SC Curriculum Access through AT

What does it mean to use visual supports for literacy?

Pati King-DeBaun is a speech language pathologist who has specialized in communication for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities and the author of many articles and books. Creative Communicating, a company she founded, develops and distributes materials that promote communication, creativity and emergent literacy in classrooms. A wealth of resources can be found at the web site

Pati explains,

“The idea behind making language and literacy visible is to provide an environment that is both language- and print-rich for children. It's about making routine activities visible for students. Such activities might include morning meeting or circle time, snack time, song activities, book activities, various play activities or job tasks, toileting, washing hands, the lunch routine, and closing routine. This language- and print rich environment stimulates and enhances the emergent literacy experience for individuals at risk for language and literacy failure. The teacher utilizes pictures, or whatever system complements the students' understanding of language, and the printed word along with spoken language to talk about and emphasize learning throughout the day. The main emphasis is placed on the individual's receptive language learning or input, with the understanding that over time students will better comprehend events and activities in their surroundings, make more sense of the world, and ease their anxieties and thus begin to use expressive language.”

Based on experience and research results, basic strategies for making language visible to cognitively delayed young students and infants have been developed. A three-layer approach includes setting up the environment, alerting cues, and developing the routine. This approach is outlined in the following AbleNet Consortium for Excellence in Special Education publication, The Power of Voice within a Language-Rich Environment, which can be found at (requires Adobe Reader)

The South Carolina Assistive Technology Program (SCATP) provides regular trainings on visual supports for literacy. Here is an excerpt from a training provided by Lily Nalty, SLP:

Play video:

Below is a text version of the video segment:

Augmentative communication or AAC refers to using many ways of communicating or visual supports for communication. This can include using speech, gestures, sometimes sign language, objects, pictures, the printed word and sometimes voice output devices.

So AAC or visual supports for communication refers to taking language and making it visible using many ways of communicating to enable all students in the classroom to take part in activities.

We use visual supports all the time, especially in the classroom activities. For example, we use visual support during role call, frequently during weather or calendar time and also during story time. Let’s take a look at some example of visual supports that are used in many classroom activities.

Pictures are usually used during calendar time, for all students in the classroom. For students who can’t talk, they are able to come up here and point to the right answers. Usually students are assigned an activity such as calendar time.

When students are assigned to calendar time, they can use voice output devices to take part in that assignment. So for example (Lily pushes icon on augcom device) “use your inside voice.”  So now all the students could have the direction. (Lily pushes another icon on augcom device), “ready, count…one” and all the students could keep counting. (Lily pushes another button) “did not count.” And your student can even “tattle” and say who did not count. Or (Lily pushes another button) “great job!” : say that everybody did a great job. So there are different types of visual supports that can help students with limited speech take part in typical everyday classroom assignments.

If students are discussing the weather, then the student assigned could say (Lily pushes button to say) “I agree” or “disagree” so now students with limited speech can take part in that kind of an assignment.

Visual calendars are frequently used to help students know what will happen first, second, and third during the day. These pictures can be reduced to a smaller size, and sent home, so that students can go home and tell their families what they did that day. So a visual schedule can be used for expressive purposes as well. Whenever possible, it’s really nice to be able to include choices. So for example during story time, this can be selected so that the teacher asks the student what they want to read first, from “head to toe,” or “blue hat green hat,” and this choice opportunity let students express a choice.

Books can be adapted in several ways to help all students take part in story time. This book was adapted by taking this book and each picture in the book and reducing the size so that now we have all the pictures in the book right here. So as the story is told, a student who is not able to read as well, can point to each picture as the teacher tells the story. This can be placed on the voice output device as well.

All students, whether they can talk or not, love to have this as a prop to use.

In the story “oops” (Lily pushes button to say “oops”) is a line that is repeated throughout the story, so one student can be in charge of hitting this to take part in the story. 

There are several ways to adapt a book. Another way is to take key words, and have them pictured, so as you’re reading the story you might say, “There was an old lady who swallowed a:-- ” what did she swallow?” And with the book open, the students can match to answer the question to what the old lady swallowed first. Other students could touch this, to indicate (Lily pushes a button that says “turn the page”):  “I needed to turn the page.”

Another way to adapt a book is to supplement the words in the book, with the picture symbols, so while reading the story, you could say, “Curly the pig; what kind of animal was he?” And students who can’t talk can point to answer the question. Students who are learning to read, or are at an emergent literacy level can use this to reinforce their reading skills.

Another way to adapt a book is to have key picture symbols representing the words in a story. So I could read “Stripy the caterpillar, was feeling a bit sick.” How was he feeling? And students who couldn’t talk, could point to the right answer. This can reinforce both language and reading skills.

Some classes use word walls. It can be helpful to include the picture symbols along with the word. And these can be organized in many different ways. When you include picture symbols, then your word wall can be used to help with spelling, reading and communication. So for example, if we had an “all about me” theme for the classroom, the students could come up and select from the verb pictures to talk about what they like to do. Some students could even pick a picture and construct a two word combination to say “I like to dance.”

These same principles can be used with all sorts of voice output devices. Some voice output devices allow for a single message, for example this one during snack time, (Lily pushes button to say) “more please” to request more juice.

Other devices allow for two or more messages. For example, this one allows for two messages that can be said to help someone to take part in the conversation. (Lily pushes a button to say) “Hello, my name is Mary.” (Lily pushes a button to say) “See you later!”

Some devices let us include larger or smaller picture symbols and some have key guards as well, to help students with motor problems pinpoint their answer. This one was set up for bubble play. (Lily pushes the button to say) “Let’s blow bubbles.” “I can open it.” “That’s a big bubble.” “Try to pop this!” It’s important to start with motivating activities and motivating messages.

This device can grow with a student. Its set up right now with eight picture symbols, eight messages that can be used while playing a game, but a student can begin with one symbol, progress to two, eight and more.

Some devices are more portable than others. This one is very portable; it’s designed as a fanny pack to be worn from activity to activity.

These devices lead to the use of higher tech devices, such as this one, (Lily pushes the button to say) “Today is” and then it scrolls to choices, “Monday the First.”

Some students relate better to objects, the real objects themselves. So this one is set up as a choice board, do you want to play potato head, play first or eat a snack first?

Teachers and therapists throughout South Carolina are applying these principles in the classroom with creativity and success.

At the SC School for the Deaf and Blind, teacher Carolyn Irons has worked with speech language pathologist Linda Harris to integrate visual and audio supports for her class of students with multi-sensory impairments. Each student is encouraged to use an individualized communication device to participate in a group story time.

Linda Harris explains their objectives for this class:

“The group was developed to foster literacy skills. Stories are developed by the classroom teachers with repetitive lines. The story is read each day during group story time to help the students learn the story. The same story is read for about two weeks. Once the students become familiar with the story they are expected to participate in reading the story by indicating the repetitive line. Students may also participate by answering questions about the story. The amount of participation and the method of participation is based on the students' abilities and determined through diagnostic speech-language therapy.

"When the story is being read, it helps to have several adults (teacher, teacher assistants, and speech-language therapists) participating in the group. The adults can give students the level of cues that is necessary for the child to learn to use the device and learn to participate in the story activity. Adults should be careful to limit the amount cues provided to each student. Cues should be provided at the minimum level necessary for the student to complete the required task.”

Caption for first still picture: Teacher Carolyn Irons uses the printed book with picture symbols for Conrad. Caption for next still picture: Nathaniel can hit a switch to make the gobble sound in their story, whenever the story calls for that sound

Teacher Carolyn Irons moves from student to student to tell the story.

Play video:

Below is a written description of the video segment:

Teacher Carolyn Irons uses a chair with wheels to move between students in the circle. She asks each student, “What do you see?” Each student uses a different device to say “It’s a turkey, gobble, gobble, gobble.”  

Caption for next still picture: D’Toni uses two switches to scan another augmentative communication device to participate in the story.

Caption for next still picture: Lorenzo uses another type of augmentative communication device to choose responses that fit in with the turkey story.

She has students use their devices to answer questions about the story.

Play video:

Below is a written description of the video segment:

The teacher helps each student to use his own device to answer “yes” to the question, “Does a turkey have feathers?” 

In Kim Potter’s class at Greenville School District ’s Washington Center , she uses a myriad of visual supports for circle time story “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”

Caption for next still picture: Jesse uses a story board with pictures to help him respond to questions about the story.

Caption for next still picture showing the teacher’s hand over a student’s hand: Some students need help in selecting a symbol.

All of these visual supports help the students experience the story and promote language development.

Play video:

Below is a written description of the video segment:

Kim Potter sings the song for the book, pointing to a story board with icons representing the old lady, a cat, the bird, the spider, and the fly. Michael pushes a simple pre-recorded communication device to repeat the refrain, “Perhaps she’ll die.” On cue, he selects a small stuffed cat from a container with other animals. The teacher has the old lady “gobble up” a cat doll held by Michael. She ends with “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

With the support of the assistive technology team in Sumter District Two, teacher Jessica Aritz has incorporated visual supports into every aspect of her classroom. Jessica writes:

“Just like a smile, pictures are a universal form of communication. Pictures cross every language barrier, subject, and reading ability. As humans we commonly and without thinking about it use visual supports to organize our lives, get information, connect and transfer knowledge and communicate everyday. Pictures and symbols are embedded in our everyday lives. As a teacher of young children I want to give them every opportunity to succeed. The research has shown that 95% of all learning is visual; by imbedding visual supports into my classroom activities I’m helping my students organize their thoughts, improve their comprehension and retain information. By using these supports in every activity I am giving my students the maximum opportunity to succeed. As for results, it is clear that my students have been given their independence, remarkably improving their educational success and self worth.”

A PowerPoint presentation on the class television tells students what to do as they enter the room, providing audio support and still promoting independence within their daily routine.

Students “sign in” to the computer for attendance.

Play video:

Below is a written description of the video segment:

PowerPoint program tells the students to “Please go and put your homework in the homework box” and “Please go and sign in at the computer.” Caption for next video segment: Students “sign in” to the computer for attendance. Brendan uses an adapted keyboard with only the letters of his name to type his name for the computer attendance record. The computer says his name aloud, “Brendan.” Caption between video segments: Brendan can then print the attendance sheet and take it to the office. He prints the attendance sheet and his teacher tells him to take it to the office. Brendan signs out of the class using the chart on the door and takes the attendance to the office. Caption for next video segment: The class discusses the weather using communication devices and visual supports. Students find the sunny picture to describe the weather and match it with the word “sunny.” One student points to the book about the weather and points to the pictures for the words as they are sung, “What’s the weather like today?” Caption for next video segment: Using many visual supports and printed words, they talk about what they’ll eat for lunch.

It is important to remember that each class started slowly, implementing one support at a time, with the help of the assistive technology team in preparing materials, troubleshooting equipment with technical support, individual support for students, parent involvement, and using the general principles for assistive technology integration outlined in the previous section “ How can assistive technology be integrated into the curriculum?”

back to top

Table of Contents