To Graphic Organize or Not?

One of my ultimate goals for my students is for them to process a text efficiently in their heads. I have seen the skillification of reading as Vicki Vinton refers to it in her book Dynamic Thinking for Deeper Reading hurt striving readers. All readers, really. Skillification happens when teachers break down reading so much that students never get a chance to gather their thoughts and put together a complete picture of their thinking. I emphasize “their thinking.” Not a teachers’ modeled and scaffolded thinking.

Our students must get to experience doing the, in the head work of reading that readers do. This work is messy and not readily displayed for others to replicate. This type of work does not fit nicely onto a slide or graphic organizer. You cannot make it look pretty on social media. It is chaotic but purposeful. It is often slightly different for different students.
Using a graphic organizer of some sort is one way to build a bridge to help access some of that thinking and to discuss/describe the reading processes the brain has to execute for students to make connections and inferences, draw conclusions, and put details together by bundling them into meaningful realizations. Not all readers need them, however. They can slow down some readers and turn the reading process into a broken-down mess.

I constantly juggle with the decision to have students use a graphic organizer. With the striving readers I work with, one more step can lead to the shutting down of thinking and to just going through the motions and doing what the teacher asks without much thought. When they can, I usually ask students to code a text by underlining or using various symbols to identify their thinking. I prefer this to sticky notes for many reasons. Then I ask myself do I have them transfer the information they accessed from the author onto a graphic organizer. Will this process help support them through their thinking or slow it down or make it disjointed?

Should I instead be focusing on using meaningful talk as a strategy to help students access their thoughts and go through that inside of the head, meaning-making work? It depends on the students and the type of reading lesson I am asking them to complete. Is it a guided reading group, student-led literature circle, students working individually or with partners. All of this weighs into my decision. I have seen students go through the work of transferring their notes and the writers underlined details onto a graphic organizer and not make critical realizations until they can discuss it with the group. This often includes bantering the importance of and meaning of different details from the text. Was the use of the graphic organizer helpful? I often ask the students themselves and take notes as I confer with them as they fill them out. If they just copy information from the text into another sheet of paper, it is not helpful. The thinking process readers go through to evaluate and synthesize information the writer shares is most valuable. I ask them to put what they have underlined into their own words when using a graphic organizer.

Do not ask students to create a graphic organizer just to have something to display on social media that looks great! Or to have evidence for one reason or another to prove you are teaching the curriculum or to share in PD. Those reasons alone are not what is best for students. Some need the challenge of working through their own thinking first to make their own meaning. Students do not necessarily need to watch someone else do the work. Bend and stretch the curriculum when you need to.

Two quotes come to mind as I think through how and when to use graphic organizers or even explicit modeling when teaching students to think.

When you figure something out for yourself, there is a certain thrill in the figuring. After a few successful experiences, you might start to think that figuring things out is something that you can do. Maybe you are even a figuring out kind of person……..

Peter Johnston

This is what true agency is all about! Give students the space to work on becoming figuring out kind of people. When they are not motivated to do this consider incorporating some of Ellin Kneene’s ideas on engagement into your teaching. I wrote a post a while back about some of her ideas. Check it out here.

“In too many places, we ask kids to read and write so we can give them a grade that shows they learned some skills someone has decided they need to learn. Skills are important. But if we aren’t reading and writing so that we can grow, so that we can discover, so that we can change–change our thinking, change ourselves, perhaps change the world–then those skills will be for naught.”

Kylene Beers & Robert Probst

I want to give kids opportunities to think and learn by trying things out on their own as much as possible. I want to capture what they are doing naturally and strategically on their own. Then notice and name what kids are doing and look for opportunities to understand what strengths they already have as readers and thinkers. You must consider what skills and strategies they are using already that are a byproduct. A byproduct of giving them time and space and jumping in with support as needed.


So back to my question. When are graphic organizers useful? I only use them when they provide students some form of generative value. They have to find value in them for themselves, not simply be filing one out because the teacher said to. I think they come in quite handy when kids are reading/viewing multiple texts over the same or similar topics. They can help students bundle their thinking and carry it over from one source to the next. You can create a graphic organizer to support kids in this effort where they can synthesize what the writer wants readers to understand from several sources on one form. A chart similar to the one below could be utilized.


This is a form I created for a group of 4th and 5th grade readers reading several articles on Invasive Species. I want them to carry over the information they learned from one article to the next to grow their thinking and understanding on the topic. The charts I ask students to use usually include a leading question they are reading to find answer to.

We will have to work on writing about how we feel about what we read. This reader was just not into the topic of Invasive Species that much.

They underlined information dealing with the problems, and solutions and took some notes to help them process the information they were reading on the articles themselves before completing graphic organizer.

One student came up with the idea of using P for problem and S for solution to help him make meaning. I was trying to lead Ss to make a choice like this, but come to it on their own.

It is not essential that students underline the exact same things on every article or write a note to themselves saying the exact same thing. For each student to get what they need out of this process, they need to do the work for themselves. If they are reading and rereading parts of the text when they need to and thinking about it on a deeper level using some questions to help them focus their thinking, it will have more generative value. I had two students discussing if a group of pelicans eating the goldfish in the above article was a problem or solution. Students had it marked differently. They were doing the work and the thinking. They are not just copying what I have done or what another student has done. To me, it did not really matter what conclusion they came to because they were deepening their level of understanding in the process. Graphic organizers do not need to look the same for every student. I am not always focused on answers themselves, but answers as a byproduct of thinking and talking about our reading. I work with striving readers, by the way, and we are a constant work in progress. 🙂

Let me know your thoughts and experiences.

Author: Troy F

Reading Specialist & NBCT in Literacy. Academic Coach for online Graduate classes.

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