Children's Voice May/June 2009

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Visual Strategies for Language-Challenged Learners

By Ellen Notbohm

© 2009 Ellen Notbohm

By some estimates, as many as 80% of students in special education have some degree of language-processing disability. When verbal language is a challenge, many such children will be visual learners, that is, they will more easily understand what they see than what they hear. Because so many of our educational and social interactions are verbal, opportunities for communication breakdowns are ever-present.

Supplementing verbal communication with visual tools can help. Visual schedules, choice boards, communication strips, classroom rules on a poster, step-by-step written directions, and even body movements can all improve a student's ability to participate successfully at school. Visual tools assist students in processing language, organizing their thinking, and retrieving information, and they can also help students learn appropriate social interaction.

Schedules and calendars are the most common visual tools. They range from simple to complex and can be used within all environments. A visual schedule helps the student to:
  • clarify that activities happen within a specific time period and in a certain sequence;
  • be prepared for any changes in the daily routine;
  • transition independently between activities and environments by showing where he is to go next;
  • lessen his or her anxiety level and reduce the occurrence of challenging behaviors by providing the structure to organize and predict daily and weekly events;
  • increase motivation to complete less desired activities by strategically alternating more preferred with less preferred activities on the student's individual visual schedule; and
  • incorporate social interactions into a daily schedule, such as showing completed work to a teacher, saying hello and goodbye, or asking a peer to play.
How to create a visual schedule
  1. Decide who will use the schedule. Will it be several people or a single child?
  2. Divide the day or the activity into segments and name each segment.
  3. Consult a speech therapist to determine the visual system that best suits the child, based on his or her level of representation. What is meaningful? Photos, drawings, or words?
  4. Have an occupational therapist assist in determining how the student best tracks the visual schedule. Is it top to bottom, or left to right? How many items should appear on the schedule? Three may be the maximum for some children; others may be able to handle six or more.
  5. Think about how and when the schedule will be used. A schedule to be used by many students will probably be large and posted on a wall. A schedule for a single child might be desk sized or, ideally, portable, to be able to travel with him across all the venues of his day.
  6. Select visuals that pertain to the activity or the day and create the schedule.
  7. Present a minimum of two scheduled items at a time so that the student begins to understand that activities happen in a sequential manner, not in isolation.
  8. Walk through the schedule before introducing it to the child to make sure it is clear, sequential, and has no missing parts.
  9. Teach the student how to use the schedule. Make sure she understands each visual representation used; never assume that she does.
  10. Refer to the schedule often to provide information about what is happening, what is changing, and what is next.
Expressive or receptive?The primary function of a visual schedule is to give information to a student through photos, illustrations, or text. It is a receptive communication tool in that it helps the student comprehend messages provided by others. Choice boards, by their definition, are tools for eliciting expressive response. A choice board is a visual two- or three-dimensional representation of the choice possibilities. Photos, text, or tangible objects can be used. Choice boards are effective in giving the child an extended opportunity to reply. Under normal circumstances, a verbal choice, such as, "Do you want juice or milk?" is over in a couple of seconds. Supplementing the verbal message with a graphic

representation gives the language-challenged student additional time to process the message and be successful in responding.

© 2004, 2009 Ellen Notbohm

Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of four award-winning books on autism, including 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (with co-author Veronica Zysk), from which this article was adapted. She is a columnist for Autism Asperger's Digest and Children's Voice, and a contributor to numerous publications and websites around the world. To explore her work, visit

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