Tactile Materials to Help Students with Visualization Challenges

When I think of manipulatives, I usually think of base-ten blocks, tangrams, or other math materials, but, manipulatives can be a valuable part of a reading lesson!! (Especially when you feel like you’ve exhausted many strategies, graphic organizers, etc!!)


Manipulatives can be especially valuable in small group/intervention lessons. Pyschology professor Arthur Glenberg, has developed an intervention system called Moved by Reading that utilizes specific props that go along with a story. It could involve a doll house with people, a farm set with animals and a tractor, etc. As students are reading, they move the props according to what is happening. As the lesson goes on, students are instructed to imagine moving the toys to fit the story instead of physically moving them. Glenberg’s strategies have been proven to be an effective comprehension strategy.

Using toys and props is a wonderful visual scaffold for lessons, and could become a good addition to a literacy station. The down-side is having to find all the toys and characters you need for that specific story. Thankfully, my sweet friend and educational consultant, Kaye Price Hawkins, taught me another way to use manipulatives to scaffold visualization.

Hawkins suggests using colored discs (often used in math) to represent different characters in a scene. Assign a different colored disc for each character in a scene. Students can put the discs together when two characters are talking or slide a disc away when a character has left a room.

I’ve often seen students struggle to visualize who is talking during sections of immense dialogue. This is a great strategy to help students keep up with who is speaking. Choose a piece of text to use in small group instruction. Before you read, have students assign each character a colored disc. You can even use a thin dry-erase marker to write a character’s initial on the disc. As you read the text you can push up the disc that corresponds with who is talking.

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When I read the final scenes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I had to reread a bit to keep up with what characters were fighting at certain parts of Hogwarts. When many things go on at once, you’ve got to read carefully to keep your visualizations up to speed.

I’ve seen students struggle with this when a text has great movement with multiple characters. To some readers, even a few scene changes in a chapter can challenge them. To help students with this, I like to add snap cubes to the colored-disc strategy in a small group lesson. We use a small tower of snap cubes to symbolize each setting in the selection and assign colored discs a character. As we read, the characters can move to the various “settings”. These physical symbols scaffold students to visualize the actual characters and settings.

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Using cubes and discs to retell Chicken Sunday.



I love reading Patricia Polacco’s Chicken Sunday to my students. You can use these simple materials to have students practice retelling a class read-aloud in a small group lesson or in pairs. This would also be a great activity to put in a retelling literacy work station!! You probably already have these at your campus, but if not:

These colored discs are about $10 on Amazon Prime! They also have several varieties of snap cubes.


I hope this inspires you to pull some visuals out for your kiddos! I promise, even 5th graders like this! 😉



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