John Jamieson School

John Jamieson is an open and welcoming, generic, all age Special School and National Teaching School which caters for pupils with a learning difficulty

Visual Strategies

Visual support strategies, including objects, pictures, photographs, symbols and drawings can be used to support individuals who have communication difficulties.  They can be used to support an individual to express themselves (e.g.. make choices, comment, ask questions etc.), and to help them understand what is said and what is happening. Visual resources act as a permanent reminder, while words and signs fade away. This is useful for individuals who find it hard to weigh things up in their mind.   There are a wide range of visual support strategies that are used at the East SILC which include:
  • Visual timetables; Now and Next boards
  • Token reward systems
  • Timers
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Objects of Reference (multisensory)
  • Environmental labelling
  • Talking Mats
  • Communication books, boards, and Communication Aids
  • Visual scales (e.g.. volume of speech)
  • Feelings boards
  • Social stories
  • Pen and paper- written word and/or drawing
  • And more!
Which visual strategy should we use?

The strategies used will be dependent on the individual’s symbolic understanding; the developmental level of understanding visual information. Some children and adults will need real objects to support their understanding and expression, whereas others will be able to understand a photograph can be used,  and so on.  Objects can be used as the most concrete way to represent something as they have all the properties of the real thing (e.g.. smell, feel, sound etc.). Whereas a photograph has less of this detail, but still retains some of the key features (e.g.. colour). The written word is the most abstract as it contains none of the ‘real’ features of what it represents. A Speech and Language therapist will be able to advise which visual strategies are appropriate for an individual, based on their symbolic understanding, and when to use them. 

In a ‘total communication’ environment a mixture of strategies will be used to meet communication needs effectively for both individuals and groups. It is likely that an individual will require more than one visual strategy (e.g.. photographs and objects) to support them effectively alongside other communication strategies (e.g.. Makaton signing, reduced language etc.).  We always encourage our students to be actively involved, in the use of visual communication strategies, so that they can become confident and empowered communicators.


Objects can be used to give students extra clues about what is going to happen and to offer choices (e.g.. what toy would you like?).  We can use environmental object cues, such as using the same snack mat at every snack time, to support understanding of the routine and structure of the day.  Objects can also be used for a specific method of communication called Objects of Reference (OOR). This is where objects or items that have special meaning to the user are used to support anticipation, understanding and choice making. OOR are easier to understand than other methods of communication because they provide the individual with concrete, multisensory support. They are clues from activities which the individual is familiar with and must be carefully chosen to suit the individual’s level of communication.  OOR can be used to represent a PERSON, OBJECT, LOCATION or EVENT. For example, a ball can be used to represent 'soft play' or a spoon to represent 'lunch'. OOR can be used alongside sensory cues. Please see the Multisensory strategies page for further information on OOR and sensory cueing (coming soon).  


Photographs are good for showing specific people (e.g.. mum,teacher etc.), specific places (e.g.. my school, my house etc.) and specific things (e.g.. my pets). We use photographs of our staff on the classrooms and offices so students know where to find different people. We also use them on our display boards to show who is in the staff team, school council, and who are our Governors. Some photographs are used on key rings and timetables to support students to move around school from place to place, and to show students who they will be working with. We also use photographs for specific toys or objects students are motivated by, and  in our dining room to show what the lunch choices are. 

Photographs are specific and relate to one thing so cannot be generalized to use to represent more than that one thing.  If you are using a photograph you must make sure it is clear what you are trying to communicate- try to avoid having other things in the background that are not needed. It is good to take the photograph against a blank background (e.g.. white wall, table top etc.) so that it clearly represents one person, place or thing. You must also be careful when using photographs that the image is good quality. When you resize the photo make sure the dimensions and quality are maintained so as not to distort the image. 


A symbol is a simple drawing of an object, place or idea.  Symbols are less ‘real’ than photos so can be more difficult to learn.  Symbols can be used to show a general idea or concept. We can use colour or black and white symbols dependent on the individual's needs. Colour makes the symbol more ‘real’ to life.  However, some individuals may benefit from symbols presented in black and white (e.g.. some individuals' with visual impairments, some individuals' with autism etc.).  A coloured border can support an individual to distinguish between different symbols.  The size of the symbols and text will also need to be carefully considered to ensure they are accessible to the individual.  

Symbols are more difficult to understand the more abstract they are. We always need to be careful when selecting symbols that the concepts we use are at the right level of understanding for the individual. We also need to select the number of symbols we use based on their understanding and expression. For some students this will mean using only single symbols, whereas others will be able to understand and use more complex sentences with symbol support. When presenting information using symbols we use symbols for the key words in the sentence to convey the most important words that give the meaning. This is like when we use Makaton signing, we focus on signing the key concepts not every word.  If symbols are used for every word it can be confusing and overwhelm an individual who has difficulty processing information.  More symbols can be used to develop literacy, but this should always be based on the individuals' communication and learning levels. At the East SILC we use a symbol package called Communicate in Print with Widget symbols. 

Other alternative visual support ideas 

A range of other mediums can also be used as part of a 'total' communication environment. Everyday images like logos can be useful to use (e.g.. local club, Pizza Hut, McDonalds etc.).  Drawings, pictures and Clipart can also be used if other strategies are not available.  They can be used to show a range of people, places and activities.  We often use white boards and pens to communicate messages in school. A pen and paper is a great tool to keep with you so that you can use it on the go, prepare individuals' for changes in their day, and show them what they need to do. You don't have to be a good artist- simple line drawings with key words work well. You can encourage the individual to join in with this and they can tick/cross things off as they go. 

Please see the downloads below for further information on the communication strategies used in school. 
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