Graphic Organizers and Their Effects on the Reading Comprehension of Students with LD: A Synthesis of Research

Help with Listen Feature Help with Listen Feature

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 21 describes the following:

Title | Graphic Organizers and Their Effects on the Reading Comprehension of Students with LD: A Synthesis of Research

Author | Kim, A-H., Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., & Wei, S.

Source Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(2), 105-118.

Year Published | 2004

Previous research studies examining the effects of graphic organizers on reading comprehension for students with learning disabilities (LD) are reviewed. An extensive search of the professional literature between 1963 and June 2001 yielded a total of 21 group-design intervention studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the synthesis. Using graphic organizers (i.e., semantic organizers, framed outlines, cognitive maps with and without a mnemonic) was associated with improved reading comprehension overall for students with LD. Compared to standardized reading measures, researcher-developed comprehension measures were associated with higher effect sizes. Initial gains demonstrated when using graphic organizers were not revealed during later comprehension tasks or on new comprehension tasks.

Graphic organizers display information, structure, and key conceptual relationships using visual and spatial arrangements or maps. Graphic organizers often involve lines, arrows, text boxes or bubbles, pictures, and other visual depictions to represent ideas, facts, and concepts. Graphic organizers provide a framework for students to connect existing knowledge to new information. Some of the most commonly known graphic organizers include semantic maps, semantic feature analysis, cognitive maps, story maps, framed outlines, and Venn diagrams. Graphic organizers have been used in many academic subject areas. This meta-analysis looks specifically at the use of graphic organizers in the area of reading comprehension skills.

Research Questions

  1. Are graphic organizers effective in improving students’ reading comprehension*?
  2. Are certain types of graphic organizers more effective than others?
  3. Does the effectiveness of graphic organizers change depending on who is generating or implementing the graphic organizers?
  4. Do students in elementary, junior high, or high school benefit equally from graphic organizers?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 21
  • Number of Subjects | 848
  • Years Spanned | 1963-2001

Research Subjects
Students were in grades K-12. Most had learning disabilities; however, a total of 16 students with mild intellectual disabilities were included.

Age/Grade of Subjects

Specified Disability
Learning Disabilities (LD)

Students used graphic organizers to:

  • display concept relationships discussed within the text, or
  • provide an outline/overview of the text.

Duration of Intervention
In 19 of the studies, the intervention lasted between 1 and 13 weeks, resulting in a range of 2 to 12 sessions. The interventions in the 2 remaining studies ranged from 12 to 16 weeks with an unreported total number of sessions.


  1. Semantic organizers, cognitive maps with a mnemonic and framed outlines were all found to be highly effective in improving reading comprehension. Cognitive maps without a mnemonic were found to be moderately effective.
  2. Graphic organizers were effective regardless of whether they were implemented by teachers or researchers.
  3. Students using graphic organizers significantly outperformed their peers who did not use graphic organizers regardless of whether they developed their own graphic organizers or used teacher- or researcher-generated ones.
  4. Students ranging in age from elementary to high school all benefited significantly from using graphic organizers.

Combined Effects Size

  • Semantic organizers (effect sizes ranged from 0.81 to 1.69)
  • Cognitive maps with a mnemonic (d=0.91)
  • Cognitive maps without mnemonics (d=0.50)
  • Framed outlines (d=0.80)

The findings of this analysis support the use of graphic organizers to teach reading comprehension skills to students with LD. Students ranging in age from late elementary school through high school improved their scores on reading comprehension measures.

Despite these positive findings the authors provide several important cautions which call into question the real-world applications of these findings:

  1. Most studies included in the meta-analysis measured student comprehension through the use of experimenter-designed (non-standardized) tests as opposed to more traditionally validated standardized tests. Previous research has strongly suggested that performance gains can often be exaggerated when scores are calculated via non-standardized tests. In fact, the two studies that did use standardized measures reported no significant benefit of graphic organizers on reading comprehension.
  2. Of the studies that included follow-up testing, most tested student comprehension on the same reading passage they had been tested on initially. Just two of the studies tested generalization* to other reading passages, and both found that students did not transfer skills to new reading tasks.

For Future Research
In addition to being mindful of the previous two points, the authors recommend that future research exploring graphic organizer use should:

  • Compare their use against other specific reading comprehension strategies (e.g.: providing a structured overview) as opposed to comparing to strategies that address reading skills more generally.
  • Study the effects over a longer period of implementation. The studies included here that utilized standardized measures to assess comprehension and transfer of skills did so by looking at interventions of relatively short duration (1-3 weeks). If the use of graphic organizers is to show effects in these areas they may emerge over a longer period of intervention.
  • Focus investigation on student-generated graphic organizers as opposed to teacher-generated organizers. Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis examined organizers that had been developed by teachers to be used on specific texts. More quality research on graphic organizer use by students as a learning tool would add considerably to the knowledge base in this area.
  • Study the effects at lower elementary grade levels. Very little quality research work has been done to study the effects of graphic organizers on the reading and listening skills of early elementary students.


* Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

Back to top

NOTICE: The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) is no longer in operation. Our funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) ended on September 30, 2013. Our website and all its free resources will remain available until September 30, 2014.