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Why use graphic organizers?

A rationale for using graphic organizers in CBI

Graphic organizers are very versatile instructional tools that can easily be used to optimize content-based lessons. They can be used effectively in many different instructional settings, but they are particularly powerful when integrated into CBI activities, because they can, for example:

  • provide the necessary scaffolding that is so critical in CBI, especially for learners with lower levels of language proficiency and/or learning difficulties

  • help students to notice and understand the link between the content they are studying and the specific vocabulary and language structures needed to communicate about that content

  • engage students in more active learning and, consequently, increase students’ motivation

  • break from the traditional teacher-student communication pattern too often found in classrooms (from T-Ss/Ss-T only to S1-S2, S3-S4, S1/S2-S3-S4, Ss-T, etc.).

  • support cooperative learning activities

Graphic organizers may be used by individual students (either in class or for homework), pairs of students, or cooperative groups of learners. Teachers may also use them to model a variety of learning situations, e.g., reading strategies for comprehending a written or oral text, using new language structures, reviewing previously learned information, or drawing connections between sources.

Graphic organizers, if well designed, serve as scaffolds for content and language learning. They provide the necessary framework for students to complete a task that requires them to use language meaningfully by helping them to categorize, infer, summarize, compare and contrast, evaluate, and so much more (see next section for a more detailed though tentative list of “thinking skills” targeted by each graphic organizers). Graphic organizers are especially effective when combined with cooperative learning instructional strategies because they can provide students with an often lacking framework for tackling a specific task. As Shaw (1997) pertinently points out, there are many issues to consider when using small-group work, and instructors need to keep in mind that “success is directly correlated with the specificity of the instructions given: one cannot simply tell students to get into their groups and discuss something. They need clear guidance, normally a specific outcome” (p.276). In this context, the graphic organizer serves to frame a specific task and identify a meaningful purpose for the activity.

Graphic organizers can also facilitate the final production stage by helping students prepare, for example, oral/written reports, written summaries, letters to authorities and oral debates. Ideally, as it has been pointed out in the literature (Bellanca, 1992; Winebrenner, 1996; Shaw, 1997), using graphic organizers appropriately can allow CBI instructors to ensure that their students are:

  • using/activating prior background knowledge (e.g. brainstorming)

  • using language meaningfully and purposefully to communicate (e.g. having to report on findings or negotiate meaning with the group)

  • engaging in motivating and cognitively challenging activities related to the new content (e.g. problem-solving/decision-making, evaluating, to name a few)

In addition, using graphic organizers can help CBI instructors ensure that their students have the tools necessary to understand and use specific language structures. In fact, it is our belief that they can greatly help instructors to identify and articulate sound language objectives. When creating/modifying a graphic organizer, a CBI instructor should focus his/her attention on the language items (vocabulary, communicative functions, language structures) that students will need in order to complete the task. In doing so, the instructor can verify that the activity is compatible with the defined language objectives that have been set for the specific lesson. While engaged in this process, instructors can either adjust their "content obligatory" as well as their "content compatible" language objectives or they can adapt the language activity involving the graphic organizers to better suit the language objectives that were set to guide instruction. This language-focused process is described more in detail in the "important steps to follow" and "example section" included in this module.



Bellanca, J. (1992). The cooperative think tank II: Graphic organizers to teach thinking in the cooperative classroom. Palatine, Illinois: IRI/Skylight Training and Publishing, Inc.

Nebraska Department of Education (1996). Nebraska K-12 Foreign Language Frameworks. Lincoln, Nebraska: Author.

Shaw, P. A. (1997). "With One Stone: Models of Instruction and Their Curricular Implications in an Advanced Content-Based Foreign Language Program." In S. B. Stryker & B. L. Leaver (Eds.), Content-Based Instruction in Foreign Language Education: Models and Methods. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Winebrenner, S. (1996). Teaching kids with learning difficulties in the regular classroom. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, Inc.


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