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Show is Better than Tell
By Chris Charuhas

In computer instruction, show works better than tell when it comes to both classroom materials and teaching style. That's especially true for students with learning disabilities or limited English proficiency. Learn what technology teachers who work with students with special needs have to say about illustration-based classroom materials for all kids.


I began to see the potential of illustration-based materials while teaching community-college computer classes. Students picked up concepts quickly when I walked them through tasks using a display projector and screen. When I skimped on the visuals, however, they got confused. Also, I noticed that the less I talked, the more students remembered. That gave me an idea: Why not create computer how-to books based on the "few words, many pictures" method?

So, I wrote some books about Web topics; the books featured large pictures, step-by-step tasks, and minimal text. Then, I started a company to publish them. We needed a way to get the word out, so we allowed people to download them for free. Within six months, more than 50,000 e-books had been downloaded.

What surprised us, though, was the number of thank-you e-mails we received from people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. "These are the only books she can use," wrote one mother of a daughter with dyslexia. Judging from the number of e-mails we got with such comments as "Thank you too many!," the books also were popular among people with low English proficiency!


Based on those responses, we applied for a U.S. Department of Education (DOE) grant to develop a computer textbook for students with learning disabilities (LD) and students learning English as a second language (ESL).

After receiving the grant, we interviewed and surveyed more than 100 computer teachers who had students with special needs in their classes. We asked those teachers to tell us what features an LD/ESL-friendly textbook should include. This is what they said:

  • Task-based organization
    Instead of being organized, like most computer texts, according to program features, LD/ESL-friendly materials should focus on tasks that students want to accomplish with the program. Verbs are key: Format text. Insert a link. Calculate averages.
  • Step-by-step instructions
    Each task should be broken up into small steps: "First do this. Then do that. Then do this other thing. Now you're done." The step-by-step progression is especially important for students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
  • Large black-and-white illustrations
    For students who find it difficult to process written English, illustrations are essential. Each step should be accompanied by a picture showing students what to do -- the bigger the picture, the better. Surprisingly, black-and-white pictures work better than color pictures. Full-color screenshots and illustrations create a "kaleidoscope" effect that makes it difficult to focus. A little spot color is nice, but full color is a no-no. Black-and-white pictures make life easier for LD and ESL students.
  • Few words, simple layouts
    The 50,000-100,000 words found in a typical computer textbook are about ten times too many. LD and ESL students learn better when text is kept to a minimum. Conventional computer texts fill pages with elaborate headings, callouts, and multiple columns. That makes learning difficult for students with special needs. For them, page layouts should be as simple as possible. Large-print type also helps.


When the survey was completed and analyzed, a prototype text was developed with guidance from the teachers who participated in the survey. The prototype then was tested in those teachers' classrooms, and refined according to their advice. During the testing, the teachers discovered something unexpected; average students -- those with no apparent special needs -- also liked the text. Those learners appreciated the book's simplicity, and preferred its illustration-based approach to the text-heavy format of their regular textbooks.

As a computer teacher at an LD magnet school who tested the prototype said, "These LD teachers have figured out the best way to teach everyone.

Chris Charuhas, a former computer instructor, is CEO of Visibooks, LLC, a computer textbook publishing company.

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Article Updated 08/23/2011