How we teach reading to visual learners

Updated: Oct 19

Reading and comprehension of written material can pose unique challenges to students with autism. At Connections, we help students master these important skills with an adaptive program designed for visual learners. Speech-language pathologist Maryann Reilly explains.


Leveraging Visual Strengths for Reading

“Many of our students are visual learners who naturally take cues from objects, pictures and symbols more so than from written words,” says Maryann. “We teach reading through a nationally recognized program called Unique Learning System that includes visual supports to guide students through the skills they need to become independent readers.”


She explains that this system leads students through the fundamental components of reading including:

  • Phonics -- learning which letter combinations make which sounds

  • Word recognition -- Blending sounds and learning each word’s meaning

  • Fluency -- Reading combinations of words

  • Vocabulary -- Expanding the number of known words to better facilitate reading

  • Comprehension -- Understanding the meaning of stories and other text

All along this path, Connections’ teachers use visual supports -- a picture of known items with the word shown beneath it or written labels on physical objects in the classroom -- to help students connect written words with their meaning. These visual and hands-on learning tools help students with autism process the information.


Receptive Language vs. Expressive Language

Maryann explains that often with autism, a student’s receptive language (understanding information you’ve taken in) is stronger than their expressive language (reflecting back the information you’ve taken in). So students may understand what they’ve read yet still have difficulty expressing that learning.


Visual supports can bridge that gap for students by giving them a tool to show what they’ve learned. For example, a test might include a question with three possible answers, each shown with a picture and the written word beneath it. Students can select the picture to provide an answer. With practice, the student moves closer to word recognition and is less reliant on the picture.


Connections teachers use these visual supports during instruction, independent work and assessments, and they phase out visual tools when possible.


“Visual supports are also beneficial for our students who are nonverbal,” adds Maryann. Long-term supportive technologies may be put in place to enable our nonverbal students to read and express themselves.


Adaptive Tools for Sequencing & Comprehending

As students’ reading skills grow, they begin to work on higher-level skills such as sequencing and comprehension of more advanced books. Our teachers use a variety of visual-based tools to facilitate this learning.


One example is a core vocabulary board, which is a board that shows a picture and written word for important words or phrases. Students can point to words on the board to express themselves and can add words to the board as their vocabulary grows.


Another example is a graphic organizer that contains a set of visual cards for key points in the story. “Students place cards on a board to show the sequence of the story and to show how parts of the story are connected,” says Maryann.


We also use technology-based tools such as a tablet programmed with a list of words, phrases, sentences or questions that are usually represented with a picture and written word. Students touch the approach block, and the device voices the corresponding information.


Tools like these, called Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), can play a huge role in helping a student communicate. Maryann notes that AACs help students learn and also relieve frustration by helping students communicate their wants and needs.


Understanding Perspective Beyond Themselves

One of the most challenging aspects of reading arises when unfamiliar scenes are described or when authors communicate through nonverbal cues shown in images (think crossed arms, sarcastic smiles and other nonverbals that may not be meaningful to students with less developed social skills).


“We work with our students to help them understand perspectives that are beyond themselves, which can be tricky for students with autism,” says Maryann. “We help them by breaking down the text and visual clues and then talking about what each character did and how that might make someone feel. We analyze facial expressions and feelings and then incorporate that back into the reading.”


Maryann adds that Connections teachers reinforce learning with lots of verbal praise and positive feedback. “It’s so exciting to see our kids make progress, and we want to celebrate that with them,” she adds.


Unique Approaches for Unique Kids

Our teachers have multiple strategies to help students at each stage of reading.


“All of our students are unique individuals. Our teachers know that and are great at understanding where each student is and what supports are needed to help the child move forward,” Maryann says.