February 15, 2017 by Sarah Gillie
Anyone who has visited a mainstream primary school classroom cannot have failed to notice the plethora of displays decorating the walls. Sometimes these expand to cover doors, windows and may even be suspended from the ceiling or pegged out overhead, washing-line style. Often these consist primarily of presentations of the children’s work, perhaps each pupil’s version of a particular activity, or a different noteworthy piece from every child. These adornments may boost young learners’ self-esteem, which is important to developing confidence in a learning environment, and teachers may, from time to time, use them to remind their pupils of previous accomplishments to encourage efforts on the task in hand.
Such adornments have their place, serving to acknowledge and celebrate pupils’ efforts and to showcase the learning that has been taking place for the benefit of carers and parents on open days and at pick-up or drop-off. Most children are only too delighted to point out their masterpieces with great pride. However, for some students, these colourful exhibits can serve as a distraction. For others, they might bring back almost painful memories of seemingly endless toil and disappointment. Teachers must keep these scenarios and others in mind when planning their displays to create a safe and enabling learning environment.
Other displays can be lost on adults as they tour these joyful looking spaces, but it would be surprising if the classroom did not also contain visual prompts, designed to ease the smooth running of the school day or to provide information and reminders on any number of subjects, from simple colours, shapes, letters and numbers to historical timelines, foreign languages and complex scientific formulae and data.
The further children progress through education, the more likely it is that wall displays will consist predominantly of such prompts rather than their own work. As they progress through school, they will probably find themselves in different, subject-specific learning spaces for each lesson, making the job of filtering out what is relevant to each lesson somewhat easier, though they may still occasionally be confused by posters related to topics not yet covered, which are nonetheless relevant to older students using the same space. Ironically, in this way we make the displays easier to access only after most of our learners have already – possibly independently – developed the skills to benefit from them. By contrast, an infant classroom may be decorated with multiple displays of past work, with information relevant to multiple current topics squeezed into the remaining available space. These are at best developing readers, yet we risk overloading them with visual stimuli.
Children’s attention and focus develops over time, being intimately linked with their evolving executive function (EF) skills. Although teachers have their learners’ interests at heart when planning and setting up displays, the learning prompts intended by the provision of e.g. a visual timetable can be inaccessible for younger pupils, especially for those with learning differences and EF challenges, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism. Classrooms can have excellent age-appropriate displays, with clear potential to enhance learning, but if the pupils do not benefit from referring to these displays, then they are simply ‘noise’ on the walls.
This does not mean that we should not make use of posters and other appropriate visual cues to support classroom or home learning. It does not mean that classrooms should become dull-looking spaces whose walls are bare. It means that displays should be selected for their suitability to the students, their learning needs and the lesson’s objectives. It also means that learners should be taught how to use the displays to support their own learning. It is not enough to simply put up a poster and assume that all children will instinctively know where to look and what to look for, let alone process the information in their schoolwork.
To go back to basics: if the youngest children are explicitly shown where the visual timetable is in their classroom (or individual, home or other learning space), if it becomes part of the everyday school (or home etc.) routine to refer to the images, to note which have passed, perhaps cover or remove the icons for activities that have been completed, then they will develop a better sense of how their day is progressing. Visual timetables can be bought, made or downloaded from the internet; I would recommend a whole school approach, where the same images are used throughout. The timetable itself can adapt to suit the age and development of each class, from large images and velcro to a daily or even eventually a weekly poster, so long as there is continuity and the timetable is referred to regularly enough for it to be part of every pupil’s working understanding of the classroom.
Visual prompts can be brilliant for supporting everything from letter-sound correspondence and number recognition to grammar rules and mathematical techniques. They can provide factual information and technical reminders for every subject. They can be anything from large, commercially produced or teacher- or student-made posters to personal cards. The important thing is to teach students how to use them. So, if you are teaching a creative writing point, or a mathematical rule, or a foreign language, or… (you get the point) incorporate the poster/prompt you are going to provide into your teaching. Refer to it explicitly and frequently. In a classroom where multiple subjects are taught, have topic-specific areas, possibly colour-coded. Start with the youngest children, but do not assume that the routines learnt in one academic year or subject will automatically be generalised to the next year or another curriculum area. The key is over-learning.
Do not worry that this will hold back your most independent pupils. If you are using the prompt to teach a new point, they are still getting fresh input. They may not need to refer to the prompts after you have introduced them. Others will gain greater independence through confidence and familiarity with using the prompts. This will allow more time to be spent consolidating the points and reinforcing the use of prompts with those who still need support. Judicious inclusion of prompts in homework can also help.
Some learners who struggle with visual processing may need more support and other opportunities to consolidate learning. Look out for that in another post.
This article is based on training presentations for schools and parents. Please feel free to contact me for more information.
Graham, S. Harris, K. and Olinghouse, N (2007) ‘Addressing Executive Function Problems in Writing: An Example from the Self-Regulated Strategy Development Model’, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 216-236
Johnson, J. and Reid, R. (2011) ‘Overcoming Executive Function Deficits with Students with ADHD’ Theory into Practice, 50 (1) pp. 61-67 [Online]. (Accessed: 22 January 2016)
Kaufman, C. (2010) Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Meltzer, L., Pollica, L. and Barzillai, M. ‘Executive Function in the Classrooms: Embedding Strategy Instruction into Daily Teaching Practices’, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 165-193
West Gaskins, I. and Pressley, M. (2007) ‘Teaching Metacognitive Strategies that Address Executive Function Processes within a Schoolwide Curriculum’ in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 261-286