For certain students, traditional teaching methods are not always sufficient, and sometimes not appropriate, no matter how sensitively planned and delivered. This may be for many reasons, including physiological, developmental and neurological differences. Some students, including many with with ADHD, autism and specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, have what is known as a ‘spiky’ cognitive profile, meaning that while they they need alternative ways of teaching or support in some areas, they may excel in others. Some learners may not always see visual patterns but be verbally gifted. Some may read and spell with great accuracy, but have slow processing speed that impacts their classroom work and exam success, and turns every homework project into an interminable chore. Some may struggle to find words to express themselves, but have superb non-verbal reasoning and solve mathematical problems with ease.
Using visual strengths to support learning
For students whose visual skills are ahead of their current academic attainment level, or for those whose working memory means that instructions will have been forgotten before tasks are completed, and for others whose auditory processing or hearing poses similar challenges, well-designed visual prompts are an invaluable tool.
Such visual aids might be in the form of A2 (or larger) posters, prominently displayed near the classroom’s chalkboard, dry-wipe board or interactive whiteboard (IWB), so that students have a quick and easy reference for daily tasks, or they may consist of individual cards, stuck to the table desk or kept in students’ desks for quick reference. Prompts may be commercially produced, downloaded from one of many sites for little or no cost, or produced by the school or class teacher.
Students for whom classroom tasks come easily may notice these posters independently and may even refer to them occasionally. However, for these displays to be useful to the students who need them most, their content and purpose may need to be taught. (More on this here.) This applies to everything from the visual timetable to maths prompts, spelling patterns, historical dates and scientific facts and figures. If any part of a display does not enhance learning or self-esteem, it does not belong in the classroom.
Students whose spiky profile tends toward the visual may find a classroom overloaded with posters and displays of students’ work distracting at best, even upsetting on occasion. Care should be taken when considering the overall effect of classroom displays, the placement of individual posters and the seating of students. The practice of seating students with poorer vision towards the front of a class has long been established, but many teachers may be unaware of a need for some students to be located in a visually quieter, less over-stimulating spot. (This does not mean in a dark corner, far from the teacher!)
Design of visual prompts
For our students with specific learning difficulties, dyslexia, dyspraxia/DCD, ADHD, poor working memory, slow processing speed or auditory processing difficulties, etc., well-considered displays and visual prompts can make the vital difference between confusion and success. BUT, these visual aids must be accessible if they are to make a difference and earn their place on classroom walls.
- Language – keep it simple, clear and concise
- Images – to illustrate the point, not for decoration
- Position – where it can be easily seen by those who need it most
- Consistency – across school year groups and departments for impact and efficiency
This often co-occurs with dyslexia and other learning differences, but students without other diagnosed needs may experience visual stress. For some, this can present as blurring of letters, for others, text may appear to move around on the page. Many young students who experience this do not realise that everyone else is not trying to overcome the same challenge. Here‘s a video demonstrating a variety of possible effects. An example is shown statically below:
Even assuming a young student is determined to fight through this, the result is going to include misread words, slow reading speed and exhaustion at the very least. Some people find the use of prescribed coloured lenses can help to alleviate certain of the effects, but these can be expensive. Classroom workarounds include:
- using pastel coloured paper for displays and worksheets to avoid the ‘glare’
- I would have pastel exercise books and writing paper, too
- Using coloured overlays or reading rulers to minimise glare of white paper and books
- I would have a stack of these in all colours to minimise stigma
- Having pastel dry-wipe boards rather than bright white boards
- Designing interactive whiteboard flip-chart presentations with this in mind, using pastel background wherever possible
Font choice can make a huge difference to students with dyslexia or visual stress. The British Dyslexia association recommends these fonts:
I have also used OpenDyslexic, which is free to download here:
One more (important) consideration
1 in 12 boys (1 in 200 girls) is colourblind. There are different types of colour vision deficiency, but the point is, statistically, you will have at least one student in every co-educational classroom with some degree of colourblindness.
With this in mind, consider the following:
- label coloured pens and pencils with the colour name
- choose clear, meaningful illustrations
- check how your worksheet/flip-chart/presentation/display looks using a colourblindness simulation app, and adjust accordingly