Building Vocab with Graphic Organizers

Blake Matheny, Kanazawa Institute of Technology

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Learner agency, vocabulary building, collocation, graphic organizer
  • Learner English Level: Beginner to Advanced
  • Learner maturity: Junior High School - University
  • Preparation time: 0-5 minutes
  • Activity time: 20-30 minutes
  • Materials: A whiteboard and marker

Graphic organizers have been proven to be effective for learning various skills.  From activating background schema to remembering new information in any subject, there are infinite ways to use them. This guide shows a zero prep-time example that pools the collective vocabulary of the students in the classroom.


Step 1: Have the structure of the graphic organizer in the appendix in mind before beginning the activity. The wide rectangle at the top will contain the location. The triangle will contain the question. The ovals will contain verbs and the dashes will have nouns or objects.


Step 1: Ask the students where they would like to go. Start with a country, then city, then building, and finally a room. Draw the rectangle at the top of your whiteboard. Write this location in the rectangle. “The kitchen” will be used in this example.

Step 2: Draw a triangle below the rectangle with enough room to write, “What can you do in the (kitchen)?”

Step 3: Ask one student this question. Write their answer in the first oval. Ask this student to ask the same question to another student. Write their answer in the next oval. Continue until all six ovals are filled.

Step 4: Erase the word “do” in the rectangle, leaving the underline. Ask a student, “What can you (first oval verb) in the kitchen?” Write their answer on the line next to the oval. Have this student ask another student, continuing until all dashes have nouns before going to the next verb. Proceed verb by verb.

Step 5: Now that the graphic organizer is filled-in, it is time to review. From beginning to end, ask different students each question in order. Ask for the first verb—What can you do in the kitchen? Then, ask for the noun—What can you cut in the kitchen? Go to the next oval, asking for the verb before asking for the nouns. Continue until the end. Encourage complete sentences—I can cut in the kitchen. When the last noun is asked, erase it.

Step 6: Ask the final question again, this time to the entire class. The students’ answer should be the same. After it is answered, erase it. Ask the previous question and erase the answer. Proceed backwards, from end to beginning until the board has only the graphic organizer remaining.

Step 7: Point to the first blank oval. Ask, “What can you do in the kitchen?” Continue pointing to the blank spaces and asking the questions until the end is reached again. Your students should be able to repeat all vocabulary despite having no words written on the board. Further extensions and suggestions are available in the appendices.


This structure can be used for grammar (e.g., switching modals, tenses) or for more specific content vocabulary. Other locations can expand learners’ vocabulary even more. For more advanced learners, use the dashes for adverbs instead of nouns. Using this audio-lingual-like substitution method, the students acquire not only the new vocabulary, but the ability to recontextualize it, while practicing answering and asking questions with correct syntax and fluidity. Enjoy walking your learners through it. They will be surprised that they remember it all.


The appendices are available below: