix thing. And coordinate with other teachers in the building so that you’re all using the same tools.

But be sure to use the few you use in different ways
Different types depict different ways of processing information. So look for three or four to describe, compare, contrast, classify, and sequence, to highlight relationships or show cause and effect.

They work cause they do cool things to the brain
Using graphic organizers jumpstarts textual, visual, and even oral parts of the brain. And that’s a good thing.

Make sure they’re visual
I’ve been a big fan of John Medina for years. His 12 Brain Rules book . . . uh, rules. And one of the most important of his rules? Vision Trumps All Other Senses. So . . . don’t skimp on images, pictures, maps, graphics, paintings. You get the idea.

Graphic organizers are most powerful when used in small groups
ELs benefit from the opportunity to work cooperatively.

Need a few graphic organizers to add to your Power Up collection?



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