Teaching the Science Standards: Tools for Visual and Kinesthetic Learners

Jessica Gittings is an elementary teacher at the Ohio School for the Deaf and is a guest columnist for our April 2008 issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears.

When planning a science unit for my seven students in a combined second- and third-grade classroom, I always have three important considerations: collecting a variety of visual resources, providing hands-on activities, and differentiating instruction to encompass a variety of literacy skills. While these considerations ensure success for my particular student population, they can be used with all students.

A Dynamic Balance

The Ohio School for the Deaf is a bilingual/bicultural environment. The students’ first language is American Sign Language (ASL). All subjects are taught in ASL; English in print is taught as a second language. While all of my students are deaf or hard of hearing, both ASL and the reading and writing of English are used throughout instruction to promote literacy in both languages.

Despite their diverse language background, my students are just like many other students in a typical hearing classroom. We balance learning while managing ADHD, sensory orientation, reading disorders, behavioral and emotional issues – the list goes on as you know! My planning considerations primarily revolve around learning with our eyes and our hands.

Make It Visual

Our media specialist is an invaluable resource at OSD. When I give the media specialist a topic, she fills a cart with fiction and nonfiction books with colorful pictures and varied reading levels, closed-captioned videos, and sometimes lists of web resources that may be useful to the students.

I like to introduce a topic in science by turning the students loose on these resources. This browsing stimulates their background knowledge, creates a basis for visual concepts, and fosters conversations about the topic. At the same time, I can informally assess their previous knowledge as well as introduce the direction we will be taking with the given topic. This simultaneously nurtures literate thought in ASL as well as script literacy in English.

I also use a service called Described and Captioned Media Program, which allows subscribers to borrow closed-caption videos on a wide variety of topics. Although it is still essential that I interpret, the films from this organization give my students visual representations of the topic, ASL descriptions (through interpretation), and English captions.

The Internet is also valuable for finding images to enhance lessons used in our science curriculum. It is as simple as using Google.com to find images to create science vocabulary worksheets both in ASL and English print. Some science standards can be supplemented by using www.deafplanet.com, where you can see science experiments, play games and watch shows all related to a specific topic. There are closed captions, so again, we are exposed to ASL and English.

A software program I use for earth and space science is Starry Night. We can see every aspect of the solar system and beyond in depth and actually manipulate the Earth’s axis, the Earth’s rotation around the sun, and the moon phases.

All of these resources – print materials, closed-caption videos, images, worksheets, and the interactive activities available on the Internet – allow my students to build visual representations of the concepts we’re studying.

Use Your Hands

The second aspect I consider when planning a science lesson is how I can provide opportunities for the students to have a personal and meaningful experience in which they can form concepts — and remember the concepts through their experiences! Our science curriculum comes with experiments and hands-on activities for each unit. It is vital that my students are part of the experience in developing concrete concepts about a topic. To accomplish this, there is no substitution for the real, tangible thing. If we are studying plants, we grow plants. We also go for a walk on our campus to investigate the different types and parts of plants. If we are studying the life cycle, we take care of mealworms and chart their growth and changes. When we learn about classification of animals, we cut out pictures of animals and make grouping and food webs as a class and as individuals.

A tool that blends both visual and kinesthetic styles of learning is the SMART Board, an interactive whiteboard hooked to a projector and a computer. I cannot imagine my life as a teacher of the deaf without a computer and a SMART board! This combination of tools is so convenient for planning and implementing science lessons in my mixed-grades classroom. The tools have completely revolutionized presenting information to deaf students by providing visual representations and tactile experiences that are so necessary for my student population. One of the ways I use the SMART Board is to explore web sites and interactive, online resources as a class so we can converse about what we are seeing and doing.

Exposing the students to the content in different and repetitive ways is crucial to the development of concrete scientific concepts. This leads the way to how those concepts can be read about and written about in English. It also creates a strong foundation in which more abstract concepts can be acquired and nurtured later on.


Our elementary students are grouped by ability level for reading, language arts, and math, but participate in grade-level classes for science and social studies. Therefore, it is possible to have up to eight students with a variety of reading, writing, and critical thinking skills in the science and social studies classrooms.

At the second-grade level, our curriculum provides big books for use with classes. This takes the pressure off the kids who are still reading at the pre-primer or primer level. Typically other books on topics at this level can be found at different reading levels to meet all needs. Another resource linking ASL to English is a signing science dictionary. This online dictionary has pictures and the ASL sign for science terms.

To document scientific explorations I take pictures of the activity or have pictures available. I then have students write captions for the pictures following the structured sentence patterns they learn in language arts class. Some students can do this independently and others need more support, such as visual diagrams. I also group students for partner work based on their reading and cognitive abilities. I will typically put a strong reader with a not-so-strong reader so both feel successful as learners. A strong critical thinker can have an opportunity to learn even more by helping out a classmate who is struggling with a concept.

Additionally, I create guided notes for the students. I will typically leave key vocabulary words blank to reinforce students’ learning words by writing them. It helps the students focus on what I want them to learn. I can also modify the notes for more advanced students.

I also offer practice with pencil-and-paper tests from the book, since all students are assessed with standardized tests. Some students can independently and successfully complete these tests. Others, as stated on their IEP, must have the questions and answers read to them. Exposing the students to these testing experiences is important since so much emphasis is placed on testing achievement. At the very least, my students will not be intimidated when they are asked to take a science test that is written above their reading level. They will know it is their right to ask for a reader, and will know how to test using a reader.

Learning scientific concepts in their first language visually and kinesthetically allows students to meet the state standards. However, despite the students’ reading ability they are still given various opportunities to receive and share scientific information with other people who read and write English — another important aspect of the standards!

Students in today’s classrooms show an increased need for visual and kinesthetic learning styles despite their language background. It has been effective for me in planning to “see” and “do” first in order to build concepts in the students’ native expressive and receptive language. Next, I incorporate vocabulary acquisition, writing, and reading to build on concrete concepts that they learned from experience.

Teaching science is like building a pyramid. We must make certain that the foundation of background knowledge is there before we can introduce new concrete concepts. In turn, the concrete concepts need to be firmly in place before we can begin to build abstract ones. The tools used to get there must be visual, kinesthetic, and differentiated so each individual student can be successful. All of these considerations take extra time in planning, but the extra effort is worth the success and enjoyment in learning you can give your students.

This article was written by Jessica Gittings. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email beyondpenguins@msteacher.org .

Copyright April 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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