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Visual supports

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What is it?

Many people are better at understanding and remembering what they see, compared with what they hear. When a student has problems with language, attention or memory this can be even more pronounced. Visual supports (sometimes known as 'visuals' or 'visual cues') provide students with visual information about activities, rules, routines and skills. They can add meaning to spoken information. This means that they can be helpful for students with language difficulties who have trouble understanding what is said. Visuals can be used for individuals or in a whole class setting.

How do I use it?

Visual symbols vary in how easy they are to understand. Written words are generally the hardest to understand, while real objects are the easiest. Types of visual information can include:

  • real objects
  • object remnants or part objects
  • photographs
  • line drawings (printed or hand drawn)
  • written words.

Types of visual supports

Visuals can take a range of forms such as schedules (see the Visual schedule factsheet), first-then boards, single pictures, scripts and social information (see also Social narratives and Scripting factsheets).

Visual supports can also be used on a larger scale to organise the classroom. For example, a quiet reading corner or group seating areas can be shown using different flooring, mats or by putting tape on the floor. Materials can be arranged visually and labelled so that students can access them easily. Visuals can be individualised such as using a small mat to sit on in class. The student can then take the mat to assembly to remind them to stay seated and keep their body within the boundary of the mat.

Making visual supports

Visual supports can be made using specialised software, photos taken by the teacher, or using images from photo libraries on the internet. They can also be hand drawn or simple word documents, depending on the needs of the student. They need to clearly represent the important information. Words can be added as a prompt to teachers and other adults to use simple, consistent language when using the visual support.

Using visual supports

Visuals can be used to support any situation where a student would benefit from more information, or more concrete information about a task, situation or activity.

  1. Identify a situation that consistently causes confusion or distress e.g. collecting materials and starting a task.
  2. Choose the type of symbol to use (words, pictures, photos or a combination).
    • The symbols you use should be based on what the student understands.
    • Work with a speech pathologist if needed.
    • Most of the time photos are easier to understand than pictures e.g. a photo of the assembly hall will be more recognisable than a generic picture of a school hall.
  3. Choose the type of visual support. This could be:
    • a single picture to show the next activity
    • a picture showing the materials the student needs to collect for an activity e.g. show pictures of scissors, glue, pencil and worksheet that the student needs to collect
    • a series of pictures showing the steps in an activity e.g. organise a sequence of pictures to show ‘First cut out, then glue pictures onto the worksheet, then label the pictures’
    • information about people e.g. showing that Mrs Thomson is away, Mrs Windus is the teacher today.
    • a daily schedule showing activities (see the Visual schedule factsheet)
    • a social narrative that helps a student understanding a situation (see the Social narratives factsheet).
  4. Source photos, pictures or other materials from your own photos, online photo or picture sites or by hand drawing the pictures. You might need to take photos of specific tasks or places e.g. a photo of the hall to show assembly time.
  5. Create the visual support.
    • It is often best to create a blank template that you can put pictures on and take them off as needed.
    • Print pictures or photos separately; cut out and laminate as needed.
    • Attach pictures to the visual support template using blu-tack, Velcro or similar.
  6. Show the visual to the student before the task. Students need to learn to use visual supports and will often benefit from plenty of time to look at the visual and modelling how to use them.
  7. Place the visual where the student can see it easily. This could be on the white board, the student’s desk or on a wall. Make sure the visual schedule is accessible to the student/s who need it.
    Monitor the student and the use of the visual support. If it does not seem to be helping, try the following:
    • change the type of symbols used to make sure the student understands
    • make the format simpler, with fewer pictures or steps
    • ensure you are using simple language when using the visual
    • make sure that the student has enough time to look at the visual and understand it.

Age group

All ages with modifications according to age and ability.

PreschoolYes
P-2Yes
3-6Yes
High schoolYes

Where can I learn more?

Related factsheets

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Last updated 12 February 2021