Do You See What I Mean?
Visual Literacy Supports for Students with Disabilities
Many learners with disability labels are visual learners and are best able to understand and remember content when they can see it represented in some way; in other words, they need to “see what we mean.” Three visual supports helpful for teaching and supporting literacy development are described here: picture books, graphic notes, and story kits. Some of these ideas may be effective for working with some students with disabilities and each may be used as catalyst for designing literacy lessons that are appropriate and challenging for learners in the inclusive classroom.
Picture books combine words and pictures to tell a story. Typically, in these texts, the pictures don’t just supplement the text; they are as important or central as the text. Picture books are often used in the early elementary grades but they can actually be incredibly effective for students in older grades including high school.
Picture books can be used as a primary text to introduce and examine an issue or as a supplementary text for all or for just some learners needing extra support. For instance, a middle school science teacher used A River Ran Wild: An Environmental History (Cherry, 1992), a story about the Nashua River of New Hampshire, to teach all learners in the class about conservation and pollution. The text includes not only a story of the river itself but also contrasting maps of New England (in the 1500s and in the 1900s) and an author’s note detailing the work of a committee who organized to clean up the Nashua.
For students with more significant disabilities, for those who are blind or have low vision, or for those just needing a more concrete way of relating to a piece of text, teachers might consider the use of story kits as a tool for improving literacy learning. A story kit is simply a bag or box of items related to a theme, unit, or particular story. A kit for the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for instance, might contain a tin cup, a rag doll, a girl’s bonnet, a small toy fiddle, and a piece of chalk.
Story kits can help a reader generate ideas, retain information, and further their understanding of a particular idea or concept. The kit can be used to introduce or review the story, to interest and support students as they discuss certain passages or chapters, and to give them cues as they engage in other activities related to the book (e.g., writing a report). One teacher used story kits to help Jerry Joe, a student with Down syndrome, understand and remember the books studied in class. When the class read The Summer of the Swans (Byars, 1981) the teacher asked the class to participate in creating a story kit. The kit consisted of a watch, a small plastic boy and girl, some white feathers, a pair of sneakers, and a map of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was used by Jerry Joe when he was doing a retelling of the story to his speech therapist but it was also used by other students as they engaged in activities related to the story. For instance, the teacher asked small groups of students to write “what happens next” stories detailing some event or situation that they imagined happening to the characters beyond the ending of the book. When students wrote these stories, the teacher put all of the story kit objects on a table in front of the room so students could better recall details from the book.
Teachers should also, of course, include one or two copies of the book or story in the kit. At least one copy can be adapted for particular learners with disabilities (Downing, 2005). Some students may profit from a tactile book with added textures or objects while others may need large-print versions of the text. Still others may need additional teacher or student-generated graphics if the text has few or no illustrations.
Drawing or visual note taking is another strategy that learners can use and teachers can teach in order to boost the literacy learning of students with disabilities. Modeling, teaching, and encouraging this strategy is a way to demonstrate that there are many different ways to represent information while giving struggling readers a way to share their understanding of a text, tell a story, or organize information.
Students can be encouraged and taught to use visual notes in a variety of ways. One teacher simply told her students to take notes as they always had but to add “pictures, diagrams, doodles, patterns, or charts” in the margins or in the actual body of the notes to emphasize points, elaborate on an idea, or to make the content memorable. Another teacher showed a student with physical disabilities and limited mobility how to take visual notes using the computer. After reading Of Mice and Men (Steinback, 1937), the student searched the web for images of men working on ranches, a gun, rabbits in a hutch, and a farm. He then assembled these images and some simple text into a PowerPoint presentation that he shared with classmates and used to answer questions posed by his teachers.
Making greater use of visual supports is just one way that effective teachers are meeting the needs of a wider range of learners. Each of these strategies can certainly be used for students without disabilities in inclusive classrooms but they may have the most impact on those learners who cannot learn effectively in classrooms using traditional tools and strategies. By expanding the strategies used in the classroom and specifically by expanding the use of visual supports in literacy instruction, teachers are sure to reach a wider range of learners and to give every student opportunities to hone their skills as writers and readers.
Byars, B. (1981). Summer of the swans. New York, NY: Puffin.
Cherry, L. (1992). A river ran wild: An environmental history. NY: Gulliver Green.
Downing, J. (2005). Teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Steinback, J. (1937). Of mice and men. New York, NY: Penguin.