Image by Harry Quan on Unsplash

Visual markers and visual support aids make teaching young learners and very young learners SO MUCH EASIER! I think all of us have had moments where we’ve wanted a helping hand with getting our kids to transition from one activity to the next, or communicating behaviour expectations.

In this article I will share what I’ve learned about visual markers and support aids for the EFL/ESL classroom: the different types; why and how they can help you and your students; and links to free visual support resources you might want to try out in your classroom.

What are visual support aids?

Essentially, they are support tools to help your students understand and communicate during their time in your classroom. They can take the form of pictures, words or real objects. These can be arranged into labels, charts, posters, and more. They can also refer to the physical arrangement of the classroom, such as designated areas for specific activities. In this article, I’ll be exploring the former type: visual markers as pictures or words that can be arranged into different resource types.

General benefits of visual support aids

Most writing on this topic has its basis in research into children with autism, but the benefits of visual support can be enjoyed by everyone. Some of the benefits that stand out for me are:

  • They help make students feel safe, calm and in control.
  • They can decrease anxiety and therefore potentially disruptive behaviour.
  • They can help students understand decisions and actions. This can help them be more flexible.
  • They can help students become more independent.

Basically, if they know what they’re doing, why and how, then they’ll be more confident, and more likely to experience success. Visual support markers can be very useful in helping them know the answers to those questions.

Specific benefits for language learning

Young EFL/ESL learners don’t have access to such a broad linguistic repertoire, so explaining with the spoken word just isn’t enough a lot of the time. More than that, when a child is feeling anxious or unsure, the stress of trying to understand what their teacher is telling them could increase their anxiety. Here are some benefits that I think are particularly useful for (but not exclusive to) English language learners:

  • The visuals support understanding. Meaning can be made clear even without full understanding of the language.
  • They facilitate communication. They are physical and can be used by the learners to tell their teacher something, even when they don’t have the words. The teacher can communicate efficiently in this way too.
  • They can help students learn new language. Where certain sentences and words are consistently associated with an image, they will become easier for the children to learn and start using themselves. This is also true of associating a written word with how it sounds.

Different types of visual support aids

They come in many forms and for many purposes! I haven’t used all of these types of visual support in my classes. I think you have to pick and choose what is most useful for your context and learners. Here’s a summary of the most common types and how they can be used:

1. Behaviour expectations posters / boards / cards

In every classroom there are rules to be followed, even if there is just one, such as ‘Respect other people’. In the past I used to negotiate positive classroom behaviour with my students and they would write and make posters for the classroom. It was only when I started teaching very young learners that I started to think about how to communicate these expectations visually. They couldn’t read, never mind write. Now I realise that it’s not just the very young kids that benefit from having the image there.

I’ve had various versions of visual supports for positive/negative behaviour throughout the years, and I’ve come to think that less is more. I found 5 images to represent desirable behaviour and created game cards and posters. You can download a free editable version if you like.

How do students use them?

At the beginning of the year, you can use the visuals to introduce the classroom expectations and learn the language at the same time. After that, either the teacher or the students can simply point to an image if a reminder is needed. You can also point to images to signal activity transitions (but make sure you’ve practised with the students first!) Some of you may like to combine these with other charts or visuals to show consequences and rewards.

I also like these listening posters from Teaching Exceptional Kinders. Although I don’t have a physical space to display them, I could print them as cards to help show very young learners what we mean by ‘listening’.

2. Routines and lesson stages

Knowing what’s coming next is incredibly comforting. It helps students feel confident and calm. Very young learners and some students with additional support needs don’t yet understand the concept of time and time periods. If you’ve worked with young kids, I’m sure you’ll have had to reassure at least one child that is stressed because they don’t know when they’ll see mummy or daddy again.

Even if your students don’t get too anxious, I can guarantee that they’ll ask a lot of questions:

“Are we doing craft today?”

“When are we reading the story?”

“How long before I see granny?”

“Are we going to play a game?”

It’s easy to create a simple series of visuals to show kids what they’re doing and in what order. You can create a simple poster or a series of cards. For the next school year, I’d like to use a portable pocket chart. One advantage of the pocket charts is that the children can easily turn around the cards once that task or stage is completed. It would also allow for more flexibility in adding in or removing stages.

The image below is a simple visual for my usual lesson stage sequence with my students aged 3 to 5.

horizontal sequences of classroom stages - 1=song 2=circle time 3=what's in the bag 4=storytime 5=craft
1=song(s) 2=circle time 3=what’s in the bag? (puppet, flashcards, game, ball, toy etc.) 4=storytime 5=craft/worksheet

I don’t have children for an entire day so my schedule is pretty simple, but for those of you who are working with children for longer periods, other important visuals will be useful. For example, when is break? lunch? etc. You can find some FREE downloadable routines cards below:

*FREE* Daily Routine Cards for Toddlers (twinkl.co.uk)

FREE Visual Schedule Cards – Classroom Management Resource (twinkl.co.uk)

Another useful source for templates, visuals and guidance is the Talking Matters site (kindly recommended to me by a teaching colleague and speech therapist).

3. Picture directions

This is something I haven’t used much with my groups, but I think I’m going to start! A lot of the time I want my children to practise their speaking and listening skills so during craft activities there is usually quite a lot of interaction and questions about what they need to do next. I really do think this creates a lot of excellent opportunities for repetition of target language. Sometimes, however, there are too many children trying to get my attention and it can be frustrating for everyone.

If children have a visual support for the stages of an activity, they can work more independently, gain confidence and you can have more time to have conversations that go beyond the functional craft language.

I’ve put together some free Picture Directions Prompt cards that you can download too. I plan to play some games to familiarise them with the language and actions, then I’ll be able to display them in the order I want them to complete the craft activity…sometimes! I still want to make sure there’s plenty of interaction happening!

4. Classroom jobs

Image by Kidaha on Pixabay

Children like to help and be involved in the organisation of their classroom. It’s important in building the classroom community and giving them a sense of ownership of the place. Apart from that, it gives you more time too. I don’t have my own classroom, and I have to put up and pack up anything I take with me, so I probably have more jobs to delegate than some of you!

There are lots of ways to organise classroom jobs, and having a way to visually depict them is one. I’ve had different systems for this over the years. Mostly, I’ve used the written words for the jobs on a poster with moveable student names. One way to help your learners differentiate between what’s what and who’s who, is to use coloured text or paper.

Having a picture or an image makes the job so much clearer, especially for very young learners. You might be interested in these FREE resources on TeachersPayTeachers:

Classroom Jobs Free Bulletin Board Set by Melissa O’Bryan – Wild About Fifth (teacherspayteachers.com)

Hoot Hoot! I’m a helper! {FREE classroom job chart} by Rowdy in Room 300 (teacherspayteachers.com)

Teaching Resources & Lesson Plans | Teachers Pay Teachers

Moving the names each class

In the past I have used blu tac or magnets to fix students’ names to different jobs and simply moved everybody up one each day. I’d like to try out a couple of the ideas in the resources above:

  • Creating pockets from the classroom jobs visuals (maybe using one of those pocket charts) and having students’ names on craft sticks. Each day draws names out to put in the jobs pockets.
  • Putting students’ names on coloured pegs and clipping them onto the job cards.

5. Classroom language

Visuals are also really useful for encouraging children to use classroom language. If I need to remind my students that they already know a phrase in English, I just need to point to the sign. While I include the written words, the image is more immediate and that is often all they need. With very young children who can’t read yet, the picture is a useful prompt, just as with learning other vocabulary.

I cut the ones below into cards to teach and practise the language and then have them on display throughout the course:

3 classroom language questions plus images to represent them: Can I have...?; How do you spell...?; Can I speak Spanish?
Source: Fiona from Kids Club English
3 classroom language statements with accompanying images: Can you help me please?; How do you say... in ENglish?; I don't understand.
Source: Fiona from Kids Club English

Other visual support tools

There are other areas of visual support I would like to experiment with and investigate further:

  • Emotions – Needs communication tools – Up until now, I’ve only ever used emotion pictures as part of my opening routine where we greet each other and ask “How are you?” I think it would be helpful to have visual support available for children to use throughout the class if needed. They might include different emotions as well as possible reasons for feeling frustrated or upset. Other pictures could represent what the child feels they need. This could include quiet time on their own, or time to move around. They could also include visuals to give praise. I think these types of visuals might be more useful in the form of a small handheld collection of pictures, so that communication can be private and discrete. Perhaps something for me to create in the future?!
  • Makaton – As language teachers we often combine words with gestures. This is another form of visual communication. Why not teach gestures that are recognised by many people around the world? You can find out more information and access free resources on their offical site: Home (makaton.org)
  • Timers – While I give count downs and remind students of how long they have until we transition to a new activity, I don’t often show a timer. When it is time to clean up, I usually put on a clean up song from our Classroom Management Songs collection, and with my primary classes we incorporate English only challenges where we use a kitchen timer, but I think they would be useful for other stages in the class too. I don’t think I would like to overuse them though , because I imagine some of my students would find them distracting.

Final thoughts and top tips

  • A good visual support will be quick, quiet and effective.
  • You need to EXPLICITLY teach what the visuals mean. You can’t just put them there and hope that the kids will understand them or how to use them.
  • Make them portable. Even if you have your own classroom, you probably have different areas for different purposes. It’s helpful if you are able to take your visuals to where you need them.
  • I’m no expert so if you want to find out more about the value and use of visual support aids, you might want to look into the fields of autism and speech therapy.


4 Responses

  1. I really liked the FREE picture directions downloadable pdf and I plan to use it in my classroom of grade 4-6 beginner refugee ESL learners with limited formal schooling in Canada. I wish it also had these directions: trace, underline, circle, erase, highlight, stand up, sit down, push your chair in. Would you consider making another one with these?

  2. I would be very interested in the emotions-needs communication tools! I use the Zones of Regulation program with my grades 4-6 refugee ESL students and we’ve been focusing on feelings. They may be able to tell me their angry or sad but they can’t say why. Some may be able to point to a student and make a “push”, “hit” action. It would be so helpful for them to point to an image of the reason for their feelings. Some of the ones I thought of were: push, hit, spit, kick, laugh, name calling, swearing, not taking turns, not sharing, not listening, pull hair, trip, throw.

    1. Again, great ideas! I used to use something like this myself. The new Never Tickle a Tiger Flashcards and the Actions and Animals Song Flipbook have some of those actions like kick, poke etc. but it could be useful to have those other ones available too. It’s on my list!

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