Mind Maps

Page No.: 
Michael Cribb, Kansai Gaidai University, Osaka


  • Key Words: mind maps, speaking
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate, advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Adult
  • Preparation Time: 10-15 minutes
  • Activity Time: 60-90 minutes. Students present three to four times changing partners each time.

Many teachers assign homework that involves students studying an article (e.g. newspaper article, a few pages from a book) so that they can then present (re-tell) the contents to other students during class. This sort of activity provides both a reading and spoken portion. One problem for students, though, is how they should study and prepare for the presentation so that they can speak freely during class using their own words and sentences without having to refer to the article too much.

Some students may read the article and merely underline key words and sentences, but when they come to speak in class, it is difficult for them to avoid repeating the sentences in the article word for word. Other students may make notes, but this can often be in the form of sentences that are mere copies of those in the article or very similar. Even the hard-working students who make genuine summaries of their articles run into problems when they come to class, since they still have a written piece in front of them from which they have to speak.

Rather than having sentences in front of them when they present their article, if students could have a visual-linguistic representation of the article, they could concentrate more on creating their own, free-standing sentences and discourse. A technique using mind maps (some people say memory maps), which I've used for several years, can provide this.

Mind Maps

Mind maps are visual-linguistic representations of what a person understands of a subject. (See the accompanying example.) The word in the middle of the map represents the central image the person has of the subject matter. Lines radiate out from this, pretty much like the branches of a tree radiate out from the trunk, and keywords represent the sub-topics and details.

Tony Buzzan (1993) has been one of the chief proponents of mind maps for presentations, note taking, creative thinking and all kinds of activities. I don't feel they are the solution for all problems, but they can facilitate a number of classroom activities. In the following, I will outline their use for an activity where students study an article and then present the contents to a partner in class.

Since learning to create mind maps takes a bit of time, I normally get students to make their first few maps in class so that I can give them instructions. Here's what I tell them: First they have to read the article fully and understand it. This will involve their reading through three or four times with possibly some use of a dictionary. (This could be assigned for homework). After that, they turn their article over so they cannot see it and take a blank piece of paper. In the middle of the paper they write one word which represents for them the central point of the article. Only one word. Not a sentence or a phrase.

Next they draw lines which radiate out from this word to represent the sub-topics of the article and write keywords for the sub-topics. Again, only single words. (Sketches rather than keywords are all the better, and colours brighten things up no end.) They continue this, branching out and writing keywords until they have the "bones" of the article in front of them. It is important they don't refer to the actual written article during this time since the mind map is a representation of what they understand, not what is actually written in the text.

When they have the bones of the article in the mind map, they will need to add some of the details (the end branches if you like). For this they are allowed to look at the article again, since the activity is not an exercise in memory recall. Generally, a large mind map (64 megabytes as I say) is desirable when students first start creating them, but as they become more skilled at presenting and summarizing, then smaller maps are preferable.

When they have completed their mind map, they are ready to present the article to a partner. The advantage now is that when they speak, they only need to look at the mind map and not the article. They can thus re-create the contents of the article using their own short, simple sentences based on the mind map and avoid the long, complicated sentences in the article.

Process and Product

Mind mapping is a process as well as a product. That is, while the finished mind map is a useful aid for speaking, the process that the students follow for constructing the mind map is just as important, since this allows them to understand and become familiar with the structure and contents of the article. I've had many students come to class with large, well-thought-out mind maps, only to ignore them completely and tell the story off the top of their head. This doesn't mean the mind map was useless. Rather, the very act of creating the mind map was what allowed them to speak off the top of their head so freely.


Here are a few pitfalls that you need to avoid when using mind maps:

  • Make sure students write keywords only, not phrases or sentences. If they write sentences then they will inevitably try to say these sentences when they come to present.
  • Make sure students don't circumvent this by writing a series of keywords to represent a sentence. For example, if the article says The president said to the people that he would cut taxes, students might write president - people - cut - taxes as keywords in their mind map. This practice is just as bad as writing the sentence out in full. Each keyword in a mind map should represent an idea, not a portion of a sentence. As students become more skilled, fewer keywords are required since they are able to recall more information from memory.
  • Mind maps should not be too large. Students with too much detail in their map will find it difficult to convey a complete summary of the article to their partner in the allotted time.
  • Mind maps should be prepared after the student has fully understood the article. Beware of the student who reads and draws the mind map at the same time. The structure of the mind map just follows the sentences and paragraphs of the article and the student inevitably ends up using the article to make the presentation rather than the map.


Buzzan, T. (1993). The mind map book, Dutton Books, New York.