Why Every Elementary School Teacher needs access to Visual Support

Visual support uses visual items like pictures and signs to enhance communication, especially in education settings. Many people, including 65% of the population, benefit from visual aids in learning. These aids assist in clarifying instructions, supporting dyslexic students, and elucidating language nuances. Tools like Smarty Symbols offer a vast array of images for teachers, fostering a richer, more inclusive learning environment.

What is Visual Support?

If you’ve recently traveled to another country, driven almost anywhere, or even simply tried to find a restroom you’ve likely benefited from visual support. 

Visual support is simply using a visual item, such as an object, photograph, sign or picture, to communicate.  The signs on roadways, airports and even restrooms quickly help us see and understand information that may have otherwise taken longer to decipher. 

In recent times, special education has embraced visual support seeing the impact it can have with students who may not otherwise have had a way to communicate. However, visual support is something that is already used by everyone in daily life and is a vital tool for helping all students, not just those in need of special education. 

What is the Problem with Text Only Information?

  • Poor Communication – when relying solely on text, it lacks body language, tone, and other non-verbal signals that are often important for successful communication. If the message isn’t clear, this often leads to the additional issue of misinterpretation.
  • Misinterpretation– how much time and energy is wasted on misunderstandings, assumptions, and off-the-mark inferences?  Visual Support can efficiently reduce many of these time wasters, by clarifying before the misinterpretation happens.
  • Reluctance to take action–  Have you yourself ever hesitated to start something you didn’t understand? Have you ever found it awkward to ask for help? Have you ever glazed over a long written instruction because it was “too much”?  Although we wish all students were proficient at letting us know when they don’t understand something, we know this is rarely the case for anyone to not at least have occasional moments like this.

The Majority of all Students are already Visual Learners

Out of the 3 learning styles visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, research has shown a whopping 65% of the general population are visual learners (Zopf et al., 2004). That means, statistically, almost ⅔ of any given classroom would already be most proficient at learning and retaining information visually. As a teacher why would you not use that to your advantage to further increase learning of what will likely be remembered with visual support? 

Not Leaving Emerging Readers Behind

Like most childhood development recommendations, there’s a pretty wide range of what is considered appropriate acquisition of a skill; with learning to read many professionals put  the typical age range between 5-7.  Even if the student is already reading, there is an enormous variance of where their proficiency level is at.  In 2019, the percentage of fourth-grade public school students performing at or above the NAEP Proficient level in reading was 34 percent nationally.  If ⅔ of a given class are not proficient at reading, should they fail at all aspects of education while they continue to work on reading? Or can we implement more visual support in areas that could help them learn and complete assignments as we continue to grow their reading skills?

Whether it’s from typical childhood development, or a special need that should be accommodated, strategically including quality visual supports could make an enormous impact on a student’s ability to be included and continue their academic success as they build their reading skills.

Statistically, about 1 in 5 of your students likely have Dyslexia

In the United States, NIH research has shown that dyslexia affects between 15% and 20%, or 1 in every 5 people.   Although, hopefully most of them receive a timely diagnosis and extra support, the reality is no matter what, they will need as much support as possible from their general ed teacher as well.  Many books on dyslexia mention the fatigue and exhaustion, students with dyslexia experience navigating a classroom that relies so heavily on written information and that if left to continually fail on their own, often leads to damage of their self-worth. It’s important to consider what visual supports could be added to help scaffold learning so that not all of their energy is drained on their deficits, allowing them to also flourish with their strengths.


Help Students “👀”  Classroom Expectations

Those “quiet hands” and “quiet feet”, what do they really look like? 

The teacher had posted an expectation that just said:  “No Pushing”. It was simple and short, making it both easy to read and remember. It seemed clear enough, but soon enough a voice shouts, “Luke is breaking the rules: he’s pushing!” You look over to see he is pushing a box. Almost any expectation could follow a similar pattern. The old adage of a “picture is worth a thousand words” can be a teacher’s best friend. You don’t want your expectations to be too long that they aren’t easily remembered, yet often a little visual guidance can go a long way. 

If clarifying what you find is obvious feels like overkill,  it is important to recognize that some children, such as many with ASD, without more guidance often take things literally. They also tend to not have as strong of a “social radar” that would help them look at the social situation to see what you really meant.   Visuals can make a big difference in direct teaching that many with ASD and students with other neurodiversities may need. 

Visuals add Nuance to Words

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “run” has 645 distinct meanings, “set” 430, “go” 368, and “take” 343.  These are a handful of the worst examples, but considering the frequency of these words juggling the multiple meanings and nuances of words can be an arduous task.  Well placed visual supports can help a student better understand and navigate the nuances of language and meaning. 

How Can I Implement Good Visual Support?

When starting to build good visual support in a classroom it’s best to start with the “infrastructure” of the classroom.  This infrastructure is the important things you want your students to quickly learn and remember but aren’t necessarily even the content to be taught:  calendars, classroom expectations, hallway expectations, and vocabulary words related to the school day. From there, as you build or reintroduce old assignments and activities, take a second glance at it and consider what can be added to help with the nuance of meaning in a written text. Building visual support is a continuous process, but it can only happen if you take the leap to begin the process, and develop a mindfulness of where more visual support might be needed.

One of the most useful things a teacher can have in their toolbox is access to a quality visual support program like Smarty Symbols.  Programs such as this allow teachers access to over 35,000 images that can be used to create dynamic visual support for their classroom and students. Additionally there are over 6,000 publicly shared activities that can be used by any Smarty Symbols member.  


Create visual support more efficiently with access to Smarty Symbols Studio

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