Blog: How to choose a graphic organiser to teach EAL learners (part one)

In this blog, Tom Beakes outlines why graphic organisers are useful in the classroom and how to identify when a graphic organiser should be used.

As the number of learners who use English as an Additional Language (EAL) increases in primary and secondary schools, teachers need to explore effective strategies to support their multilingual learners’ language development. One approach that has gained popularity is the use of graphic organisers, which are visual tools that help students to organise their thoughts and ideas.

There are many different types of graphic organisers, many of which can be downloaded as templates for free from our website. Some, such as tables or bar charts, are commonplace and widely encountered in textbooks and other academic resources so we can expect most students to be familiar with them, whilst others - such as Ishikawa (or fishbone) diagrams - are less well known and will need to be carefully explained and demonstrated for successful use. This blog, part one of two, briefly explains why graphic organisers are useful and how to identify when using a graphic organiser will be helpful to scaffold learning.

Why use graphic organisers to teach EAL learners?

There are several reasons why graphic organisers are a great idea for learners who use EAL.

Reason One: They are more accessible

Firstly, they can make tasks more accessible by providing a visual scaffold for understanding a text whilst retaining the cognitive challenge of a task.

Reason Two: They help with writing and speaking skills

In addition to supporting understanding of texts, graphic organisers can facilitate the creation of written and spoken texts by helping multilingual learners to organise their ideas and make connections between new and existing knowledge.

Reason Three: They are collaborative

Graphic organisers are also a great basis for collaborative tasks, which are vital for promoting language development and providing opportunities for learners using EAL to encounter and use new curricular language.

Reason Four: They can be adapted

Finally, graphic organisers can also be adapted to suit different language proficiencies and abilities, making them a versatile tool for teachers to use with all learners.

We will explore some examples of using specific types of graphic organiser in a later blog, but let us focus first on how to select the right graphic organiser for our learners’ needs.

How to decide if a graphic organiser is needed

A graphic organiser should help learners access curricular content more easily. Before deciding on a graphic organiser to use, ask yourself whether it will help learners understand, process or visualise information in a way that will prepare them to succeed in the task at hand. If the sole purpose is to act as window dressing or give students ‘busy work’ and you cannot identify a clear rationale for using a graphic organiser, then it is probably unnecessary.

To help decide if a graphic organiser will be useful, it is important to identify the function or purpose of the text or task that we want our learners to be able to access. Common academic functions include categorising, describing, summarising, comparing and so on.

Many texts and tasks will have multiple functions so it will be important to identify which ones will be most important for learners who use EAL. For example, one of the functions of a text telling us about Albert Einstein is to inform the reader about the sequence of events in his life. Learners who use EAL can have difficulty understanding the way time references and tenses are used in texts to indicate sequence, especially if a text is not ordered chronologically. In this case, we may want to introduce a graphic organiser which will help represent the sequence of events clearly, such as a timeline.

Choosing the right graphic organiser for the task

When selecting which graphic organiser to use, it is critical to understand the main function or purpose of the text type or task you want the learners to complete. Common functions in academic contexts are listed below with an example of a task, subject area and the types of graphic organiser that could be used to support multilingual learners in each case.

Task or text function Example Subject area Types of graphic organiser you can use
Showing cause and effect Showing the causes of climate change Geography Fishbone (Ishikawa) diagram, futures wheel
Collating and categorising Sorting animals into categories based on their physical characteristics Science Table, T-chart, Y-chart, matrix, grid
Describing and defining concepts Defining a new set of vocabulary words for describing food English, modern languages Concept map, spidergram, circle map
Recalling, grouping and summarising information Summarising a chapter of ‘Inside Out and Back Again’ by Thanhhà Lai English literature Concept map, spidergram
Sequencing ideas Sequencing the steps of the rock cycle to show how rocks are constantly changing and recycling Chemistry Cycle, flow chart, timeline
Comparing and contrasting Comparing and contrasting the Kingdom of Benin with the Maya Civilisation History Venn diagram, double bubble map, T-chart
Visualising numerical data Presenting the results of a class survey about the number of pets owned by each student Maths Bar chart, pie chart, pictogram
Making decisions and reviewing effectiveness Creating a decision tree for a moral dilemma presented in a story PSHE, religious studies Balance scales, line graph
Classifying and showing hierarchy Classifying the hierarchy of a chosen kingdom of organisms Biology Pyramid, ladder, tree diagram, brace diagram

Once you have chosen a graphic organiser that you believe will help your students access the content of your lesson, the next step is putting it into practice. In part two of this blog, which will be published shortly, we will look at ways to make the best use of graphic organisers in the classroom.