Using graphic organisers to teach information literacy

This article is based on the research that I undertook for my Master of Arts degree at UniSA from 2005–2007. The aim of this research was to ascertain to what extent teacher librarians are using graphic organisers as an educational tool to develop the information literacy skills of their students. I was looking for school library programs in which the learning resulting from the use of graphic organisers (including computer programs like Inspiration®) could be described.


During the 1990s, Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993) began to have greater prominence in the development of methodologies in school curriculums. The concept of students who preferred a visual or spatial style of learning entered the radar of teachers. At this time, I began to think about how teacher librarians could use graphic organisers to cater for a wide range of preferred learning styles.

Teacher librarians have been primarily focused on written language as a preferred learning and communication style. They have worked with language and developed programs in the areas of traditional literacy. An example is children’s and adolescent literature promotion and research skills (now more commonly known as information literacy skills). They have not necessarily focused on using spatial or visual learning techniques like graphic organisers to embrace a full range of learning styles and develop a broad range of literacy skills.

However, literacy now has a much broader meaning, such as that defined in statements like the SACE Literacy Policy (2006). This must change what teacher librarians do and how they do it in regard to information literacy – not just for senior school students but at all levels of school education. In a broader educational setting, we not only talk about information literacy but also about visual, ICT, media, thinking and multicultural literacy (among other forms) and about the interplay between the various literacies.

The literature

Despite a great deal of research and writing on information literacy and graphic organisers as separate topics, there is limited research linking the ideas together in a school education setting.

Information literacy studies

Zurkowski (1974) coined the term ‘information literacy’. He suggested that the top priority of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science in the USA should be establishing a major national program to achieve universal information literacy by 1984. This was a very ambitious goal.

There are seemingly infinite attempts to construct a definition of information literacy – from single-sentence definitions to lengthy articles. Capra and Ryan (2002) came up with a simple but comprehensive definition of the concept with ‘information problem-solving skills that enable independent and effective learning’.

More recently, Combes (2005) asked the question: What is information literacy? Her investigation of the literature revealed that information literacy ‘has different meanings for different people’. So she tried to answer her question in the context of a further question: What constitutes an information literate person?

For Combes, an information literate person:

  • is able to use technology
  • is also ICT literate
  • is able to use a range of information resources
  • has a range of well-developed literacy skills
  • is able to use information
  • is able to manage the increasingly complex information environment.

Defining the qualities required to become information literate is a useful strategy because it allows us to focus on the skills that our students will need to attain this status.

Graphic organiser studies

Graphic organisers were first described as a type of advance organiser presented prior to learning so that the learner could organise and interpret new, incoming information.

Novak and Gowin (1984) wrote in detail about using concept maps for meaningful learning. They believed that concept maps can clarify the key ideas in a specific task. The flexibility of concept maps means that they can be:

  • a planning tool
  • a visual road map, providing pathways to connect meanings
  • a schematic summary of what has been learned
  • an improved evaluation technique.

Nettelbeck (2005) believes that there is nothing difficult about using graphic organisers in teaching programs, though it requires a supportive, cooperative, risk-taking culture within schools. It doesn’t mean that essay writing is abandoned forever. Rather, it gives teachers the option to diversify learning tasks and make learning more creative, open-ended and exciting. He believes that concept mapping is one way to create a high-capacity educational system in which ‘highly skilled teachers are able to generate creativity and ingenuity among their pupils’.

Nettelbeck provides several examples from Australian classrooms of creative Inspiration® applications complete with concept maps.

  • Year 7 English class – created an Inspiration® map to show understanding of the relationships between the main characters in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as an alternative to a traditional essay response.
  • Year 8 Science class – summarised their understanding of the carbon cycle.
  • Year 9 History class – worked in groups to sort out understanding of the Australian federal system of government.
  • Year 10 Religious Education class – used concept maps to summarise their understanding of theological concepts such as one God, faithfulness, revelation, covenant and promise.

For an overview of graphic organiser websites useful to schools, try Shambles. This is a website designed to support international school communities in 17 countries in South East Asia. It is available at

Information literacy and graphic organiser studies

Studies that examine the effects of graphic organisers on information literacy development are fewer in number and have been of relatively recent interest. In her doctoral dissertation, American researcher Carol Gordon (1995) combined her interests in information literacy, education and graphic organisers to comprehensively investigate the effect of graphic organiser training on the searching practices of students.

Gordon created a Grade 10 Genetics research assignment that integrated information literacy instruction with Biology curriculum, using a process approach based on the widely accepted Kuhlthau model. She found that mappers: showed a preference for print rather than electronic search tools, spent more time in print indexes, did more in their searching – they were more thorough and/or efficient searchers, were more inclined to concept-driven searching and were more likely to make metacognitive judgments.

In electronic searching, mappers:
spent less time searching, worked in fewer and shorter sessions, used fewer search words, preferred subject heading rather than keyword searching and performed more depth rather than breadth searches.

Gordon concluded that mappers were more sensitive to the electronic environment, more efficient in the way that they used their time, more concise in their repertoire of search terms and more thorough in engaging in more depth searching (p 16).


Participants for my research study were recruited from teacher librarians in South Australia through the listserv SLASANET and interstate through the listserv OZTL_NET. The respondents came from all states of Australia, all levels of schooling and all major school education systems.

Both quantitative and qualitative data collection techniques were adopted. A questionnaire in email format and an interview of selected respondents were used to collect data on the behaviours, understandings, attitudes and practices of teacher librarians. Responses from the questionnaires were used to construct the themes and questions for the interview stage. For purely practical reasons, the interviews were limited to South Australian teacher librarians.


The questionnaire respondents and interviewees showed great diversity of interest and expertise in using graphic organisers to teach a variety of literacies. Some of the more universal findings included the following:

  • The most common KLAs were SOSE (including History and Geography) and Science.
  • The most common topics were the Human Body (including human reproduction and disease), the Environment, Animals and Australia.
  • Both girls and boys responded positively to curriculum incorporating graphic organisers.
  • Teacher librarians worked most frequently with students from Reception to Grade 10.
  • Students with a wide range of ability levels responded positively to curriculum incorporating graphic organisers.
  • Computer-based graphic organiser programs were widely used, but Inspiration® was the most popular. Other computer programs used and described as graphic organisers were: Kidspiration, Genius, ReasonAble, Freemind, Word, PowerPoint, SMART, MindManager, Publisher, Wordshark, Jiig Cal, Photo Story, ConceptDraw, MINDMAP and KartOO. (KartOO is a search engine that returns search results as a concept map – it’s worth a look at
  • Information literacy was the literacy type most often addressed by teacher librarians. However, graphic organisers were of benefit to students working in all literacy types. Graphic organisers have been used to develop many different literacies: information literacy, traditional literacy (including creative writing), ICT literacy, visual literacy and thinking literacy (including higher order thinking and metacognition).
  • Teacher librarians mostly worked to the cooperative planning and teaching model. Planning with teachers was the most common way of engaging with colleagues.
  • Jamie McKenzie’s visits to Australia had clearly influenced teacher librarians who had attended his seminars (in which graphic organisers were part of the message). Other sages mentioned in this area were Tony Buzan (UK) and John Joseph (Australia).

Teacher librarians identified ‘planning their research’ and ‘ordering and organising information under main headings’ as the principal educational benefits of using graphic organisers. ‘To be assisted in scaffolding’ emerged as the main benefit for younger students.


This research study revealed an impressive commitment from teacher librarians to their profession. Teacher librarians in this study took responsibility for their own professional development, thought deeply about pedagogical issues and showed initiative in developing curriculums appropriate to their student populations. The teacher librarians were involved in a wide range of curriculum initiatives. Their curriculum role gave them freedom to work with information literacy and graphic organisers, which are more about methodology and process, and operate outside the usual KLA content constraints./p>

Margaret Strickland
BA, Dip Ed, MA, GradDipTch/Lib, Grad Dip LegSt
Margaret is presently teacher librarian at Endeavour College, Mawson Lakes, SA.


Information literacy

For the purposes of this research I selected:

“information problem-solving skills that enable independent and effective learning” (Capra & Ryan, 2002)

Graphic organiser

A graphic organiser is a visual representation of information, knowledge, relationships or thinking processes. There are many types of graphic organiser but two types that come up frequently and can be confused and/or interchanged also need definition.

Concept map

“a thinking technique that begins with a central idea and proceedsto show related ideas as branches off the center” (Lazear, 2003)

Mind map

“same as concept map except it primarily uses pictures, images, colours, designs and patterns to express concepts of ideas” (Lazear, 2003)


Buzan, Tony & Buzan, Barry 2003, The mind map book, 2nd ed., BBC Books, London

Capra, Steph & Ryan, Jenny (Eds.) 2002, Problems are the solution: Keys to lifelong learning, Capra, Ryan & Associates, Brisbane Qld.

Combes, Barbara 2005, Starting at the beginning: A conversation about information literacy, Connections, vol. 54,

Gardner, Howard 1993, Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice, Basic Books, New York

Gordon, Carol A 1995, Concept mapping as a pre-search activity in the research process, Chapters 2 & 3, Unpublished doctoral dissertation from Boston University, Boston Massachusetts

Lazear, David 2003, Eight ways of teaching: The artistry of teaching with multipleintelligences, 4th ed., Pearson, Glenview Illinois

Nettelbeck, David 2005, The learning and thinking context, ACER, Camberwell Vic.

Novak, J D & Gowin, D B 1984, Learning how to learn, Cambridge University Press, New York

SACE Literacy Policy 2006, Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia, Adelaide SA

Shambles 2007

Zurkowski, Paul 1974, The information service environment relationships and priorities, Related paper no. 5, Abstract available ERIC