graphic organizer · writing workshop

Rethinking Graphic Organizers for Writing

I started writing in my adult life about four years ago. It was a huge awakening for me as a teacher of writing. Oh, how I wish I could go back in time to 2001 to my very first class of sixth graders and have a do-over. I think I might have been a terrible writing teacher that first year.

I can’t even tell you how many times I had the entire class sit and fill out a graphic organizer as their prewriting activity. Fast forward fifteen years (yikes), and I have learned much about the writing process. I didn’t know then what I know now about writing and generating ideas and seeds and the writer’s notebook.

The truth is, though, I still see a lot of graphic organizers being used in a lot of classrooms. You know what I’m referring to, right? Venn diagrams, the Top Hat, the Hamburger. Just Google “graphic organizers for writing” if you are still unsure.

The results of my Google search

The thing about these organizers is that not all of our students need them all of the time. Graphic organizers are not a must-have tool for writers. Truth be told, I can’t remember the last time I used one in my own writing life. Now, you might argue that I am a proficient writer so I don’t need an organizer. I would argue that our students can be proficient writers, too… without filling out the Hamburger first.

I think teachers (but not necessarily students) like graphic organizers because writing is really hard. We want our students to be successful. We want to take a really complex task and simplify it so our students can tackle it. That’s why we’re teachers, right? We scaffold. It’s what we do.

I wonder though if we could use other, more authentic scaffolds instead. For instance:

  • We could use the gradual release model. (You watch me write this introductory paragraph. Now, let’s quickly write one together. Now you try.)
  • We could use mentor texts. (Let’s see how this author introduced this essay.)
  • We could use the writer’s notebook. (Try four different introductory paragraphs in your notebook.)
  • We could use talk. (Tell your partner how you might begin.)

Most of these scaffolds, with the exception of the gradual release model, are scaffolds that exist in the real world for real writers.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate the Top Hat organizer. I think for some kids it might help as a prewriting tool. However, not all kids need that tool. More importantly, by giving that tool to all kids we might actually be limiting their writing in structure or form, rather than making it better. What if a student can write a stellar paragraph that would knock your socks off without the Hamburger? Kid writers have a unique writing process just like grown-up writers, and the one-size-fits-all organizer just doesn’t honor that truth.

That’s all. Now get back out there and teach writing. It’s the hardest job in the world, if you ask me.





17 thoughts on “Rethinking Graphic Organizers for Writing

  1. We could also use traditional, linear outlining and analytical sentence outlines. I mention these because my Communication 1101 students must outline using Roman numerals and Arabic numerals. It’s an absolute requirement of the class, so I’ve started teaching this in my general speech classes, too, which include 9-12 grade students. I change the requirements (easier, less stringent).

    I’ve heard back from many Comm students who tell me that they learned more about writing from Comm than from any other class in high school, and they never write papers. They simply outline. That is, they plan. Students tell me they take notes in outline form, too.

    I know that this method is linear, that it does privilege a certain gender and race, but it is standard in many college classes, and we’d do well to help our students be better prepared for such linear thinking upon graduation.

    All this is to say that I’ve never been a graphic organizer type person, but I do show kids how to adapt graphic organizers to more traditional modes of planning, recognizing that what I’m required to require is a huge logical leap for most students.


  2. A few years back I heard Ralph Fletcher speak at a conference. One thing he mentioned is that young kids only have so much stamina around a piece of writing. Filling in a graphic organizer sucks up a lot of that stamina.


  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve thought this quietly to myself but you put the words out there beautifully and I truly appreciate it.


  4. Sooooo…… I taught for 35 years….. Students who are true writers will succeed despite the teaching…. some are just natural born writers. Many others struggle… and have true deficits with words and vocabulary and organization…. Education seems to flit from one new best thing to another…. One thing I know is that there is no magic bullet…. each student needs to find the thing that works for them. So I am in favor in using many strategies. I think graphic organizers help with organizing the thoughts of those who do not have any internal organizing system…. this works well with young writers… I say use all the strategies. Lucy Calkins is now the “messiah” in Gwinnett County GA…. I tutor and the student’s teacher indicated to me that they could not deviate from anything Lucy Calkins….. how sad ;-( Oh and her old work is no longer valid…. seriously…. wonder how much this has to do with $$$$$ Graphic organizers have been around for a long time…. since 1969. Just because something is old does not mean it needs to be discounted. Not everyone will be an author but everyone needs to be able to effectively communicate thoughts in writing. I sometimes wonder how writers really can understand regular folks. While I was in college I had to take a required Chemistry class to satisfy the undergraduate requirements. The prof who taught this auditorium class which was for NON science majors was an organic chemist. He frequently spouted about his chosen profession like he was trying to convert the masses. The text was “supplemented” by notes from him that far exceeded the page count of the book. I survived but the lesson I learned was how NOT to teach students.


  5. Graphic organisers treat writing as if it is a recipe to be followed with unquestioning zeal. They are an artificial construct. There are so many authentic pre-writing activities writers can use that provide the necessary direction for the words and form they need. Plan, but don’t over plan. Sometimes the writer just needs to begin writing in order to discover something important. Handing them a graphic organiser at this point is akin to impeding them. Graphic organisers often sap the energy out of young writers. What hits the page is often a pale imitation of what was originally envisaged in talking to the student writer. As a writer I can honestly say, I have never started any writing project by reaching for a graphic organiser. I am so pleased that you have highlighted this matter Dana.


  6. Love this post. I’ve had conversations with people in our county about this and why I don’t think graphic organizers are appropriate for all. Thanks for helping to confirm my feelings. 🙂


  7. There is a book called Deep Revision that I came across a bit ago that really uses a lot more of these authentic writing strategies. I would recommend it to anyone looking to make writing more realistic and just more fun in the classroom. I love how it focuses on revision as the real tool for developing writing, not just prewriting graphic organizers.

    Totally agree with this article.


  8. I’ve actually been coming to the same realization lately in my own classes, especially in writing. I started letting my students choose how they want to organize their information when planning formal writing and very rarely do they chose a “graphic organizer” format. They still arrive at thoughtful, structured pieces but the forced organizer is proving less than necessary


  9. I was almost tempted not to read your post, because of the word “graphic organizers”. As a child I dreaded them, my own children dreaded them and as a teacher I want to give my students the freedom of letting things flow, but have long struggled with the question “What kind of advise would help my students to stay interested in the writing process and give them the tools to become better writers other than graphic organizers?” Thank you for putting these words into my mind. The authentic scaffolds are something I had long thought of, but always thought that those graphic organizers looked to convincing.
    As you also point out beautifully, there are some children who prefer using them, it is good to have them as an option for those students. This reminds me of what teaching is really about: listening and suggesting.


  10. For my own children, graphic organizers shuts them down. As soon as they are given one, they start thinking about what the teacher wants instead of what the writing should do. Writing is hard. We can’t save anyone from that fact. I have used graphic organizers or templates when I am totally stuck and need a way out, but in the end the real work of writing must be done. Great post.


  11. Good for you. You have put into print the thoughts that have been rattling through my mind for a very long time. I am first and foremost a teacher, but I am also a writer. I have never used a graphic organizer in my professional writing and I don’t intend to start now. I think the alternatives you suggest are far superior (especially the talking), and I believe more students would be turned ON to writing if they were allowed to forego graphic organizers. I bet if we made them an option rather than a requirement they would disappear FAST.


  12. Dana, as a fellow writer, I think you are spot on. I often outline my school and library nonfiction, but most frequently find myself using mentor texts and my writers notebook to work out my writing. Why not introduce these to the youngest writers?


  13. Dana,
    So many great things about this post but I love most of all that you also focus on what REAL writers do as well as the all important question, “Is this a scaffold that students need?”

    I know that TALK is so under-utilized! Students could talk about possibilities multiple times BEFORE students write down a single word. It’s not about practicing orally so the writing will be perfect. It’s about practicing orally so the writer has really had time to “consult a partner” about whether the topic is worthy of writing or whether the student has recognized the most important idea or reason. Talk as evidence of thinking – POWER!

    Thanks for this! I can’t wait to come back to it! ❤


  14. I agree. Writing is definitely not a one-size fits all activity. Each of us will approach writing in a different way. But for children in a classroom, I think talk is important, as is time to think. Children should not be expected to respond to a stimulus straight away and write a perfect draft. How many of us can do that? Their first drafts should be accepted as that, and not all need to be perfected for publication. But it’s good if some can be. Don’t we all like publication and being read by an audience? Let’s put the focus on the learners and their processes. Provide the support that each needs.


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