Differentiation Using Visual Aids

Everyone knows that using visual aids when presenting information is a good strategy.  Everyone from businessmen to teachers know how effective visual aids are when you want to grab the attention of your audience.  We all know that there are some things that are just easier to explain with a picture or a drawing.  We all know that.

10 20 80 hear read and see

Even though we know it, this infographic supports my point.  It is  better to use visuals in our lessons and in the materials we use (i.e. worksheets etc).


Most Primary School Classrooms are filled with visual aids and concrete materials that teachers use.  We use posters for rules and routines.  We have big and colourful word walls with pictures to support new vocabulary.  We display flow charts and diagrams and photographs and symbols to remind students of lessons we have taught.  Primary School Teachers tend to use visual aids all the time.The fact is that students are more likely to retain the information presented in class if it is repeated in different ways (including words and visuals).

Secondary School Teachers are less likely to use visual support.  Why is that?

I don’t need to convince you that using visual aids is just good teaching.  You might be wondering how using visual aids in the classroom is a differentiation strategy.  Here are some examples.

  1. Visual Prompts for classroom rules/ routines: I have told you about how I display my class rules/ routines. Photos of students following the rules and carrying out routines makes rules clearer to students.  Seeing what is expected is a better reminder than being repeatedly nagged by the teacher repeating the rules.  This is especially true for students with autism.

    Stop Look Listen Visual Prompt

    I use this when teaching and rehearsing our attention getting signal. I ding a bell then point to the sign.

  2. Icons on Worksheets: when I create maths worksheets I include a small image of a calculator.  If the calculator is in a circle and crossed out, students know they are not allowed to use a calculator.  If the calculator has nothing around it or over it, the students know they can use their calculator.  My students who struggle with reading can see quickly and easily if they are allowed to use a  calculator.

    calculator circled

    The calculator icon is circled in red.

  3. Icons/ Colour Coding on Teaching Slides: I use a bold font in green for instructions (or questions students need to answer).  If there is information that students need to copy into their note books, I use a different font in purple or blue and a small picture of a pen.  This highlights text for students with dyslexia and students who get overwhelmed with large amounts of text.

    teaching slide independent task

    This slide includes the directions for an independent task that students complete at the beginning of the lesson.

  4. Illustrating Vocabulary Words: insert images on your handouts so technical language is clearer to students or have students draw images beside vocabulary words and definitions.  This will help them to understand and remember the meaning of the new vocabulary.  This also provides an opportunity for your visual thinkers to show what they know.

    Word Wall Term 1 2014

    This colourful Word Wall includes words with definitions that students have illustrated for display.

  5. Visual Aids Displaying the steps of a process taught in class.  Check out this teaching slide where the teacher has highlighted the buttons on the calculator that students need to use when entering an addition or subtraction equation.  This strategy is vital when teaching students with speech and language difficulties (especially receptive language), difficulties with executive function and problems with working memory.
subtraction teaching slide calculator

This slide was used to support the teaching activity, and then it was printed out on large paper and displayed in the classroom for students to refer to during future lessons.


The bonus reason for using visual aids in your classroom is that it will make it so much easier to achieve the Rule of 7 Lesson Planning Challenge.  The more images you use, the less words you will need!


Let us know in the comments if there other ways you use visuals to support your students with learning difficulties.  Happy Teaching and Differentiating!


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Tip #2 The United Front

This tip seems obvious.  It takes extra effort but is certainly worth it!

TIP 2: Back the Teacher on the Behaviour Plan!

Find out if the teacher you work with has a specific class behaviour plan (rules and consequences).  Know  what the teacher expects of students.

Expectations could encompass entry/ exit routines, book work, equipment required for each lesson, homework, raising their hand to speak, working individually / in pairs/ in groups.  Ask for information about these things and let the teacher know that you want this information so you can back them up at every turn.

If appropriate, depending on the students you work with, suggest that some of the expectations be given to students as a hand out or posted in the classroom so they can be referred to again and again. Approach this by saying: “Johnny often pushes the boundaries, maybe if we put the class rules in his book it would save us from having to repeat them so often.  We could just keep turning to that page and point to the rule he is breaking.”

This tip is all about proving two things:

1. Your purpose in the classroom is to support the teacher.  You are not there to undermine their authority or make them uncomfortable.  You are there to HELP.

2. Your focus is supporting students to succeed.  You are there to make suggestions and assist the students to experience success in classroom activities and assessment.

POSSIBLE BONUS : The teacher who does not use a seating plan or have a clear list of student expectations may just decide to develop it simply because you have asked to see it.  If you make it clear that you want this so that you can support them, your colleague is more likely to produce something, so that you are both on the same page.  We all know students thrive in environments where the boundaries are clearly set out.

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The Balancing Act: Support Teacher Tips Series

Most Learning Support Teachers are experienced classroom teachers. The move from being the responsible classroom teacher to becoming the ‘support’ teacher requires adjustment and careful navigation. Classroom teachers are responsible for long term curriculum planning, lesson organisation, grouping students, marking classwork and assessment, behaviour and classroom management, reporting and more. It is difficult to let go of those responsibilities when you become a support teacher. This is especially true when the teacher you are supporting does things very differently to you. However, as a supporting teacher it is not your job to take over the classroom, manage behaviour or take responsibility for planning and assessment. You are working in a team and while it might be tempting to lead the team you need to allow the classroom teacher to lead.

The actions of the support teacher are as delicate as a surgeon’s. While it is tempting to sit at the back of the room and shake your head at the (sometimes unbelievable) actions of students in the class and their teacher, it is important that the support teacher does not ‘give up’ when it gets too hard. It might be frustrating when students seem not to respond to your presence and the teacher you are supporting seems to see you as an imposition rather than a knowledgeable colleague. However the collegial teamwork of classroom and support teacher can have a significant impact on student results and it is well worth your effort to build this slowly and focus on the positive.

So Tip #1: Keep the Balance.

Focus on the positive behaviour and actions of students and the classroom teacher/s.

When giving advice or feedback, be sure to highlight positive aspects of a lesson/ resource/ plan.

Make small goals and be hopeful as well as proactive about reaching them.

You can Do it!

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The 2015 School Year Begins

School begins this week for many young Australian students while their Teachers are launching into their second official week of “SCHOOL”.  This year the staff at my school opted to attend four (4) Student Free Days prior to the commencement of the first school term and participate in another 8 hours of Professional Development activities during the school term.  All of this minute counting is a choice we make so that our mid-semester break will last for a full two weeks instead of a mere 7 days.  So, while the students are skipping along the path, enthusiastically unpacking their bags full of stationery and waving good bye to their parents, their teachers are frantically trying to find the lesson plan they scratched out somewhere between the morning briefing and the 1 toilet break.

Saying that our four days of Adult Learning was busy, frustrating, exhausting, disappointing and (frankly) unproductive, would be an understatement.  I can’t speak for all teachers in Australia.  In fact, I have heard from some of my teacher friends that many teachers were provided with time to work and learn collaboratively, discuss student support strategies and even create new resources for their classrooms.  However, my colleagues and I were subjected to operational lecture after operational lecture, general and very basic information sessions about teaching strategies (already to familiar to many of us) and a mildly entertaining presentation about the importance of providing appropriate feedback.  All of this could have easily been fitted into 5 hours after which we all could have applied our ‘new’ knowledge in a meaningful engagement with the real world situation we are all facing now – planning lessons and actually teaching students!!

I started this post with the intention of telling you all about what I had learned during the past week.  I did learn a few things. Unfortunately, I think it is more important for my students to learn quite a lot this semester and I fear that I’m not prepared to facilitate their coming journey!

If you stuck with me this far, you deserve to know what I really learned last week, so here it is in a nutshell.

  1. The word “but” is the great eraser.  Example: “Darling, you are beautiful… but… perhaps you should wear some more flattering clothes.”  A much better word… “AND”.  Example: “Darling, you are beautiful… and... I would love to give you the money to buy some new clothes.”
  2. Teachers talk too much! Including me!  If I can say it in 5 words, then I should.  Using 20 words when 5 will do only wastes everyone’s time and my energy.  This is especially true when I am speaking to a group of teenagers who will switch off by the time I get to the sixth word.
  3. Having high expectations of adults is just as important as having high expectations of children.  
  4. My new classroom is very hot.  If you open the windows before 8 am and turn all the fans on, it is bearable.
  5. People need time to breathe and process what they have heard, learned or experienced.  They need opportunities to connect their past experiences and knowledge with new information and experiences.  This is true of children, teenagers and adults.

Admittedly, I may have already known some of the above points before last week.  My experience last week and the time I have taken to reflect upon it, has highlighted a few things that I need to work on this year.  Things I need to do when I’m planning, when I’m teaching and when I’m interacting with my colleagues.

3 habits I’m going to try and develop as a teacher in 2015.

  • Use the word “AND” instead of “BUT”… I know this will require some thought which might be difficult AND I will get used to it eventually.
  • Talk LESS in my classroom.  I will need to think about this too (when I plan, give instructions and reflect on my lessons).
  • Allow the people around me (and myself) time to breathe- to connect, process, think – AND relax.

We have a plan for the year… let’s see how that goes.

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What NOT to say!

It seems that the blogosphere- well the one that I’m in- seems to be a bit preoccupied with the things we shouldn’t be saying in the classroom and reading these posts got me wondering!


Check out this post from I Speak Math: Don’t Say That! and this one from The Cornerstone: Unhelpful Things I’ve Said to Students

The first one- Don’t Say That- is specifically about the things teachers say when teaching mathematics concepts.  You see, understanding mathematical language is an important part of learning mathematical concepts and processes.  When we misuse mathematical language we lead students to form misconceptions about those mathematical concepts.  Put simply, when teachers introduce a new process they may pass on their own misconceptions.  Some teachers, in an effort to simplify a difficult process, will teach the students a trick or avoid using the  specialised mathematical language required to understand the concept.  Students who only learn shortcuts end up with an unstable foundation of knowledge and this leads to confusion later on.  No teacher would do this on purpose!  But many teachers do it all the same.

The second- Unhelpful Things I’ve Said- is more about the phrases that are often said in frustration.  The focus is on the things teachers say when responding to negative student behaviours.  No teacher wants to be unhelpful, but every teacher says unhelpful things at times, because we can’t possibly be perfect!  Teachers are human and it is impossible to be the most reasonable, patient, responsible or even helpful person in the classroom every minute of the school year.  We are in the classroom an awful lot you know!

So, What?

It is impossible to delete what we’ve said.  Correcting misconceptions in any subject can be a long and difficult process (possible but difficult).  Repairing a bruised relationship is hard work.  The things a teacher says in a day can have a huge impact on how the student feels and what they believe/ understand when they  leave the classroom. So, why do we talk so much?

We can’t write a perfect script for what we will say in the classroom, because stuff happens.  An effective classroom is by nature dynamic and students are certainly an unstable ‘property’ of the classroom equation.  We can (and should) plan the words we will use to explain new concepts and consider how our words could lead to misconceptions.  Responding to student behaviour is a whole different story; you can’t possibly plan for what might happen when emotions are involved. You can have a plan for managing your own behaviour and your own words; you can reflect on the situations that you managed well and the ones that you wished went better.

Reflective practice is the key to being a better teacher.  Reflecting on what we said and even what we didn’t say will help us do it better next time. Sharing our reflections helps our colleagues become better teachers, too!

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