Graphic Organizers for Writing


As students enter middle school and high school, the ability to write becomes increasingly important. At these stages, writing becomes the predominant means by which students communicate and demonstrate their knowledge (Gonzalez-Ledo, Barbetta, & Unzueta, 2015). Many students in school struggle with writing. Only one-fourth of the eighth and twelfth grade students included in a national writing assessment in 2012 scored at the proficient level (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012). Learning to write can be particularly challenging for students with learning disabilities. Students with learning disabilities often score well below-average on standardized writing assessments. Research demonstrates that students with learning disabilities often struggle with learning the writing process and can experience difficulty with any aspect of writing, including spelling, punctuation and grammar, formulating sentences, planning and organizing, and revising. While writing, these individuals often face difficulties with formulating and organizing their ideas and elaborating on a topic. Students with learning disabilities tend to lack a true understanding of what constitutes good writing and of the organized structure of text. Furthermore, students with disabilities often fail to see the cyclical nature of the writing process (Gonzalez-Ledo et al., 2015).

The writing produced by individuals with learning disabilities is often shorter, less organized, contains more spelling and grammatical errors, and is less varied in vocabulary when compared to the writing of their non-disabled peers (Gonzalez-Ledo et al., 2015). There are several reasons why students with learning disabilities struggle with writing. Writing requires a student to utilize their working memory. Students must not only be able to retrieve information from their longterm memory, but must be able to effectively use that information while writing. As mentioned before in a previous post on guided note taking, individuals with learning disabilities often experience deficits in their working memory. Students with learning disabilities struggle to balance the retrieval of information which is necessary to efficiently plan, compose, and revise their work (Sundeen, 2014). Efficient writers are able to chunk and organize information within a larger schema. Individuals with learning disabilities often struggle with planning and organizing their compositions. These students often require intensive, explicit instruction and scaffolding to support them in chunking and organizing information in a meaningful way (Cochrane, 2010; Sundeen, 2014). It is also often challenging for students with learning disabilities to conceptualize the writing process as they struggle to visualize how their compositions should be organized (Sundeen, 2014).


Sundeen (2015) defines graphic organizers as “visual representations of text organization that show relationships between key concepts.” Graphic organizers can take many forms from simple Venn diagrams that show comparisons, to flow charts used to show a sequence of events, and to complex web maps that organize multiple complex ideas and concepts (Cochrane, 2010). The use of graphic organizers is an evidence-based strategy that can be used across grade levels, academic subjects, and with students of varying abilities, including students with learning disabilities (Smith & Okolo, 2010).




Students with learning disabilities struggle to visualize the writing process. Graphic organizers support these students by supplying them with a visual representation of the writing process – thus, making the writing process visible. Students can be given graphic organizers at all grade and ability levels. For example, graphic organizers exist that assist students with formulating sentences, with writing paragraphs, and with writing stories or essays. Using graphic organizers is a great way to allow teachers to model the writing process and to communicate their expectations for student performance when constructing text. Graphic organizers support students by providing them with a series of steps that guide them through the completion of a writing task. The number of steps and information provided on the graphic organizers can be scaffolded, allowing students to attempt the task of constructing text at their own level (Sundeen, 2015; Cochrane, 2010).

Students with learning disabilities particularly struggle with the planning and organization aspects of the writing process, as they typically spend little to no time planning their compositions. Graphic organizers provide students with a visual aide that simplifies the writing process and helps them organize and clarify their thoughts for the writing task at hand. These tools also allow students to think and process the content being used in their compositions in a more cohesive and organized manner. Again, the use of graphic organizers can be scaffolded; as students become more efficient at chunking and organizing information for their compositions, the number of steps provided and the use of graphic organizers can gradually be reduced (Cochrane, 2010; Sundeen, 2015).

Graphic organizers can be handwritten or previously prepared by a teacher in a worksheet format, but there are also increasingly more technology-based graphic organizers available for students to use. These graphic organizers provide interactive features that enhance the visual support provided by traditional graphic organizers to students with learning disabilities. Several web-based and software-based applications exist that increase the ease of making and using graphic organizers, as well as making it easier to convert from graphic organizers to outlines and back. This allows students to more effectively organize and synthesize information for their compositions. Inspiration, Kidspiration, and Webspiration are popular software-based and web-based graphic organizer applications that do require a fee for use. However, teachers and students can sign up for a free trial version of the Webspiration application. FreeMind and Mindomo are free web-based concept mapping applications that allow students to visually organize their ideas. Mindomo allows students to track their assignments as well. The Read, Write, Think webbing tools provide several graphic organizer templates that students can use to organize their ideas for several different types of written tasks. For example, Venn diagrams, essay maps, and concept webbing tools are available, the concept webbing tool automatically organizing students’ ideas by color (Smith & Okolo, 2010).

The following is Youtube video which contains an explanation for students on how to use a particular graphic organizer, “The Machine”, to write persuasive or expository essays. It is a good example of how to introduce and instruct students on the use of a graphic organizer.


The Institute for the Advancement of Research in Education (2003) reviewed research providing support for the use of traditional graphic organizers based on three cognitive learning theories. First, dual coding theory, which states that we code information through verbal and nonverbal formats, supports the use of graphic organizers as these tools attend to both formats of information. This allows students to more easily retain and recall information. Schema theory maintains that we organize information in our memory into schemas, or networks of information. Graphic organizers assist students in making the connections between concepts so as to be able to link new and existing information into organized schemas. Lastly, graphic organizers are supported by cognitive load theory. This theory proposes that our working memories have a maximum amount of information that we can process at one time. When students are overloaded with information, learning cannot take place. This overload can occur when students are attempting to gather, organize, and synthesize information for their writing. Graphic organizers can decrease the amount of informational load students are processing at one time, increasing the amount of available working memory they can apply to the task at hand (Lorenz, Green, & Brown, 2009). Meyer (1995) and James, Abbott, and Greenwood (2001) found in their studies that the use of graphic organizers during the prewriting phrase resulted in improvements for all students, with low achieving students demonstrating the most benefit from these tools.

Research supporting the use of computer graphic organizers is also being gathered. Blair, Ormsbee, and Brandes (2002) taught middle school students how to use the Inspiration software to assist with their narrative writing. The students in this study demonstrated improved attitudes about writing, as well as increases in the length of their compositions. Sturm and Rankin-Erickson (2002) conducted a study comparing the benefits of handwritten graphic organizers, computer-based graphic organizers, and no graphic organizers with the use of students with specific learning disabilities. The writing of students in the computer-based and handwritten graphic organizer conditions demonstrated improvements in number of words used and holistic writing scores. Computer-based graphic organizers were found to have the most positive impact on students’ attitudes towards writing, as well as on the amount of time students spent planning before writing.


UDL is an educational framework that emphasizes flexible lesson designs that allow all students to access and understand the material. The three principles of UDL stress the importance of presenting information in multiple ways to students to support their recognition learning, of providing students with multiple options for expression to promote strategic learning, and of supporting their affective learning by offering multiple methods for engagement.

Graphic organizers can be considered a UDL-complaint tool for learning, as this method follow several UDL principles. First, graphic organizers support recognition networks through multiple means of representation:

  • Graphic organizers provide alternatives for visual information as graphic organizers can be created and manipulated to suit the needs of each student
  • Graphic organizers provide alternatives for auditory information as they serve as visual representations of the steps necessary to complete a written task
  • Graphic organizers, especially computer-based versions, allow teachers and students to customize the display of information
  • Graphic organizers can provide clarification of vocabulary and concepts
  • Graphic organizers can activate background knowledge
  • Graphic organizers highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships
  • Graphic organizers guide the information processing of students and assist them in generalizing the steps involved in the writing process

Secondly, graphic organizers support strategic learning by providing students with multiple means of action and expression:

  • Graphic organizers, both handwritten and computer-based, provide students with varied methods of response and navigation throughout the writing process
  • Graphic organizers allow teachers and students to access tools and assistive technologies
  • The great variety of graphic organizers provide students with multiple tools for construction and composition
  • Graphic organizers can be scaffolded to allow students to build fluency in their writing skills with graduated levels of support for practice and performance
  • Graphic organizers support the planning of written compositions and provide students with an opportunity for strategy development
  • Graphic organizers assist students in the management of information and resources

Lastly, graphic organizers support affective networks by providing students with multiple means of engagement:

  • Graphic organizers optimize the relevance and value of the writing process through its visual representation
  • Graphic organizers, especially those that are computer-based, provide opportunities for choice and autonomy
  • Graphic organizers heighten the saliency of the goals and objectives of the writing process by providing students with guiding steps to help them navigate through the writing process
  • Graphic organizers can be scaffolded to vary the demands and resources presented to each student


Graphic organizers are a great, research-based tool that can be used to assist students with visualizing the writing process. Teachers can use these tools to model the steps students should take when constructing text. Graphic organizers can be used with students of varying abilities and ages to support them during the pre-writing phase. Graphic organizers allow students to better organize their thoughts and synthesize new and previously learned pieces of knowledge. There are several versions of graphic organizers available for use, including handwritten, worksheet, and interactive computer-based versions. However, the benefits of a graphic organizer can only be gained when students are given the appropriate tool. It may be difficult for teachers to find an appropriate graphic organizer as there are so many versions available. Often teachers mistakenly choose a graphic organizer because of a cute graphic, rather than because of its usefulness to a student. Teachers must take caution and choose a graphic organizer that is appropriate for the task at hand and that is appropriate for the ability level of their students. For teachers wanting to create their own graphic organizers, it can be a timely process, especially if a teacher has to make several versions. Lastly, it is important that teachers provide explicit instruction to their students on how to appropriately use a graphic organizer. The mere presence of a graphic organizer alone does not guarantee that a student with benefit from this tool (Sundeen, 2015; Griffin, Malone, & Kameenui, 2001).


Graphic organizers are visual displays that enable students to understand a concept or process more easily. Graphic organizers can assist students with writing by making the writing process visible, by providing students with guiding steps to complete a writing task, by assisting students in organizing their thoughts, and by providing teachers with a tool in which they can model the writing process. Paper and computer-based versions of graphic organizers are available. To ensure students gain the most benefits from a graphic organizer teachers must choose graphic organizers that are appropriate for their students’ ability level and for the writing task at hand, as well as provide students with explicit instruction on how to use the graphic organizer (Sundeen, 2015; Cochrane, 2010; Griffin, Malone, & Kameenui, 2001). For teachers looking for a way to assist their students in constructing text, investing their time in creating or locating an appropriate graphic organizer is a worthwhile venture.


Tools4Students Video

PowerPoint Video

Google Draw Video

Microsoft Word Video


Blair, R. B., Ormsbee, C., & Brandes, J. (2002, March). Using writing strategies and visual thinking software to enhance the written performance of students with mild disabilities. In No Child Left Behind: The Vital Role of Rural School, 22nd Annual National Conference Proceedings of the American Council on Rural Special Education (ACRES). Reno, NV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED463125.

Cochrane, V. v. (2010). Top Level Structure: Why Use Graphic Organizers to Scaffold Developing Writers?. Practically Primary, 15(3), 34-37.

Gonzalez-Ledo, M., Barbetta, P. b., & Unzueta, C. H. (2015). The Effects of Computer Graphic Organizers on the Narrative Writing of Elementary School Students with Specific Learning Disabilities. Journal of Special Education Technology, 30(1), 29-42.

Griffin, C. C., Malone, L. D., & Kameenui, E. J. (2001). Effects of graphic organizer instruction on fifth-grade students. The Journal of Educational Research, 89(2), 107.

Institute for the Advancement of Research in Education. (2003). Graphic organizers: A review of scientifically based research. Retrieved March 17, 2009, from summary.pdf

James, L. A., Abbott, M., & Greenwood, C. R. (2001). How Adam became a writer: Winning writing strategies for low-achieving students. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(3), 30–37

Lorenz, B., Green, T., & Brown, A. (2009). Using Multimedia Graphic Organizer Software in the Prewriting Activities of Primary School Students: What are the Benefits? Computers In The Schools, 26(2), 115-129.

Meyer, D. J. (1995). The effects of graphic organizers on the creative writing of third-grade students. Research Project, Kean College of New Jersey. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED380803).

Smith, S. J., & Okolo, C. (2010). Response to Intervention and Evidence-Based Practices: Where Does Technology Fit?. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(4), 257-272.

Sturm, J. M., & Rankin-Erickson, J. L. (2002). Effects of hand-drawn and computer-generated concept mapping on the expository writing of middle school students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities: Research & Practice, 17, 124-139.

Sundeen, T. t. (2014). Essay Development of Secondary Students with Learning Disabilities: Graphic Organizers for Visualizing Organizational Patterns. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 33(3), 29-36.

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