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Using visual support in your setting

In a previous blog we looked at certain key aspects of practitioners’ role in creating a communication friendly environment. This blog is going to focus on how we can use visual support to create an enabling environment that supports all children’s language development and learning, including children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

What is visual support?

As adults we rely on many visual approaches to help us navigate our world. If we drive, we are looking at road signs to give us directions or information about the road system. In a new place, we look for familiar signs for the toilet. We use diaries or calendars to organise our lives. 

Visual support for children refers to gestures, formal signing systems (e.g. Makaton), photographs, pictures and objects. This includes labeling resources with pictures (and text) so that children know what’s inside, where things are and be more independent.

We often naturally use gestures such as pointing to reinforce where something is or a beckoning motion if we want children to come towards us. Some key word signs are an extension of these gestures e.g. miming drinking for the word ‘drink’. We also use real objects to help children learn new words e.g. the best way to learn about an orange is to see, feel and taste an orange. We may also use objects as props when we’re telling stories or during role play. Photographs and pictures can provide an overview of a routine, for example the daily routine of the setting or specific routines such as washing hands or circle time. A photograph can also be a useful reminder of something children have done or to talk about something that is going to happen.

How do these visual approaches support children?

  • A gesture or a picture lasts longer than a word and can help children remember what has been said. It can also help children to focus and support their attention and listening skills if they have something to look at as well as listening to the words. It reinforces what’s being said and provides additional information.
  • Visual supports can also help children to understand what we're saying. It's much clearer if you point to something or somewhere rather than saying 'Can you go and sit down just in front of the sand, next to the books'. The last word that children hear is books and may just go and sit there. Breaking instructions and sentences down and making it simpler as well as using an action and or/picture can help children to understand what we're saying.
  • Sometimes as well by using gestures or signs while we speak to reinforce our message, it helps us to slow down the speed we speak at and this can give  children more time to take in what we're saying.
  • Visual timetables/ timelines can provide reassurance and support if children are unsure about what’s going to happen or are anxious about this. They can also be used to let children know about any changes in routines to help them make this transition more easily.


Download I CAN's factsheet for more information about visual support and timelines.

The success of the CBeebies programme ‘Something Special’ has brought the key word signing system Makaton into the mainstream. Originally intended as a programme for children with additional needs it is very popular with all children. The supporting website  also has Makaton signs and symbols. The Makaton website has additional resources and information about courses for practitioners. Some of the activities in the Early Talkers box set have ideas for including visual support in your setting.

Getting started with visual support

Introduce things slowly so that the change is manageable. It’s better to be able to use five key signs consistently everyday than know 20 signs and use them infrequently and inconsistently. Once you feel confident with these signs then you can develop your repertoire.

Make your visual timelines and picture labels together with children. They can take pictures, print them off and stick them on. That way you talk about your routine, the resources and they can feel involved in the process.

Reflecting on practice

You may already be aware of and using many of these strategies. However, it's often useful to reflect on how you're using them.

  • Do I use natural gestures and key word signing with children? If not, can I develop my practice in this area?
  • Are resources labelled with pictures/words?
  • Do I use symbols, pictures and props (real objects) to reinforce language?
  • Do I use a visual timetable/timeline to let children know about the routine of the day and any changes?

Visual support is a vital part of an enabling environment that can benefit all children, including those with additional needs. With time and support these approaches can be integrated into everyday practice. 

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