Readying Arkansas for a lifetime of literacy

A graphic organizer, also known as a knowledge map, concept map, story map, cognitive organizer, advance organizer, or concept diagram is a pedagogical tool that uses visual symbols to express knowledge and concepts through relationships between them. To see examples and ideas for how to use them in this video.


Graphic organizers are highly supported by research for their impact on learning. They can help students prioritize the information, organize ideas, think critically, and collaborate with other students. They are great tools for assessing students. 

While they are great, there are ways an instructor can leverage graphic organizers in more powerful ways. This post will help you learn the ways that you can do just that.


Before giving students a graphic organizer, it is first important to be sure students have the skills necessary to read and begin deeper comprehension work. They aren’t designed to be given to a student blank to use when tackling all new learning. They also aren’t designed for a teacher to fill out and students to copy. That isn’t learning or comprehension. 


In the beginning, the instructor will choose the graphic organizers. When comparing and contrasting articles, the teacher would choose a Venn Diagram. However, the action should continue into explaining to the students WHY you chose that graphic organizer is important. This should happen with a few more organizers: a concept map to list attributes of a character in the text, a t-chart to sort ideas in an opinion article, a Frayer model for vocabulary development.  


Then, as opportunities arise with the content, ask the students to choose. In the beginning, this may require coaching, but over time students will become adept at choosing a graphic organizer. This part is so important because it means that students are empowered to use the graphic organizers to make sense of future learning.


Along with explaining how graphic organizers work, help students understand why the organizers work. Teaching students about how learning works empowers them and helps them develop self-efficacy. Metacognition means thinking about thinking. The more students are able to do that the more they are able to reflect and improve upon their learning.


What you don’t want is to use graphic organizers as worksheets. Worksheets aren’t bad, but they typically have predetermined “right” answers. Graphic organizers may have some “best fit” answers, but they aren’t designed to be cookie cutter. Rather, they should encourage thinking and one student may end up different from others. They aren’t “products” to be collected by the teacher and checked. They are a step in the learning process to lead to more complex understanding. 


Whenever possible, avoid copying blanks for students. This may help in the beginning, but part of the process is students making decision such as how to set up the organizer such as how many things are being compared (do I need 2 or 3 circles for the Venn Diagram), am separating ideas or describing them (do I need a t-chart or concept map). 


Remember the goal is to give the student a tool they can use any time, rather than just creating another task or activity to be used just within the lesson. This strategy will support better learning beyond the lesson for the day.

“The Uses and Misuses of Graphic Organizers in Content Area Learning.” Reading Teacher, vol. 71, no. 6, May 2018, pp. 763–66. EBSCOhost,

When you are teaching, regardless of the topic, you may find yourself needing to evaluate the student’s skills and creating your own test to do so. This post will help you think that through. If you want to learn more about common test formats, watch this video.

Perhaps obviously, you should first spend a moment checking that a test hasn’t already been made. Assessments abound in the programs you likely are using and online for free. You likely have plenty on your plate, and these can be real time-savers. It would be wise to contact your local agency or reach out on the tutor network Facebook page

If you need to give this assessment for data collection for your local agency, you need to check with them. They usually have a required list of assessments for grantors or data tracking. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your assessment, but be aware that it still may be necessary for the required assessment to be given. Make sure you think about how that will impact your student.

If you decide to create an assessment for your student, you also need to spend some time determining what skills you are assessing. Then, create a test your student can complete within the time frame you have available. To be sure you get an accurate picture rather than a lucky guess, you will need 3-5 questions per skill. If this ends up requiring many questions, you may need to break it apart.

This is also an opportunity for you to do a bit of self-evaluation. As you create questions, reflect on your lessons and activities around those skills, if you are writing questions that are reasonably rigorous, and if this assessment will be discouraging or unnecessarily frustrating. Further, we all have biases. You will need to be aware of those biases and do everything possible to ensure they do not affect your assessment.

Whenever possible, use multiple methods to assess the skills. Using just one question form such as only multiple choice, may not give you the whole picture. Assessing in more than one way may reveal underlying gaps or misunderstandings in the student’s understanding. 

While part of the purpose of an assessment is to let the teacher know if the student hasn’t mastered the material, it also needs to be useful in giving feedback to students. To learn more about feedback check out this blog post. The assessment gives you feedback on your teaching, and an opportunity to give feedback to the student. Be sure you are going to be able use the assessment as such.

Your student bursts into the classroom 5 minutes late and clearly bedraggled. He shares that they got chewed out by his boss at the end of the day, got to his car and realized he didn’t have enough gas to get to his lesson, and stopping to get gas in the pouring rain made him late. Of course, you are understanding, but you also realize that for this lesson to stick, you are going to need to get creative.


The best place to pour out that creativity: make the content relevant. Students of all ages need content that is relevant to their own lives, but this is especially important with adults. But that can be tricky for some topics. Today’s post will share some sources of relevant materials for your student. 

Start With What You Have

If you are using a curriculum designed for adults, it likely uses appropriate and somewhat relevant text and practice activities. However, you may be able to take that a step further. For example, if the reading lesson is about banking vocabulary, bring in some brochures and blank forms from a couple of different local banks. Working on a math lesson with graphs and charts, use some data from the student’s life, such as days worked vs days off or ranking favorite foods.

Get Out

As you begin to get to know your student (don’t miss our posts and videos on building relationships), learn about places they go or would like to go around town. Plan for one lesson to meet at those places. Head to a local thrift store to work on comparing numbers or a local park to read the historical plaques. Not only does a new locale add novelty, it can help your student see the purpose in the work you are doing beyond passing the TABE or their specific goal.

Bring It In

Invite your students to bring items they want to be able to read or work through. Perhaps they have a book their child is reading at school or a manual for a task at work. Even a pamphlet or flier they come across can give you a way to connect skills you are teaching to everyday experiences. 

Utility Value

Sometimes, there isn’t a great way to plan ahead or bring in an item from real life, but your student still asks (or at least thinks to themselves), “Why do I need this?” Whether they ask it aloud or not, it is a good idea to explain when they might use this content. When planning your lesson, be sure to have a few pre planned answers to utility value questions students ask. If all else fails, connect how knowing the content will lead to a future skill that does have utility or serve the student’s goals. 

Use The Original

Prepared curriculum often uses examples or texts pulled from real life and simplified. For example, when studying American History for the citizenship exam, the workbook might give a synopsis of the writing of the declaration of independence. While your student may not be able to read the original document, take a moment to show them. Let students see that the things they are learning about weren’t simply made up for the sake of a workbook. 

A Caution

There are a lot of great sources of relevant content, but be sure you are evaluating it all for credibility. Unfortunately, a lot of spoof documents or false and misleading  information is out there.

Giving feedback to students is a natural part of teaching. It is a powerful tool, and just like all tools, it can be used to build and to destroy. With that in mind, this blog post sets out to help tutors of adults learn more about the power of feedback. If you would like to learn the specific elements of good feedback and examples of that type of feedback, watch the video post titled Better Feedback

John Hattie conducted a major meta analysis of educational research, published in a book called Visible Learning. In that research, feedback ranked in the top 10 most powerful ways to impact student learning. 

A key take away from Hattie’s research is that the most powerful feedback is that given by the student to the teacher. This means students evaluating their own work and sharing it with a trusted teacher who can help them apply that and improve. This takes support and instruction on evaluating one’s own work and communicating about individual growth. 

That is not to say that tutor feedback is not valuable. However, the value of teacher feedback varies wildly based on the content and delivery of that feedback. Hattie’s research revealed that classroom teachers overestimate the amount of feedback they give and the detail. While this research is not a perfect indicator of what happens in tutoring sessions, it should give us pause to consider our practice with our students and improve our feedback.

Powerful feedback relates the work and improvements to specific learning goals. Using pre designed feedback programs, such as sticker charts or reward systems have almost no real effect on students in K012 programs, and most assuredly do not work for adults. In fact, despite popular practices, extrinsic motivation efforts have been shown to actually do harm to motivation and student learning. The purpose of feedback is to give information not rewards. 

Feedback has a much larger impact when it focuses on correct answers or work rather than incorrect. Simply praising a task as complete is ineffective. 

It is important to build trust and confidence in your student before considering feedback. For a student to focus on the feedback and the learning, there has to be no perceived threat to their self esteem. This is a tricky process. You may not be able to offer a lot of feedback, even constructive and positive feedback, until the student starts to gain some confidence.

Feedback is a balancing act. It is important to focus feedback on the goals, task, or process. Also, if the student doesn’t have basic concepts or learning strategies, feedback is not appropriate. Rather, the tutor must focus on thorough instruction. 

The below chart can help a teacher work through the process of feedback. To learn more about the research on feedback check out The Power Of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timbersley. The chart below is from Visible Learning by John Hattie.