By: Jeff Sabo

Visual supports are an important way to adapt music lessons for students with exceptionalities. They make learning more engaging, concrete, and relatable. They also can help teachers adapt content to a student’s sensory profile or learning style. The ways we can use visual supports are virtually endless, so it’s important to make choices that fit our students’ needs. Here, I’ll talk about just some general examples that you can then adapt to your own students and teaching style.


Ways to incorporate visuals:

Giving context to programmatic music: Visuals can help students follow the story or theme that goes with a song or piece. Let’s say you’re singing a song about different animals, and when you sing about each animal, there is a corresponding movement. Including pictures of each animal can help students learn the names of each animal and track the structure of the song. Every time the animal is mentioned in the song, you can point to the picture. This will help students follow along and do the movements at the appropriate time. It’s especially fun with young (or developmentally young) students, who often love the pictures and stay engaged more easily.



  • Teaching concepts: Students with exceptionalities can sometimes have difficulty understanding musical concepts, which usually rely primarily on listening. Visuals can help students grasp and remember musical concepts more easily. They can also be important learning tools for students who struggle with auditory processing. You can use visuals to teach more concrete ideas, like note names (e.g., using cards with colours) or the names and sounds of musical instruments (e.g., with pictures of each instrument). You can also use them for abstract concepts related to tempo (fast vs. slow), register (high vs. low), form (to mark different sections), or others. You can also use visuals in creative activities, like making sound maps.



  • Helping students with structure: Many students with exceptionalities benefit from support with organization and planning. Others may experience anxiety about what will happen during the lesson. With these students, visual schedules or practice plans can make a huge difference! When students can see the plan, they know what to do now and what is coming next. You can also adapt your visual to the student’s cognitive abilities, which may require certain pictures and/or words that they can easily understand.



  • Adapting other visual materials: Traditionally, music learning often involves some visual materials, like musical notation. Students also need to understand the geography of their instrument, like which keys, buttons, or positions correspond to each note. Because these can be quite complicated, you can use visual adaptations to set your students up for success. For more on this topic you can check out our blog on using colour in music reading, or our webinar on teaching students with learning disabilities.


Things to consider when choosing visuals:

These are just some of the ways that visual supports can help your students learn. When choosing or creating visuals, there are a few additional things to consider related to your student’s visual processing and cognitive abilities. You can think about basic visual elements like the size, colour, and brightness. Are they big enough and clear enough? Are they bright enough to be seen, but not so bright that they would cause visual stress? You can also consider the complexity of images. For instance, many students with exceptionalities have an easier time recognizing simpler, cartoon-like pictures compared to more realistic ones. Will your student be able to easily recognize what’s being depicted? Additionally, if your visual materials include words, is your student able to read and understand them? Finally, it’s important to ensure that if you’re using more than one visual element, that each one is distinguishable from the others. For example if you’re associating each note with a colour, are the colours distinct enough for the student to easily tell them apart? Considering these elements can help you ensure that visual materials are supportive and not confusing. Like everything in special music education, be sure to continue assessing your student’s abilities (both musical and not) so you can adapt your lessons and materials to whatever suits them best!


Happy Teaching!