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Prompting Students to Contemplate Effective Communication with a Visible Speech Chart from the 1870s

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This post is by Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.

Visual Speech from the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers. 1876
Visual Speech from the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers. 1876

In the March/April issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article focused on technologies and ideas related to effective communication.  It featured a chart published in the 1870s about Visible Speech, a system conceived of by Alexander Melville Bell (Alexander Graham Bell’s father) in 1871.

We opened the article by explaining what Visible Speech was and how the two Bells envisioned it would be used, based on information included in an article that A.G. Bell published in 1872.  Then we shared information about it being featured at the International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.

We suggested to teachers that they generate student curiosity about Visible Speech by starting a conversation about other, more familiar, communication tools such as the list below, and then adding “Visible Speech” to the list.

  • Shorthand
  • Braille
  • The telephone
  • The telegraph
  • The printing press
  • e-mail
  • Google Translate
  • American Sign Language
  • A book

We also alerted readers to the BARD Mobile App, recently released by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.  The free app allows eligible readers to download audio and braille materials to their iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches, and to read electronic braille materials using a refreshable braille display connected to their devices by Bluetooth.  We also included a link to the Library of Congress YouTube Channel for more than a dozen videos related to the BARD Mobile App.

We asked teachers to encourage students to think about communication tools that exist today, from e-mail to Twitter, from texting to Google Translate and the new BARD Mobile App, and consider which tools they think have been the most successful, what sorts of tools they think will exist in the future, and to what extent communication tools improve humans’ ability to communicate effectively with one another.

If you led such a discussion with your students, how did it go?   What interesting ideas about future communication tools did your students suggest?


  1. The bells information was very useful.

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