Welcome to Part 5 of “There’s A Special App For That” series on iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad apps for students with special needs. Have a look at our others in the series:

What is Mind Mapping?

ICTLearningStyles MindmapMind mapping is a visual strategy that’s been used for decades in education and is usually defined as a diagram that visually represents concepts or ideas. Using mind maps (also called graphic organizers and concept maps) can be a valuable strategy for visual learners.

Mind maps can be especially helpful for students with learning disabilities by helping with: brainstorming, note-taking, expression of ideas, recall, concept development, understanding relationships, organization for the writing process, and problem-solving. Mind mapping software has been very effective when used with students with learning disabilities who are visual learners. However, we were eager to look into apps for mind mapping on the iPad and iPod and see if effectiveness for students with learning disabilities lived up to their traditional software counterparts.

What does the research say about using mind maps with students with learning disabilities?

There has been a great deal of research on mind maps, graphic organizers and their use with students with learning disabilities. The Council of Exceptional Children has published information on current practices with graphic organizers. Graphic Organizers: A Review of Scientifically Based Research is a study that was completed in 2003 by the Institute for the Advancement of Research in Education, in collaboration with Inspiration Software. This study analyzed the instructional effectiveness of graphic organizers in the classroom. The results indicated significant findings in these areas:

  • Reading comprehension. Use of graphic organizers is effective in improving students’ reading comprehension.
  • Student achievement. Students using graphic organizers show achievement benefits across content areas and grade levels. Achievement benefits are also seen with students with learning disabilities.
  • Thinking and learning skills. The process of developing and using a graphic organizer enhances skills such as developing and organizing ideas, seeing relationships, and categorizing concepts.
  • Retention. Use of graphic organizers aids students in retention and recall of information.
  • Cognitive learning theory. The use of graphic organizers supports implementation of cognitive learning theories.

Institute of the Advancement of Research in Education and Inspiration Software.

What about software for making mind maps?

There are a number of excellent mind mapping and graphic organizer software available. Kidspiration, Inspiration and Sparkspace are just a few that are stand-alone products that have been on the market for some time. In addition, many writing solutions now have mind mapping options built in as a step in the writing process. WriteOnline and Kurtzweil 3000 are two such products that integrate a mind map. Open-sourced applications, such as Freemind, XMind and CMap, are free, effective applications for mind mapping, but are usually limited in what they can do for the writing process and not designed for students with special needs. Other solutions are completely web-based, like Mindmeister and Bubbl.us. In terms of features, mind mapping software is still the most effective for students with learning disabilities, with multiple features available to support the writing process. However, what makes the development of mind mapping apps interesting is their mobility and ease of use.

Our criteria for mind mapping apps.

Apps for mind mapping are generally developed for a mass market and not specifically for educational use or for students with special needs. With so many apps on the market, we developed some basic criteria that we used to target the needs of a student with learning disabilities:

  • Simple to use for middle and high school students
  • Uncluttered interface
  • Ability to manipulate “nodes” or ideas on the screen easily for those with fine motor difficulties
  • Ability to use graphics instead of text, if needed
  • Multiple options to use varying colors and shapes to differentiate ideas and to provide increased meaning and structure for the student.
  • Ability to export the map into different formats, so that the student can manipulate the map afterwards for the writing process.

Based on this criteria for students with learning disabilities, we wanted to pass on 5 apps that we think are great for mind mapping with students with learning disabilities.

1. Popplet ($4.99)

Popplet IconPopplet is our top pick that met all of our criteria listed above. In addition, Popplet is fun, simple to use, and motivating. This app made us want to create mind maps for everything! It can be used with elementary students as well as high school and beyond. What is really interesting about this app is that not only can you link words together, you can easily link photos as part of your mind map, a great addition for the visual learner. Popplet can be used to break down tasks, for math problem-solving and decision-making. They also have a webapp in addition to the iPad application. And we also just like saying the name “Popplet”.


Popplet Screenshot 2Popplet Screenshot 2

Here is a great video overview of their app from the Popplet website:

2. MindNode ($5.99)

MindNode IconMindNode is an iPhone/iPad application that has simple interface, is easy to use and creates files that are simple to export. In addition to the iPhone app, there are also corresponding desktop applications that have recently won Mac app of the week from elearningstuff.net. However, there are currently no options to import your own photos. However, as you can see from the screenshots below, it is very simple and easy for a student to use.


MindNode Screenshot 1MindNode Screenshot 2MindNode Screenshot 3

Here is a video overview of their app from the MindNode website.

3. SimpleMind+ ($Free with in-app upgrade for $2.99)

SimpleMind IconSimpleMind is both a desktop application, an iPhone and an iPad app. As the title suggests, also very simple to use. It has a limited number of options, but it is a very good tool to start with for those who have never used graphic organizers. You can save to the web, pdf or other formats (like Freemind). Its simplicity and ease of use alone is why we like this app.


Simplemind iPad ScreenshotSimplemind iPhone Screenshot 1Simplemind iPhone Screenshot 2Simplemind iPhone Screenshot 3

4. Idea Sketch ($Free)

Idea Sketch IconIdea Sketch is a mind mapping application that can also convert the map to a text outline. This app uses very small icons (too small!), so its not great for those students with fine motor delays. However, we liked the fact that you can transfer into an outline mode to see your ideas in list form. IEAR.org also recently reviewed Idea Sketch.


Idea Sketch Screenshot 1Idea Sketch Screenshot 2

5. iThoughts ($7.99/iPhone), iThoughts HD ($9.99/iPad)

iThoughts HD IconiThoughts HD is a well-known, comprehensive app for mind mapping. The best feature of this app is the ability to use multiple transfer options (e-mail, Dropbox) as well as export options into a variety of formats, including other mind map applications. Another benefit to this app is its organizational tools; the student can organize his/her mind maps into folders and use other features such as due date reminders. Another nice feature-there is also the possibility of attaching notes into the folders, great for “reminders” or just random thoughts that come to mind. The interface is clear but slightly more complex to use — we feel that this app would require a bit of a learning curve. The “nodes” are small and might be difficult for a student with fine motor difficulties, and we find it a bit difficult to see the relationship between ideas due to the design. This app has had a number of reviews posted from GigaOM, AssistiveTek and the Mindmapping Software Blog.


iThoughts HD Screenshot 1iThoughts HD Screenshot 2iThoughts HD Screenshot 3

Overall, best for students who are comfortable with mindmapping, and we think most effective for upper-level high school and university students. They have a nice video that explains core features of the app from their website.

These 5 apps can provide visual support and organizational structure to students with receptive language delays, auditory processing disorder and reading disabilities. The single greatest benefit of these apps is their potential for mobile learning and assistance to students with learning disabilities. We welcome suggestions for other mind mapping apps or for others that promote visual learning. Send us your feedback!

8 Responses to There’s a special app for that – Part 5: 5 Mind Mapping Apps for Students with Learning Disabilities

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  2. [...] that – Part 6: 3 Methods of Using Augmentative Communication Apps To Support Different Languages There's a special app for that – Part 5: 5 Mind Mapping Apps for Students with Learning Disabiliti…There's a special app for that – Part 4: 16 Apps for Elementary Students with Non-Verbal Learning [...]

  3. dexie says:

    I just noticed that my neighbor’s autistic son is changing a lot. He said his son is using the Ghostwriter Notes app in the iPad he bought at http://majorspot.com

    The child became more creative because of the writing and sketching features of the app, he said. And I believe him because I can see the change.

  4. Jessica says:

    I’d also recommend checking SpiderScribe:

  5. Hi Andrea,

    I think that students with learning ‘disabilities’ are often the students who are already looking at their studies and the world in mind map like structures. Fortunately they can do it on their computer and paper now as well.

    Perhaps this could be handy for your readers:

    I see that more and more students and children are learning how to mind map. Really good, because it will help them a lot when studying.

    Best regards,


  6. Bill Morey says:

    I think MagicalPad would be a nice fresh addition to your list. check it out. MagicalPad http://www.magicalpad.com/ is a great new app that I use. It combines mind mapping, outlining and visual note taking. It also adds tasks to the mix all in a free-form moving pieces around. it has a basic doodle tool and have iPad and Mac version with sync.​ Lot of flexibility for 1/10 of what you pay for older apps.

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