The Power of the Graphic Organizer

by Stacey Lloyd 

Ever set students a task - reading or writing - and then observed as some just sit there, staring at the page, their eyes glazed over? Or they immediately become distracted, or even worse: disruptive? These reactions aren’t because students are unwilling, lazy, or defiant: more often than not, it is because they don’t know how to begin. They don’t know where to start. 

And this is why I am a huge fan of the powerful graphic organizer. 

Simply put, a graphic organizer is a visual tool which can help students find relationships between ideas, create links between facts and concepts, and help generate ideas. But to me, they are more than that: they are tools which:

  • Help students get started
  • Break down complex tasks into manageable chunks 
  • Scaffold the process of knowledge creation
  • Assist students in generating ideas
  • Build students’ confidence and competence

Graphic organizers have long been used to aid students with learning disabilities, and research has shown their efficacy (Dexter & Hughes, 2011). Yet, I strongly believe that they work for all students, and can be an effective tool for differentiation, as they help to remove any barriers to learning, to give every student the opportunity for success. In this way, graphic organizers can be assistive in implementing a UDL (Universal Design for Learning) approach in the classroom (read more about UDL here). 

There are so many graphic organizers out there to use, and you may even decide to create your own: but how do you know which one to use? You see, as with most practices, it is important to be really intentional when selecting the most effective graphic organizer out there for the task. Venn diagrams are great for helping students with making comparisons, but would be ineffective when it comes to understanding cause and effect. 

Before using any graphic organizer, ask yourself: What is the goal of the task, and how will this page help students reach that goal? Make sure that you have a range of different organizers which you use in the classroom, to really fit the task at hand. You may be interested in my bundle of over fifty different organizers to suit a range of purposes, from reading comprehension, to essay writing.

Honestly: the list is extensive. Any time my students are set a reading, writing, or research task, I could probably think of a graphic organizer which would be effective in assisting them, and helping them reach the learning goal. But here are just a few examples: 

  • Generating topics for a narrative essay [mind maps] 
  • Organizing content for an analytical essay [a PEEL paragraph table]  
  • Analyzing poetry [Imagery observational chart]  
  • Reading & comprehending a non-fiction text [Who, what, where, when, why chart]  
  • Writing an essay, comparing two texts [a Venn diagram]  
  • Analyzing an informational text [a KWL chart]

Often, I find that graphic organizers are a great first-step in a longer process, and they help to guide students through that process. For example, instead of just giving students an essay question and instructing them to write the essay, I may present the question and ask them to complete a graphic organizer first. Then we will discuss, and move into taking what they produced on the page, and working it into a plan or first draft.


One of the most important things I focus on in my own classroom is teaching students to reflect on their own analytical / writing process; empowering them to think for themselves, and self-identify what works for them specifically, and and really helps them. This is no different when it comes to using graphic organizers. 

In this way, I always have a folder with a range of different organizers available to students, so that they can go and access what they need, when they need it. In this way, they take ownership of their own process and learning.

One way to really deepen the learning process when using graphic organizers is to include verbal feedback and interactive dialogue (Baker, Scott, et al. 2003). Students will gain so much more from the process of completing a graphic organizer if they spend time explaining their thought processes, reflecting on their contributions, and verbally expressing their understanding. This can be done through mini-conferences with you, or through peer feedback and exchange. 

For example, download this free graphic organizer for helping students generate ideas. This can be used whenever students have to write an essay or answer a prompt, in preparation for a class discussion, or as a first step in a project-based learning task. While the process of completing it is assistive on its own, if you go one step further by having students verbally explain their ideas on this page and receive feedback, you will deepen the learning process. That extra step is important. 

When using graphic organizers in the classroom, remember the following:

  1. Be intentional in picking the most effective organizer for the task: always articulating the goal to students.
  2. Have a wide range of possible organizers readily available, for all types of tasks and levels. 
  3. Allow students to choose graphic organizers which are most assistive to them, and their individual needs; thus encouraging them to reflect on what works well for them.
  4. Include discussion and feedback into the process by having students explain their thoughts and ideas once they have completed the graphic organizer: this will deepen the learning.

I do hope that's helpful; don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions about how to successfully implement the use of graphic organizers in your own classroom.

If you are looking for other Graphic Organizer resources, do check out: 


Baker, Scott, et al. “Teaching Expressive Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities: Research-Based Applications and Examples.” Journal of Learning Disabilities, vol. 36, no. 2, Mar. 2003, pp. 109–123, doi:10.1177/002221940303600204.

Dexter, Douglas D., and Charles A. Hughes. “Graphic Organizers and Students with Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis.” Learning Disability Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 1, Feb. 2011, pp. 51–72, doi:10.1177/073194871103400104.

Teach Students How to Use Quotations

Teach Students How to Use Quotations 

Are your students like mine? They plop a quotation in the middle of their writing without introducing it. Or, they choose ones that don't support their points. And don't even get me started on citations...

Since selecting, embedding, and citing quotations are important skills, ones that I expect my students to use multiple times throughout the semester, I created some activities that will hopefully get my kids closer to mastering them - and I'm going to share them with you right now!

The first step is one that, to be honest, I didn't spend a lot of time on in the early part of my career: teaching students how to choose the best quotation to support a point. As a result, I'd get assignments where (some) students embedded and cited quotations properly, but they were ones that did little to back up what they were trying to say. They just weren't taking the time to think through the process - so I created some activities that would get them in the habit of choosing the best quote for the job:

Stand-Up Selection Stations: 
This activity is one that requires my students to really think through the quote selection process. I write a sentence on the top of an 11 x 17 sheet of paper, one that represents a statement a student might make for a particular assignment. Let's say we are working on persuasion. I would write Students should take a gap year before going to post secondary education. Then, I include a passage that a student might find as part of their research on the topic. I repeat this with a different example on each sheet until I have five to eight of them on the wall. The students have to go to each stand-up station and select one sentence from the passage that best supports the point. After, they meet in groups to discuss their selections and come to a consensus on the best choice. Finally, we discuss their group choices as a class. These discussions are rich, as students get to hear the process that others go through to choose quotations - and they get my feedback while we're doing it.

This works really well when you're studying a full class text too. You can write a statement about theme or character on top of the page, add a passage from the text, and have the kids choose a great quotation (Tip: it's best to choose passages that make them think, rather than one with an obvious choice!).

You can grab an editable copy of my Stand-Up Stations here.

Best quote of the class: 
This is a fun activity where my students are learning without really knowing it. We have a section on my front board for the best quote of the class. Each day I assign a group of students to choose the best one, and they write it on the board at the end of the period; when they do, they need to explain to the rest of the students why they chose it. The criteria is pretty broad - it can be the funniest, the most profound, the best use of figurative language, or the one that best sums up our learning for the day. Sometimes it's a quotation from our reading but, more often than not, it's something a student has said. We've had some fun debates and, best of all, the activity gets the kids thinking about the quote selection process.

After they select an effective quotation, students need to embed, cite, and explain it too. And mine were not really good at that.

I realized that the old lecture/worksheet approach was NOT working, so I decided that we needed to get a little more interactive. The stand-up stations are one of the things I started using, but I've got a few more activities that I can share with you to get your students actively engaged in the process.

Before my students use the interactive activities, though, I do have to teach them how to select, embed, explain, and cite. There is a lot of information to give them, and it's hard to find a way to do that without putting them to sleep. I try to make my slideshow as engaging as possible, but I also have a note-taking exercise that is more effective than the traditional method. I believe it’s important for students to write things down – it activates a part of the brain that isn’t when they just read (or ignore) a handout. However, time is short, and often it’s easier and faster to just give students a handout with all of the information.  So I developed some activities that are a hybrid of both methods, allowing kids to write down key information, with some of the notes already provided. My slideshow and these activities are available here. (UPDATE April 2020- now available for Google Drive).

Once students have been instructed on how to use quotations, we use some of the following activities to make this process more interactive and engaging:

An Extended Quote Selection Exercise: 
I use the selection stations and then have students put the the statement and the quotation on I.C.E.  After selecting the best quote, students will work together to make an assertion then introduce, cite, and explain the quotation. Turn this process into a challenge with the best result winning some candy or just the honour of being the ICE Masters. Any time you give kids a change to collaborate on a challenge, the fun factor - and the learning - increases.

Quotation Scavenger Hunts: 
a) When you're doing a full class text, give kids assertions about the text and have them work in groups to find the best quotes to support the assertion. (This could also be done individually if your kids don't work well in groups).

b) You could make the above exercise a little more challenging and have them put it on ICE by introducing, citing, and explaining each quotation that they choose.

c) Give students sheets - either at their desks or on the wall  - with a series of quotations that have been properly and improperly embedded and cited. They have to find the ones that are not done properly and re-write them so they are.

Visual Reminders: 
Once you have taught these skills to your students, use anchor charts or posters that they can refer to in class.

You can grab this one here, or for an added bit of active learning, get your students to create some anchor charts that explain the process of selecting, embedding, citing, and explaining quotations. 

Anchor charts are meant to be created with the whole class, of course, but sometimes I like to have the students create them in groups to share with their classmates later. They aren't as adept as doing it on the spot as we are, but they do enjoy making them and then presenting them to their classmates - and it's a great review that results in some nice visuals for your walls. My instructions are available here. (There are some optional title pages here - it's best to let the kids do the whole design, but sometimes they need a little push to get started).

So there you go. Those are the activities that I use to embed the proper use of quotation is my students' brains. I hope you can find something that you might use with your students too.

I have a pack that is full of lessons and activities that teach kids all about embedding quotations. You can check it out here.

Some of my friends at the Coffee Shop have some resources that focus on using quotations too. Be sure to check them out:

Writing Spotlight: Writing About Quotes, The Daring English Teacher

Literary Quote Analysis, Nouvelle ELA

10 Ways to Support English Language Learners in Your Classroom


My career in teaching started in a less traditional way as after I collected by degree, I immediately set off from my very small town to Beijing China to teach at a Canadian international school.  Although many educators who go abroad to teach focus on language instruction, I was teaching regular language arts curriculum, but with the unique challenge of all of my students' language abilities being vastly different.  Some students were native English speakers, for some English was their fourth or fifth language, and for others, they were relatively new to the language. With students being from different countries and possessing varying abilities, I quickly had to develop and implement strategies that would accommodate that complex dynamic. 

Upon returning to Canada, I continued teaching a language support class for ELL students, and also worked in conjunction with classroom teachers to support ELL instruction of their regular curriculum. Although my experience teaching in China was vastly different from my experience in Canada, it provided valuable insight on how to address the frustrations some of the teachers I worked with felt. They would come to me stressed and overwhelmed by the task of teaching English, science, or math to those who lacked foundational English language skills. Having navigated these waters before, I was able to empathize and also share the strategies that had been successful for me. 

An added benefit is that many of these strategies are not only beneficial to English language learners, but for all your students. 

1. Classroom Environment / Positive Outlook

One of the most important things for teachers to do is to approach having ELL students in your classroom with a positive attitude.  While experiencing that feeling of, "How am I going to get this student to meet all the outcomes?" is totally normal, it's better to focus on how you can support this student, learn about them, and help them improve in your subject and develop the skills they need to be successful in your domain at their level.  Half the battle is remaining optimistic about the students' growth, but also realistic that the student isn't going to learn the English language in a semester.  You need to focus on helping that student learn, grow, and improve.  Accept that the learning of students with less advanced English language skills is going to be commensurate with where they are, and that’s ok. 

2. Trust Factor

English learners in the classroom need to feel safe.  Whether or not an ELL student will be successful in your classroom is dependent on whether or not they feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.  If you have ever been in a country where you don’t speak the language (or even just amongst a group of people) you might know how uncomfortable, vulnerable and uneasy this scenario can make you feel. Draw upon this feeling if you need to, and try to have empathy for your students who are working hard at developing their skills. Make an intentional effort to build relationships with your students, and those relationships will in turn build trust. 

You'll also want to build trust between the ELL student and other students in your class as well. One way to do this is to use team-builders in your classroom that allow students to work with small groups.  I've bundled by favorite team builders together that work really well with ELL students (classroom escape rooms, sports mash-up, wonder day, maker activity, and mystery).  You can grab them here: CLASSROOM TEAM-BUILDERS

3. Learn About and Respect the Students’ Culture

Make an effort to get to know where the student is from and learn about their background.  When you find out where they are from, make sure you know where it is and have at least a basic understanding of the country. You may also want to consider the students' cultural or religious background and make informed decisions about what you are celebrating in your classroom.  Celebrating holidays can have their place, but being inclusive is important.  Find out what holidays your ELL students celebrate, and use it as an opportunity to have the class learn about the traditions that come with those celebrations as well.

Although it seems like a simple task, you'll also want to learn how to say the students' name properly (before they arrive if you can).  Some students will have an English name that has been given to them.  You may want to ask the student if they would prefer to be called their real name and put the effort into learning how to say it properly even if it takes some time (but, of course, use whatever name they prefer).   

4. Use Predictable Routines

In the same way that children excel at home when there are routines in place and established boundaries, so do students in the classroom. With predictable routines, ELL students know exactly what to expect, which in turn helps them thrive. Something as simple as using bell-ringers at the start of each class gives students something to look forward to and channel their energy into the moment they walk in the door (you can try a free week of bell-ringers here and read about how I implement this daily routine here).  They will be calmer, more focused, and less stressed knowing what is expected of them.   If you think the bell-ringers might be too hard for your ELL student to complete independently, allow them to work with a partner.   Whatever routines you choose to implement, be sure to explain the process in detail from beginning to end, and repeat as often as is necessary until it becomes second nature for everyone in the class.

5. Engaging and Compelling Activities and Content

Although it seems obvious, when you deliver content that is compelling, students tend to be intrinsically motivated to learn and participate. Try to avoid over-lecturing as ELL students will tune out and instead incorporate as many unique activities to appeal to as many different learning styles as you can. Use group work and paired work as often as possible, as it tends to incite more engagement with ELL students, as they know they might be called upon to share.

6. Check in with your Students and Foster a Question-Asking Environment

Some cultures do not see asking authority figures questions as appropriate - so make sure you make a specific effort to check in with those students. Without your encouragement, they might never speak up, even if they are falling behind.  They may even say that they do understand something when they do not because they don’t want to bother you or openly admit that they are lost. If they do say they understand something, have them explain it back to you.  If you continue to encourage them to speak up and ask questions, it will eventually become commonplace within the walls of your classroom.

7. Watch your Language (Idioms)

For many of us, idiomatic expressions are a piece of cake, but ELL students often can't make heads of tails of them (do you think a language learner would have understood that sentence? 😉).  Idioms are such a part of our daily communication that we aren’t even aware that we are using them. However, for someone learning the English language, idioms can be extremely confusing. While “he has a chip on his shoulder”, “she really went the extra mile”, “it’s a toss up”, or “back to the drawing board” might be expressions we often use without giving a second thought, consider how perplexing these might be to someone unfamiliar with the English language. Watch your language, and when you use an expression, take the time to explain its meaning.  Rather than avoiding using idioms,  include resources for teaching idioms, as sometimes even first-language English speakers struggle with them.  Use idiom discussion or writing prompts, share an idiom of the week, or even give students idiom awards

Try a free sample of my idiom discussion prompts by clicking here.

8. Preview Resources and Give Context

Let your English language learners in on what is coming up in your classroom.  Give students the texts/short stories/videos that you will be reading or watching in class the day before. This will allow them to go home, read over the material and get a head start, which will make them feel far more comfortable. Also consider what background information students may need for the lesson at hand. Not everyone comes to the table with the same experiences, and there are many factors to consider from nationality and religion to culture, and economics. 

9. Scaffold and Repeat

Get comfortable with repeating yourself in a variety of ways.  When issuing an assignment, give clear instructions, use visuals, and provide student samples of work. Explain it clearly and use gestures, pictures, or written directions to make it clear for the students.  You will also want the student to explain it back to you prior to starting. It is important to remember that nodding, does not necessarily mean understanding. 

You might also want to schedule time at the end of each class to review and repeat important information from that day, and answer any questions. Have students turn to each other to share the content they learned that day and share any instructions they need going forward.

It is also important to break tasks down into manageable chunks for ELL students.  Instead of giving them the entire assignment like the rest of the class, give them one task at a time to focus their attention on one part at a time.  

10. Use TONS of Visuals

Most people are visual learners, so incorporating more visual elements into your classroom will help all of your students.  Here are a few ways that you can incorporate more visual aspects to support ELL students: 

- You can have word walls set up to provide vocabulary support; figurative language walls set up for quick reference; essay words and their definitions posted to help with research essays. 

- Write all directions on the board in clear language.

- Share examples of other students’ work as a model of a strong response. 

- If you are lecturing, use and refer to the related visuals in your presentations and print out the presentation slides for ELL students so they can follow along and also look at the slides later. 

- Use sentence frames to ignite conversations like: “I agree with so and so because…” or “I disagree with so and so because…” 

- Use graphic novels or comic book representations.  For example, the short story The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury has a comic interpretation that is nearly identical in text to the original dialogue.  This is an can be an excellent way to stimulate the senses and bridge the language gap. 

- Use diagrams or visual representations to help explain complicated ideas. If you are reading a story or a novel, you could do this to show how the characters are related or connected.  You could also look up a setting that is similar to the story to show the student.

Having an ELL student in your class is a privilege.   You will often get to learn about a new culture or country, you will use strategies that will benefit all of your students, and you will get to see measurable growth in their language and understanding of your content. 

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