Graphic Organizers Enhance Student Comprehension

By Sandy Chapman

Help Students Organize Their Thinking

A graphic organizer is "a visual and graphic display that depicts the relationships between facts, terms, and or ideas within a learning task. Graphic organizers are also sometimes referred to as knowledge maps, concept maps, story maps, cognitive organizers, advance organizers, or concept diagrams." (Hall and Strangman, 2002). Such organizers can be used in all disciplines to enhance and facilitate student understanding, particularly on the university level.

Most of us are familiar with flowcharts and timelines, two common forms of graphic organizers that are particularly useful for summarizing information and presenting relationships. Students might find it much easier to conceptualize historical events if they viewed them on a timeline, for instance, or were assigned to create one. They might find it easier to understand a complex scientific procedure if they diagrammed it in a flowchart.

Reading researchers often point out that graphical organizers can be extremely useful when they match the structure of the text being read. For example, if the text were presented in a sequential manner, a list or a timeline would be best. If written in a compare/contrast mode, a 2-column chart might be better. In describing the attributes of a fictional character, a descriptive sunflower-like diagram with concentric circles would be more useful.

When to Use Graphic Organizers

  • Concept Map Pre-reading: graphical reading guides showing sequences and relationships prepare students for the important themes or concepts they will encounter in their assigned readings.
  • Prewriting: brainstorming and drawing or mapping the relationship between a topic and its details will help students narrow down and select a topic before beginning the writing process.
  • Notetaking: codifying information in graphical form (such as a two-column compare and contrast chart), while reading, helps students lock down and retain pertinent concepts, facts, figures, etc.
  • Summarizing: summarizing information (such as cause and effect factors) in a cause/effect diagram helps students follow processes, make inferences, and draw conclusions.

In summary, graphic organizers help students organize their thinking. In addition, they align with the principle of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

The Hall and Strangman article on the National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials provides some background on the use of graphic organizers, related research, and shows a variety that you and your students might find useful.


Hall, T., & Strangman, N. (2002). Graphic organizers. Retrieved from


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