An introduction to visual cues

Visual supports are aids such as objects of reference, photographs, symbols, signing and text which can be used with pupils with SEND to support spoken language. There is a developmental progression from concrete to abstract – e.g: real cup  → photo of real cup → symbol of cup → the word ‘cup’. Your choice of visuals (objects/photos/ symbols/ words) should match the pupil’s level of understanding.

They are beneficial for the following reasons:

  • They can be used as a communication aid to develop a pupil’s expressive skills and spontaneous interaction.
  • They are permanent.
  • They are a constant visual reminder – useful for children who may take longer to process verbal language.
  • They do not require the pupil to remember verbal instructions.
  • They can help a pupil to predict what will happen and prepare for any changes ahead of time.
  • They can promote independent working.
  • They can motivate appropriate behaviour.

How to use visual supports with pupils

Communication books

Pupils with limited communication skills need some way to help them express themselves. A Communication Book contains photos, symbols or text to help the pupil develop their expressive skills.


communications book 2

communications book 1

Choice boards

Making choices can be hard for pupils with SEND. Giving them a limited choice shown visually will help them maintain focus. Choices must be realistic and match the pupil’s level of understanding. Think about using choice boards at snack time, break time, wet play time or give a choice of reward when work has been completed.

For EYFS children, using a choice board can help to structure freeflow.




First and then

A ‘First….then’ board (sometimes called ‘Now and Next’) helps a student to become aware of the basic sequence of activities during their day and shows him/her what will happen next. It can also be used to show the student that a preferred activity (one that they will find motivating) will happen, but after something else: e.g. “First work, then snack”. It is a good idea to point at the symbols and talk the student through the ‘First , then…’ sequence of activities. The board can then be placed near them so that they can refer to it.

Firs-then card

Although simple, this strategy can be an effective tool to help with behaviour management when a pupil is finding it hard to follow instructions.



Timetables are another good way of helping to create structure and routine for children with SEND. This could be done for the whole class or individually, as long as the focus child knows where to see it.  However it needs to be kept up to date and reflect changes to the normal routine when they occur.

visual timetable 1

Editable visual timetable for the Interactive White Board (from


visual timetable 2

Visual timetable (from

Older or more able pupils could use a paper diary or electronic diary as their timetable.



As pupils progress, they may move on from the ‘First and Next’ board to a more comprehensive schedule showing a number of steps in a sequence.  Use schedules when you need to break a task down into steps which need to be completed in a set order. Daily living skills can be taught this way:


Schedule card (from

You can also use a schedule to help pupils complete work tasks which can be broken down into stages.

These are sometimes called ‘task plans’


Task Plans/ Prompt cards

Often pupils with SEND don’t know where to start when presented with a piece of work. Providing them with a list of short instructions to follow makes the task seem much more manageable.



 Reward Charts

Another type of visual support which is used to encourage good behaviour is the reward chart. Tokens/stickers can be earned for positive behaviour, leading to a motivating activity or favourite toy etc.

By seeing the tokens/ticks awarded the child will feel s/he is experiencing success which is hugely important for their self-esteem and wellbeing.

reward chart

Reward chart (from


Signing or Hand Gestures 

Some children may benefit from the added visual cues of hand gestures or signing when speaking to them, this can give them a clearer indication of what is being said. You may want to use natural gestures or you may find using a sign language such as ‘Makaton’ is beneficial.

Contact Makaton for more information –

© Whitefield Academy Trust.