When Students Need Structure: Utilizing Graphic Organizers

By Erika Watts

“But I don’t know what to write,” the student says in frustration, looking at the blank paper ahead. “I don’t even know where to get started; my thoughts are all jumbled.”

Often times when faced with a writing task, students want to jump right into the assignment, getting frustrated when the ideas don’t come. However, if teachers can help those who struggle to formulate ideas by providing a flexible structure, students could uncover what they have to say and embrace the process. Teaching students how to use graphic organizers can open a world of new ideas that help students plan their writing and include their ideas they want to explore.

Taking the time to genuinely explore their passions could lead to lifelong writers who have their own style and thoroughly enjoy writing. Planning allows the students time to get their thoughts together and allows time for the teacher to try to help with the organization. Teachers can also use this time to boost the confidence of the writers by providing these tools as well as feedback. In my own classroom, some of the best ideas have  emerged when students just talk out their ideas and then transferring the conversation to paper. Using these organizers will provide an opportunity for discussion and confidence building to nurture lifelong writers.

The Problems Students and Teachers Face

For many, the absolute hardest part of writing is getting started because once the ideas start flowing, the writer is off and running. This struggle with getting started can cause them to shut down and not feel like they are worthy of writing. Teachers often get set into a deadline usually coming from the curriculum handed to them and rush students to just get started, so they can get it turned in, resulting in formulaic and robotic writing. When time is taken to help students find their way by providing them with tools to help structure their papers, greatness can happen and the complexities of the process see possible and accessible.

It can definitely be argued that graphic organizers are used incorrectly, which is another problem students and teachers face when using them in the classroom. In “The Problem with Graphic Organizers,” by Anny Fritzen Case, she points out how important clarity is with organizers. If we just give a student one organizer and tell them to use it but do not explain the purpose, it will be more of a crutch than a tool. Students will continue to use it just because they think they have to and get no actual value in their writing process. Teachers must be clear in the purpose and allow for flexibility because the goal is not to just use a tool  but to model for student-writers how to be a resourceful writer.

Resources to Use and Why They Help

Providing students with multiple graphic organizers will allow students to eventually adapt their own individual ways to plan. It can be said that most graphic organizers serve a multitude of purposes from brainstorming to text structure. An accessible graphic organizer that does both can be found in an article by Todd Sundeen where he discusses the value of organizing writing around three big ideas.

A template, such as the one above often used for brainstorming (Sundeen, p.33), is a type of graphic organizer that can be used to help students plan. Sometimes, students know their ideas, but do not know how to write it into some essay format. You, as the teacher, will model this process, but the template serves as a reference and tool for future writing independent of the teacher. 

I think about a time in my classroom when I talked through an organizer with a student, and the light bulb moment hit. She all of a sudden knew what to write because we talked it out in a way that allowed her to access her topic expertise while identifying  places where she needed to do more reading or research. When it comes time for her to write another piece, she’ll know what to do and can even modify the big three to become a problem-solution or cause-and-effect graphic. Organizers can offer a confidence boost that can lead students to a more masterful level of writing. 

The Outcomes of These Organizers

In my own classroom, I have used multiple organizers on many occasions. Once I have had the pleasure of getting to know my students, I know where they tend to struggle and will often start them out with something like the circle/Big Three organizer to stimulate thinking. I find it helps them to have a partner present to bounce ideas off of or to have me there sitting and talking it out with them. After this, students can write on their templates without a lot of stress. I specifically remember one student who had to talk out every paper with me in the form of the Big Three organizer, and after teaching him for two years straight, his writing really did improve. He was able to take his ideas and put them in words to move on to AP Writing. 

Teachers often feel suffocated by their own curriculum plans that they push students to a formula, which stifles the creative process and joy of writing; instead, we should be supplementing into the curriculum to make writing more accessible. 

The use of these organizers does not always have to be a worksheet where students complete it and then write individually. In a collaborative writing piece, the writing can be jigsawed, where each student works on a different section, and then they revise as a whole group, offering feedback with details and examples. I have done this in my own classroom where I allow students to switch up papers and write on each others’ in different colors. This allows them to make sense of each others’ ideas and contribute to each other. I believe this allows students to see that the writing process is not done in isolation, but with peers to get the best results.  

Also, the first organizer with the Big Three Ideas can be used as a gallery walk where students can walk around and contribute to each others’ ideas while finding inspiration in their peers’ planners. In these activities, the teacher’s role can be to pose questions about audience and formatting such as these: 

  • Who is the audience for this piece? 
  • Where might it be published? 
  • Where would you put an image or chart to support the text? 

Graphic organizers can be modified to fit whatever needs a teacher may have and can be changed based upon genre and purpose a student needs in the classroom. 

Beginning a writing piece is a lot of problem-solving and with tools like these, students can eliminate their fear of writing (or beginning writing) because they know they can do it. Students will have the tools to problem solve and access their thoughts to write pieces they are proud of, allowing readers to feel the joy in their pieces through the quality of the writing. 

In my four years in the classroom, I have had plenty of questions: Is planning necessary? What do I do when not all students plan the same way? How can I teach this to all students when not all students learn the same? While these questions are constantly running through my head, I know that having a toolbox of organizing tools and flexible templates is the best thing I can do for my students. This allows me to pull out whatever tool could work for that student, and if it doesn’t pan out how I anticipated, I have more to try and choose from. 

Creating lifelong writers is not a linear process, and we must work with the students to make sure we can find something that will help them access their expertise, experiences, and knowledge to make them into resourceful writers.


Erika Watts is a public school teacher in Pasco County, Florida. She is currently studying for her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in English at the University of South Florida. Her current research is on improving student writing and finding ways to build lifelong writers in students who tend to shy away from the thought of writing.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

3 thoughts on “When Students Need Structure: Utilizing Graphic Organizers

  1. This blog connected with me as a student because sometimes I really don’t know where to start on my paper. And like many students I feel like my first time around in writing a paper I try to write the best paper on something I really don’t know how to start. So the planning is something that is very helpful because you get all your thoughts for the topic out and you get to see how they connect to each other. Making it easy for your thoughts to flow.

  2. Many people argue that writing drafts or utilizing graphic organizers has hindered their writing process. However, as educators, we must recognize that every student is unique and has their own individual way of writing. While many students dread filling out a graphic organizer, it could help another student write their best. Giving the students a template to write their ideas on can allow them to visualize the flow of their writing and what they want to say in each part. I like how this blog highlighted that students can see where they need to do more research if it is visualized in a graphic organizer. This can be beneficial because it allows students to feel prepared and confident before beginning their writing. If I were to implement graphic organizers or a similar template into my classroom, I would allow my students to choose whether or not they use it in the event that they feel limited by it.

  3. Growing up, I always used an outline and even today, if I find myself stuck, I will create one. Graphic organizers are very similar and do help the scatter-brained student (I’m talking about myself), get their ideas and thoughts on paper. I think a quick writing workshop before an assignment that requires this type of organization would be a good idea. Have the students write ANYTHING- idea for a comic book, summary of their favorite movie, letter to a friend, etc. Get them comfortable with putting their words on paper. Once everyone is settled and finding themselves a bit more comfortable with jotting down their thoughts and ideas, I would then present the assignment and then guide them to use tools such as the graphic organizer.
    Utilizing the notion of only listing 3 big ideas is spectacular because it truly makes something that appears to be overwhelming, quite simple. I like the idea of an active peer review, that is, students walking around and discussing his or her ideas. I makes it much more fun for the students and less of a task.

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