TIES TIPS Foundations of Inclusion

TIP #10:
The Use of Graphic Organizers in Inclusive Classrooms for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


Classroom teachers have used graphic organizers for years to help students gather, sift through, organize, and share information. Graphic organizers are appealing because they have a wide range use and adaptability for many different topics and subjects. General education teachers are familiar with common layouts for graphic organizers but may not be as familiar with how to adapt graphic organizers for students with varied learning needs. This TIPs sheet will expand on the traditional graphic organizer formats to show how they can be differentiated to meet the needs of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities through the use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).


Although graphic organizers are commonly used by both general education teachers and special education teachers, teachers must consider what aspects of the graphic organizer might present barriers given the diversity of student characteristics in an inclusive classroom. For example, a student with cerebral palsy and a significant cognitive disability who has an orthotic brace on her arm will need adaptations to participate when students are writing into a graphic organizer. It is not sufficient to simply pair the student with a general education peer and have her watch the peer write in the graphic organizer, but rather materials will need to be adapted so the student can actively and independently manipulate word cards or objects to place them into a graphic organizer. This could still be done with a peer but the two would be working with the adapted materials together.

In a recent evidence-based practice review by Saunders et al. (2020), graphic organizers were found to be a promising practice for use with students with significant cognitive disabilities for academic instruction in inclusive settings. In this review, graphic organizers were used to teach reading comprehension of text in subject areas such as science (Jimenez et al., 2012) and social studies (Wood et al., 2015). Although positive effects were observed in these two studies for the use of graphic organizers during instruction for students with significant cognitive disabilities, additional research is needed to promote the use of graphic organizers to a research-based practice (i.e., more participants, research teams, and geographical regions). The implication for practitioners is that graphic organizers can help students with significant cognitive disabilities show higher level thinking skills that are aligned to the complexity of the grade level academic standards.

Teachers have many variables to consider when thinking about how to design accessible graphic organizers in an inclusive classroom. Students come with various levels of performance, preferred modes of learning, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and prior experience, which can all affect how each student learns (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). Teachers must decide, based on learner characteristics, how to implement UDL principles when designing lesson plans involving graphic organizers, so all students have access to the content through multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression. When applying the UDL framework, no student, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, should be defined by their perceived impairments and support needed to access to learning in the inclusive classroom (Hartmann, 2015). Teachers serving inclusive classrooms can think of the UDL framework as one way to address learner variability, in which a student with a significant cognitive disability is an expected part of the natural diversity and should be embraced using the teachers’ skill set in universal design (Hartmann, 2015).

Definition and Examples

Graphic organizers are an instructional tool used to aid in comprehension or to organize key information. They can be used as an activity to help students retain information they’ve learned for a longer period of time. Students, including those with emergent literacy skills, limited English fluency, and diverse learning styles can often process information in a graphic organizer more easily than from traditional text. Graphic organizers can help students focus their thoughts for planning, decision making, and writing. They help students see connections, patterns, and relationships. They can also help students show understanding of the “big picture” from a lesson or book.

The first graphic organizer is a T-Chart showing a box divided into two sections with a heading for each side labeled “item 1” and “item 2”.
The second graphic organizer is a Venn Diagram showing two overlapping circles. One circle is labeled “item 1” and the other “item 2” with the overlapping portion labeled “1 & 2”.
The third graphic organizer is a Concept Map showing one large circle in the middle labeled “main item” and six smaller circles labeled “sub item” branching off of the main circle with short, connecting lines.
The fourth graphic organizer is a Frayer Model showing a rectangle divided into four sections with a blank oval in the middle for the chosen vocabulary word. The four boxes around are labeled accordingly: the top left box is labeled “definition”, the top right box is labeled “characteristics/facts”, the bottom left box is labeled “examples”, and the bottom right box is labeled “non examples”.

The table below describes common graphic organizers types, with the purpose and the essential feature of each. These essential features are non-negotiable. They must be present when using these graphic organizers. However, as adaptations are made to the graphic organizer, the purpose and essential feature must be kept intact. See the implementation section for how adaptations can be made to increase accessibility for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Table 1: The Purpose and Essential Features of Common Graphic Organizers



Essential Feature

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect chain

Problem and solution map

Fishbone diagram

Analyze a series of events or processes, potentially for a complex topic


Web (Bubble map)

Classification table (T-Chart)

Sort or classify items into different categories

Comparing and Contrasting

Venn diagram

Compare-contrast matrix

Identify similar (overlapping) and different characteristics of items


Word web

Frayer Model

Semantic map

Identify examples and non-examples of vocabulary terms/connections between vocabulary terms



Series of events chain



Break down important steps or events in a process or sequence


Graphic organizers often incorporate higher level thought processes and can easily be modified for all learners using principles of UDL. Planning is key for successful implementation of differentiated graphic organizers because teachers must think ahead for all of their students to make sure they can access the content in a universal way by considering representation, expression, and engagement.

For students who may require an adaptation to traditional graphic organizers, teachers should consider adaptations based on students’ ability to perceive, engage, and respond with the graphic organizer and the content they are synthesizing with it. Providing multiple means of representation with a graphic organizer could involve customizing how it is displayed, including the use of objects or symbols. Providing multiple means of engagement involves promoting student interests, choices, and the relevance of the task. Lastly, providing multiple means of action/expression involves allowing variability in student response modes. This is especially important for students with complex communication needs. See Table 2 for suggestions for adaptations to graphic organizers for students in general, including students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Table 2. Suggested Graphic Organizer Adaptations Using Elements of Universal Design for Learning

Elements of Universal Design for Learning

Graphic Organizer Adaptations

Adaptations for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities


  • making the graphic organizer less detailed
  • offering a digital version of the graphic organizer
  • using tactile supports to build graphic organizer (wiki sticks, hula hoops)
  • laminated materials for repeated instruction/experiences


  • providing a word bank
  • using pre-cut out words to sort
  • providing all the information that needs to go in the graphic organizer on the graphic organizer
  • allowing the use of technology to create
  • using color coded index cards for sorting items into categories
  • providing a word bank with visual supports
  • offer choices other than writing in graphic organizer (dictating to a scribe, choice making, sorting words/pictures/objects, use of AAC)
  • having the student use color coded stickers on preprinted cards to organize by category
  • using larger, laminated options with Velcro


  • incorporating student interest
  • offering choice when appropriate
  • allowing open notes
  • providing page numbers to look back in their books
  • having a few answers filled in already
  • offering examples/nonexamples
  • incorporating technology
  • appropriate prompting and reinforcement to allow student to experience success
  • incorporating the use of peers to build a permanent product
  • incorporating technology

The following are examples and descriptions on how these adaptations might be applied for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities across a range of skills.

In this example the general education teacher asks students to use a t-chart to show examples and non-examples of the value “4”. General education peers are asked to write examples of “4” and “not 4” using written or drawn examples. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in this classroom engage with this graphic organizer by sorting pre-cut paper with examples and non-examples of the value “4” on a T-chart.

In this example the general education teacher asks students to explore properties and attributes of three-dimensional shapes by categorizing them as round, flat, or both. The majority of the class uses printed pictures of three-dimensional shapes by cutting and pasting them into their math journals where they have to draw their own Venn diagram. For students with significant cognitive disabilities, sorting tangible objects may be the best way to categorize each of the shapes.

An example of a 3-dimensional Venn Diagram where a student has categorized items as round, flat, or both round and flat.

An example of a 3-dimensional Venn Diagram where a student has categorized items as round, flat, or both round and flat.

In this example the general education teacher asks students to do a literary analysis of Moby Dick using a concept map. Some of the students in the classroom in the general education population begin to do so on a blank sheet of paper following the concept map format the teacher gives with each major headings filled out. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can utilize wiki sticks and preprinted cards to build a concept map.

Frayer Model. In this example the general education teacher asks students to review properties of lines and angles. The students in the classroom take the laminated cards the teacher made and copy them into their math notebooks. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are supported by having a more succinct definition and example graphic organizer, such as the triangle Frayer model below.

Here is an additional example video demonstration of differentiated fishbone graphic organizer: . This video clip shows how one teacher uses the Fishbone for first grade students by modifying it for all the students in the classroom. The adaptations include requiring less text in boxes instead of lines and opportunities to draw examples. Although a student with a significant cognitive disability is not included in this video example, the teacher could extend the modification given to the whole class by having preprinted images for placement in the modified fishbone graphic organizer.

In each one of these examples, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities were considered in the design and implementation of the adaptations within each of the traditional graphic organizer formats. It is important to note that these adaptations can be used for a wide variety of students, not just those with significant cognitive disabilities. Teachers must seek to avoid “islands in the mainstream” (Biklen, 1992, p. 148), by carefully creating adaptations that maintain the essential features of the task (see Table 1). The goal of providing adaptations to graphic organizers in an inclusive classroom for students with significant cognitive disabilities is to help them engage with the content and participate alongside their peers, not separate from them.


Graphic organizers are a flexible tool that have applications across academic content areas and populations of students with and without disabilities. General education and special education teachers can work together to match the materials and formatting to fit individual student needs; however, when planned with UDL, all students can access content through the use graphic organizers.


  • CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. (version 2.2). Retrieved from

  • Strangman, N., Vue, G., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. (2003). Graphic organizers and implications for universal design for learning. Retrieved from


  • Biklen, D. (1992). Schooling without labels: Parents, educators, and inclusive education. Temple University Press.

  • Hartmann, E. (2015). Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Learners with Severe Support Needs. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 11(1), 54–67.

  • Jimenez, B. A., Browder, D. M., Spooner, F., & DiBiase, W. (2012). Inclusive inquiry science using peer-mediated embedded instruction for students with moderate intellectual disabilities. Exceptional Children, 78(3), 301–317.

  • Kurth, J. A. (2013). A unit-based approach to adaptations in inclusive classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children, 46(2), 34–43.

  • Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.

  • Saunders, A., Wakeman, S., & Reyes, E. N. (2020). An updated review of experimental research on academic interventions for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive settings.

  • Wood, L., Browder, D., & Flynn, L. (2015). Teaching students with intellectual disability to use a self-questioning strategy to comprehend social studies text for an inclusive setting. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 40(4), 275–293.

TIPS Series: Tip #10, August 2020

The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Reyes, E. N., Wakeman, S., & Bowman, J. (2020). The Use of Graphic Organizers in Inclusive Classrooms for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities (TIPS Series: Tip #10). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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