Tips for Creating Written Material that Supports Visual Learners

Tips for Creating Written Material that Supports Visual Learners

Before our daughter was born, the TV was always on. For me, it was a way to get information and relax. My husband would much rather read. Yet we get along! And since it isn't always possible to watch a video, we all have to access written information at least sometimes. Before becoming a special ed teacher I didn't think much about formatting. Now, I know that there are ways to make written material more accessible to students who have reading difficulties, which in turn lowers their anxiety. In this post I highlight 4 ways to make written information more accessible to visual learners.

As an aside, the only thing ever on our TV now is My Little Pony. Is Season 8 out yet?? 

Tip 1: Font choice: sans serif is best
We all love to rag on Comic Sans. I mean what a comical little font. The thing is, sans serif fonts are easier for kids to read than fonts with serifs. I'm not pushing CS here, it's just that I feel it's gotten a bit of a bad wrap. I like using Century Gothic because it has a lot of the good traits of CS without all the silliness and ridicule. But I'd be amiss to forget this one important point. Take this logarithmic function:

Now in Comic Sans:

I mean, it looks way easier. I think this is the reason our school's math department uses Comic Sans almost exclusively. I also once asked a student with dyslexia which she preferred - the OpenDyslexic we had started using in class or Comic Sans. She chose Comic Sans. This study showed better readability results for Verdana and Helvetica over OpenDyslexic and also recommended Courier, Arial and Computer ModernHere in Massachusetts our state test - the MCAS - is written in a font with serifs and italicized variables. Here is an example:

Someday I hope this will change. Why should a simple thing like a font change possibly mean the difference between a student graduating or not? There are more tips for ways to make reading materials more accessible for students with reading difficulties in this article from ux movement, including using just one space after a period (a habit I finally made stick), not using justified text or italics and printing on colored paper.

10th grade math mcas reference sheet - new font

UPDATE: Massachusetts changed the font on their 10th grade MCAS student reference sheet to a font that is easier to read. Progress!

Tip 2: Color-coding instructional materials
I love color for no other reason than it's just awesome. But there are some real benefits to color coding when students are first introduced to a new concept. Here is an excerpt of an article titled The Instructional Effect of Coding (Color and Black and White) on Information Acquisition and Retrieval written by Rickard J. Lamberski and Francis M. Dwyer (linked above):

"...That is, students who received color-coded instructional materials and black and white test materials had the potential to utilize the color code in retrieval; however, its absence [in test materials] had no significant effect on achievement compared to students who received color-coded test materials."

(a color-coded Algebra 2 word wall reference)

Using color to make connections really works, even when the color is later taken away. And being really deliberate about color - using the same color each time a term is used, only coloring select terms so that they stand out, not overusing color (something I am working on) especially the first time kids are introduced to a new topic - makes color really meaningful. In that quadratic word wall example above, the equation's shifts are color coordinated to the x and y axis. Even students not yet in Algebra 2 can pick up the pattern.

The article goes on to state:

"...students who received black and white instructional materials and color-coded or black an white test materials achieved significantly less than did students who received color-coded instructional materials."

Tip 3: Chunking material
If you're a special education teacher, you know about this. Chunking supports working memory (super short-term memory) that we use to remember 2-step authentication codes or phone numbers from voice messages. It also helps students remember the subject of a long sentence when finally getting to the period (I'm looking at you, Henry David Thoreau). Chunking makes things more visually appealing in my opinion, and this makes kids less intimidated to get started. I use chunking in all of my math materials. Why should formatting be a roadblock to the information?

Here is the Times New Roman, justified, 2-spaces-after-a-period abstract of my graduate thesis. (There were very specific formatting guidelines):

Here's the same passage chunked, not justified, with a sans-serif font:

The box around that now third paragraph isn't needed, but I do like using boxes to highlight certain things or even just to give the eyes a break. Task cards also utilize chunking, which is why they work better to engage students than it seems they should ("aren't task cards just cut up worksheets?" Nope, they're superchunked!)

Tip 4: Lessen anxiety with silly pictures 
Coloring lowers anxiety, which helps students better absorb information. Whereas using color in instructional materials is deliberate and used sparingly, color on practice materials is full steam ahead. 

Spongebob, Dora, Smurfs, the Simpsons--whatever cartoons students used to watch on TV as younger kids. Slapping a silly picture or something to color on a boring practice sheet has worked wonders for me to motivate students to do work. I mean, how hard could this math be if Spongebob is on it? 

Speaking of math anxiety, I watched the most amazing Ted-ED video linking anxiety to math weakness. 

(Coloring the Pythagorean Theorem)

Other than making the math feel lighter, coloring is just plain fun. With teen mental health deteriorating, they need screen-free, relaxed downtime in order to process all the information coming at them from all directions. 

Silly pictures paired with chunking, good spacing, sans serif fonts and deliberate use of color helps visual learners access information. What other tips do you have?  I'd love to read your comments or hear from you! 


  1. I've always been fascinated by font choice and wonder why we teach our littlest students how to write the lowercase "a" as a "circle with a short bat," (that is the best way I can describe it) and not as shown in the preferred fonts (or the way the "a" is written in this typeface).

    1. I agree! I so admire elementary teachers who are able to teach kids how to read given all of the roadblocks (like lowercase g in some fonts). And then there's the whole c/k/ck thing. How do they do it?!

    2. I forgot about the lowercase "g." Excellent example. Thank you for your post -- I love color, too, and am grateful for whiteboards. No more colored chalk on my clothes. Happy New Year!

  2. Oh chalk! I used chalk when I first started teaching, then whiteboards came in soon after. I still have such fond memories of "ice cream paper" and the pink, yellow, blue chalk that teachers would use to draw lined on the board to show us cursive. There was that chalk holding device made of wood and wire! Oh my, this feels like 10 lifetimes ago!