Encouraging positive pupil behaviour through visual learning

Sue White, former teacher, special needs advisor and senior educational specialist at Widgit, shares three effective visual learning techniques to help create a positive learning environment in school

Excellent vocabulary and language skills are at the heart of a well-rounded education. An aptitude for communication is a desirable skill for all pupils – and one that schools across the sector demonstrably foster.

However, some children may require additional support to build the vocabulary needed to fully access the curriculum. Identifying these pupils early is key to helping them reach their full potential, but spotting issues is not always straightforward.

Identifying vocabulary gaps

Pupils with limited vocabulary can find it more difficult to follow spoken instructions as the words being said quickly disappear. It can be more challenging for pupils to participate in the exciting learning opportunities available to them or connect with their peers when they do not have the language to fully engage.

What this means is that a child who might come across as withdrawn, easily distracted or disruptive could simply have gaps in their vocabulary that are preventing them from engaging and achieving their full potential.

Providing children with visual prompts in the form of symbols is a simple way to help them engage and progress in school.

The impact of visual learning

Visual aids can be a powerful tool to help children with limited vocabulary to develop and retain the language they need to navigate the school day and achieve – and the benefits of using visual prompts extend to all children.

One study, published by the Vanderbilt University in the USA, has started to show that visualisation in vocabulary teaching helps children to better remember and recall the meanings of words when used in conjunction with written text. The research suggests that the use of key symbolised words can significantly improve comprehension, too.

Below are three effective strategies for using symbolic images to support children’s academic and emotional development. These techniques can help to embed a culture of positive behaviour across the school.

Visualise new vocabulary

Exciting lessons often come with new vocabulary. While many pupils will be able to familiarise themselves quickly with new words, for children with restricted vocabulary unknown words can cause confusion, anxiety and disengagement.

Using symbols in vocabulary teaching can improve children’s oral recollection. According to a study published by the Language For Life Partnership UK and the University of Sheffield, children taught in this way made significantly more progress in vocabulary than when other methodologies were used.

Symbolic imagery can be used to pre-teach Tier 3 vocabulary – or the topic-based terminology used in subjects such as geography, science and maths – for example. Words such as ‘tectonic’, ‘atmospheric’ or ‘terrestrial’ could be displayed alongside symbols and be briefly taught prior to a geography lesson.

This advance teaching will give children a firm grasp of the more technical language they will encounter in many areas of the curriculum and free up lesson time that will be better spent deepening their knowledge of the topics being covered.

Pre-teaching Tier 3 words reduces the demand on pupils’ working memory and helps them to process the lesson more easily. This encourages them to stay focused in lessons and actively use higher level vocabulary in both their speaking and writing.


Encouraging positive pupil behaviour through visual learning

Visual timetables and routines

For some pupils, returning to in-person teaching has been overwhelming after largely learning remotely due to Covid. Boarders who stayed with guardians during the pandemic may be unfamiliar with the routines of school life too and this can have an impact on behaviour inside and outside the classroom.

Symbols are an effective way to provide children with a visual reminder of lesson timetables and routines across the school to help them keep on top of the school day.

Teachers can use a ‘now and next’ board of images to indicate which lessons are being taught throughout the day and what equipment is needed to help reduce anxiety and enable pupils to settle quickly into learning.

A visual timetable might include an image of a calculator alongside the written word ‘maths’, for example. A lunch plate could represent mealtime, while a picture of a football could help pupils to quickly see when to expect an outdoor learning break.

Symbols such as calendars and clock faces can help children to manage homework and deadlines, encouraging them to complete tasks independently and on time.


Encouraging positive pupil behaviour through visual learning

Encourage expression of emotions

A child who is unable to verbalise when they are feeling angry or confused is less likely to be able to fully access the content of a lesson and make academic progress. In situations such as this, a visual emotions chart can make it easier for teachers to recognise and respond to the needs of their pupils.

Symbols can be a powerful way to support emotional wellbeing by encouraging pupils with limited vocabulary to express how they are feeling.

If a child is feeling uneasy or anxious about moving from being a day pupil to a boarder, for example, they might find pointing to the appropriate symbol on an emotion board much less daunting than trying to verbally explain how they feel. The teacher can then take steps to help.

Used in this way, symbols can support wellbeing, help children develop resilience and embed a culture of positive behaviour across the school.

Encouraging positive pupil behaviour through visual learning

A holistic education

Education should be an exciting journey that helps children to thrive academically and emotionally. With the right support, every child can take full advantage of the exciting adventures and engaging learning opportunities available to them.

For further insights into supporting pupils’ vocabulary development with symbols, head to Walking the Talk: A Vocabulary Recovery Plan for Primary Schools.

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