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Using Cartoons in Vocabulary Instruction

Many of my special needs learners are classified as having a 'speech and language impairment,' which basically means that they receptively process (read or listen to) language more slowly or less accurately than expected for their developmental stage or that they do not produce (speak or write) language at the level expected for their grade and age. 

Speech and language impairments are very nuanced and can be difficult to identify and classify, but a common element I have encountered is that many of my speech and language impaired students particularly struggle with vocabulary acquisition.  I also find that my students have not necessarily been exposed to specific content-area vocabulary, so they have little basis with which to make connections.  Students who struggle to learn and retain vocabulary words benefit from visual strategies to connect the words to a larger concept, so with that in mind, I try to use my (limited) fine arts talent to make words concrete and memorable for my students....

And really, who doesn't like cartoons?  They're funny, visually appealing, and way easier to interpret than most text books.  For students with special needs, presentation can mean the difference between instantly engaging learners in a topic and giving up before they get started.  I am constantly seeking out ways to present material to students with a wide range of needs and abilities, and I've found that cartoons are a very effective vehicle for delivering information, especially pure content knowledge as opposed to a skill or strategy.  This ensures that I have an instant 'hook' and prevents the "I can't!" attitude sometimes present when I try to throw too much abstract information at my students.

Ant cartoon

Here is a hand-drawn, framed cartoon to teach students the meaning of the word "colony" using ants (in the context of colonial America).


Here is a cartoon I created on PowerPoint.  I use it to teach the meaning of the word "interdependence" (in the context of trade in economics).


Many of my students really struggle to distinguish the connotation of similar words.  I create fun visuals to help them learn Tier II vocabulary words that have 'shades of meaning,' like these superlatives.

Special educators, you can expand your vocabulary teaching arsenal by talking to experts about language acquisition: the English Language Learner teachers at your school!  They often have great strategies for how to break down specific vocabulary concepts as well as the theoretical underpinnings for how to choose what words to teach and brain-based strategies to help students remember them.  For an example of how our Scholastic ELL bloggers use word banks to enrich their students' vocabulary as well as reinforce critical word study concepts, please check out our ELL strategist Marissa Ochoa's Word Banks

Vocabulary acquisition is an excellent example of how special education draws upon best teaching practices from many disciplines, including art, music, ELL, and of course, literacy.  How do you help your struggling learners remember abstract vocabulary concepts?  Share your creative strategies and suggestions here! 


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Strategies for Special Education & Inclusion Classrooms are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.