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Visual timelines

A visual timetable or timeline is a visual representation of a task or a child’s schedule through the day.

Why are they useful?

Some children with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) have poor memory for what they hear.

Working memory is where information is held briefly, while something else is done, for example, instructions are remembered while they are carried out. Working memory has three parts; the visuospatial sketchpad where what you have just seen is held and the phonological loop where what you’ve just heard is stored. The central executive is the part of working memory which helps focus attention and helps discriminate between the important information and the not so important.

Children with specific language impairment (SLI) find it much harder to remember what they have heard than other children . This can be shown in non word repetition tasks. Visual support strategies such as visual timelines allow children more time to process information if their auditory memory or phonological loop fails them. Information in working memory is easily lost through distraction or overload. Working memory can fail for such children in a process called 'catastrophic failure', where everything is lost. If there are no external reminders of what they need to be thinking about and the original verbal instruction has been forgotten, children might either guess, become distracted, or give up. Children with difficulty understanding language may also benefit from visual timelines because of the extra processing time they allow.

Central Executive

It is argued that if impairments can be specific to a channel then teachers should use the intact or less impaired channel through which to teach . However it is also important to remember that children with SLI can also have visual memory difficulties. Archibald and Gathercole found this applied to half of their research sample.

Psychological stress can affect working memory too , so visual timelines can help support any child who is anxious, perhaps because they are new to the setting.

Some children have visual strengths as well as SLCN and anxieties about changes in routine.

Autistic children are often (but not always) visual learners , Temple Grandin describes her own experience thus:

“I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-colour movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.”

So for these children visual timelines can build on their strengths. Working on this premise the TEACCH approach uses lots of visual support including visual timelines Extending their use to the home can facilitate communication between parents and children, and some children also enjoy interactive ICT (Information Communications Technology) based time tables.

Other children, sometimes those with dyslexia have visual strengths so they also benefit from visual support.

As part of a multisensory learning environment

Some suggest that using symbols and visual timelines as part of a multisensory teaching approach helps children behave well, develop literacy, be motivated, remind and reinforce concepts they know and lead to more independence. They can also help children who have difficulty accessing text. The extra visual support can be useful to children who are learning English as an additional Language

How can visual timelines be helpful? They can support children’s learning because they:

  • are stable over time
  • are relevant and meaningful to the child, they are keen to know what will be happening
  • attract and hold attention
  • may use a strong learning modality
  • reduce anxiety
  • make concepts more concrete, e.g. before, after, morning, afternoon, first, next
  • can be used as prompts
  • model what is important in a task
  • communicate things that cannot otherwise be understood
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