Graphic Organizers: Deciphering a Commonly Used Tool in the Classroom

Graphic organizers have become a popular tool in the classroom in recent years. Pre-arranged boxes or circles help students organize main idea and supporting details of an informational essay, or organize claim and reasons for argumentative writing. Advanced learners may create their own graphic organizers; whereas, less advanced learners may not only need the pre-arranged boxes, but also sentence starters or vocabulary word banks. Whichever form the graphic organizer takes, the same question always comes up: is it AT or is it an instructional tool?

Assistive Technology versus Instructional Tools

Instructional tools can be defined as “the tools used in educational lessons, which includes active learning and assessment. Basically, any resource a teacher uses to help him teach his students is an instructional material (, Instructional Materials: Definition, Examples & Evaluation).” This broad definition of an instructional tool can be helpful when teachers need to justify certain things in object lessons, especially for differentiated instruction; however, it can also cause much confusion when students with IEPs are brought into the mix.

Assistive Technology is defined as follows: “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability (IDEA 2004).” Is a pencil grip an AT device or instructional tool? For a student without an IEP it would not be AT, but for a student with an IEP it could be if it meets the definition for that student. What about Text-to-speech or Speech-to-text? Same answer. What, then, is the answer for graphic organizers? Same as above. If the graphic organizer is “used to increase, maintain, or improve [the] functional capabilities of a [student] with a disability” then it is no longer an instructional tool and becomes an AT device instead.

How Do Educators Avoid the Confusion?

The answer seems simple, but can get a little hairy when we start to nit-pick or over analyze. Not every student needs AT devices or services. Therefore, you might use a graphic organizer for one particular assignment but for any others in a unit. This is fine and does not require an AT assessment or plan. If, on the other hand, you are noticing that a particular student with an IEP needs a graphic organizer for multiple (or every) assignment, then you will need to begin the AT assessment process. This same mode of thinking applies to any instructional tool that you may be using in the classroom. When in doubt, refer to the definition of AT and ask: does this item fit my student’s daily needs, or was it a one time thing? If you do not know, ask an AT Specialist for help.

What to Do with IEPs?

I see many teachers who put graphic organizers into the Present Levels sections of IEPs. The recommendations seem to just casually dangle there, as if saying “yes, the student needs it, but you can decide what that means and what it looks like.” These teachers mean well, and are probably working under the assumption that graphic organizers are standard instructional tools. However, we all now know that for students with IEPs graphic organizers are AT devices. That means we need to have done some type of assessment, device selection, and service training for students with IEPs. What type of graphic organizer does the student need (i.e., free form, pre-arranged boxes, sentence starters, etc.)? Does every teacher have access to the selected organizer, or does the student take them with him/her? How much have we spent teaching the student how to use the organizer, and has the student sufficiently learned how to use it independently? These questions need to be addressed and explained in a plan (either the IEP or a separate AT plan). Teachers also need to make sure the correct boxes and menus are checked in IEP programs (I know in mine, there is a drop-down menu under Services–Program Modifications that allows the selection of Assistive Equipment: Templates).


Assistive technology is new to many special education teachers and professionals. It is not widely covered in college, devices change frequently, and professional practices is always telling us something new. When in doubt, ask your district AT team, school facilitator, or research sites like mine. AT Specialists/Professionals are always willing to help, when asked.



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