This article on using digital mind mapping software is Part 4 of Transforming Instruction Through Technology series.

Teaching with mind maps

Before students place pen to paper or fingers to keyboards, they can pre-write to smooth the transition from thinking to writing. With digital mind mapping software like MindMup, ELs glide into composing instead of jumping off a cliff and dropping 90 degrees into a blank screen or page.

Some of my ELs like to Frankenstein their writing by stitching unrelated ideas together – mindlessly jamming thoughts anyplace without thinking. They quickly scribble a few lines of text, look up, and proudly proclaim, “I’m done.”  

I stare down at the text then… wishing there was more.   This kind of word jumble usually happens because I didn’t provide an appropriate pre-writing activity like mind mapping.

Using Mindmup as a prewriting strategy is my adaptation of Prof. Jane Healey’s process for student-led writing, which she described in an article entitled, “Student-Led Writing: How and Why I Let Students Lead the Writing Process”. Healey recommends having students first think about central concepts found in a shared text.  These concepts then become the fodder for writing.

But mind mapping is more than just a writing tool – it’s an exercise for ELs’ brains.  They become trained to think conceptually by examining essential questions and substantiating a stance.  

So how do you do it?

Step 1: Place the topic at the center

Using Mindmup as a digital pre-writing activity starts with processing a text.  I place a topic, such as disabilities, at the center of a Mindmup, which is projected onto the board.  Mind mapping works best when you focus on only one topic from which everything springs forth – a topic in which the text set, books, articles, videos, discussions, and writing are anchored.

Since Mindmup allows you to share your mind maps with others, collaboration is easy.  I only create one class-wide Mindmup for each unit and share it with all of the students.  Sharing also enables the students themselves to contribute ideas to the Mindmup.  

We store the mindmap in Google Classroom, so students have ready access to the mind map whenever they need. It becomes a living anchor chart that we refer to throughout the unit.

Mind mapping to teach writing


Step 2: Add concepts

As we read a text or watch a video, I have students identify concepts found in the text.  For example, when we watched Stella Young’s TedTalk entitled, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much” during a unit on disabilities, students identified the following concepts:

Using mind mapping to teach writing


Notice the range of ideas that my ELs produced from watching this video.  They are demonstrating their critical thinking skills by distilling the text into concepts.

Step 3: Produce Questions and Opinions

After we’ve identified some global concepts, I ask my ELs to think of questions and opinions for each concept.  However, the questions or opinions have to include both the central topic and the identified concept in the wording.  

I recommend starting with either writing questions or opinions – not both. This gives ELs enough mental space to just focus on one type of thinking at a time. The purpose of this step is to make sure they’re connecting or tethering their questions and opinions to the unit’s central topic.  Continuing with the Disabilities Unit example, my ELs produced the following questions:

Using mind mapping to teach writing



If you’d like to further organize each concept’s multiple questions and opinions, Mindmup allows for color coding, linking to external sites, and adding images to the nodes.

In essence, the goal of this step is to teach students to create essential questions and claims.  These questions and claims become the Northern star that guides students’ writing.

Step 4: Write a Paragraph

Finally, I have students pick a question or an opinion from the Mindmup to Quick Write about.  If students pick a question, they are to answer the question using details from the text.  If they’ve picked an opinion, they are to argue and defend this position using textual details.

If a student produces a particularly well-organized and thoughtful paragraph, I will stop and analyze it with students.  However, the goal of writing is not to teach them grammar, writing craft, or organizing ideas.  

This Quick Write is about getting ELs to think more deeply about the concepts related to disabilities.  We’re developing writing and thinking fluency, of course, but not mastering prose just yet.  They’ll be time to laser into the finer points of grammar later when producing an extended text.

Using mind maps to teach writing

An Invisible Tool

Noticed how the Mindmup software wasn’t the focus of the lesson.  It was merely a tool to help ELs to write.  

In their book, ELL Frontiers: Using Technology to Enhance Instruction for English Learners, Parris, Estrada, and Hongisfeld suggest that technology should be invisible and not to distract from the main learning objective (2016).  Tech needs to reinforce the pillars of instruction, not be bells and whistles that distract from it.

Digitally mind mapping acts like a pillar that supports the weight of thinking done while writing. Mindmup turns a beloved, time-tested strategy (mind mapping) into a tool for modern learning because of its sharing and storing functionality.

Additionally, the process is student-focused and student-led because it places them at the center of a writing assignment. After processing all the resources in the text set, students themselves return to the Mindmup to pick a question or an opinion to expand on in extended texts.

I’m not shoving writing topics down ELs’ throats.  Instead, because they select the writing topics, they’re more engaged in writing, and I’m free to teach writing instruction.  

In the next article, I’ll transition from writing about tech tools that facilitate writing to ones that support speaking. I’ll describe my favorite web-based software program that empowers ELs’ voices to be heard, even when they’re normally too shy or hesitant to speak in front of others.

Parris, H., Estrada, L., & Honigsfeld, A. M. (2017). ELL frontiers: Using technology to enhance instruction for English learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.