How To Teach Complex Words so Children Will Remember

How To Teach Complex Words

A customer wrote:

I am working with a child who has a very high IQ and is also very visual. She isn’t great with long term memory, however. The words on your SnapWords® cards are mostly short sight words. What about longer words such as “outlandish?" Do you recommend stylizing larger classroom words also for strongly visual learners?

Different ways of learning and remembering

I have learned that children who are highly visual usually struggle to remember anything they learned in non-visual ways, resulting in what seems to be poor long-term memory. Visual children learn most readily and most effortlessly from either seeing an image along with learning, or by making their own mental image.

An example of making a visual for oneself is a person who imagines a drawn map when listening to someone giving them directions to a new place. Seeing a map of the route is much easier, but it is possible for strongly visual people to visualize a route in their heads. I know this because it is what I have to do if I ask for directions and don’t happen to have a pen handy!

How to Teach Complex Words

When it comes to reading new words, it would be nearly impossible to undertake the task of stylizing every word a child will encounter in school. Nor is it necessary, really. Once children understand what they need for learning and remembering, they can learn to help themselves, whether it be through mental maps, and other strategies. I've seen this happen with children even as young as kindergarten. How empowering for the child!

Taking Words Apart

My experience with the SnapWords® is that they are necessary only for getting a child up to speed (or for initial teaching of reading). Once a child masters the stylized words and we’ve “dissected” them along the way, they truly do not need them for more advanced reading. So, for your very visual student, I would go through all the SnapWords®, pointing out word chunks or sound spellings so that when they come to a more complicated word, you can show how the larger word has pieces that are similar to much smaller words they already know. The brain loves making connections, and discovering the patterns in words is a great place for this brain exercise!

For instance, for the word “outlandish” I would have them practice taking it apart, writing it on a whiteboard so that it looks like this:


Finding Patterns in Words

Point out that OUT is a sight word, as is AND. Then you can generate other OUT words so the child can appreciate how many words have that same sound spelling: OUT, SHOUT, ABOUT, STOUT, GOUT, CROUT, etc. The AND in LAND belongs with all sorts of other words: BAND, HAND, STAND, COMMAND, ABANDON, etc.


How to teach complex words memorably

When Visual Learners Rely on Their Ears

I found over the years that all of my children who struggled with reading greatly improved when they began to rely primarily on their ability to hear sound chunks in words. Odd to think that my visual learners relied on their auditory abilities for help! But it worked wonders for them because it simplified words for them, and kept them from having to memorize loads of words and their spellings. A child can hear every sound and all that remains is learning how to represent them with letters/symbols.

For instance, he can learn that /O/ (short vowel sound) is spelled several different ways:

  • O as in pot
  • Aw as in law
  • A as in water
  • Ou as in cough
  • Ough as in fought
  • Augh as in taught
  • Al as in walk

My visual learners LOVED that they could make sense out of all the spellings. We would generate a list for each spelling and then practice writing them on white boards.

Their boards would look something like this: 


How to teach complex words so children will remember them

Visual learners benefit greatly from seeing a different color for the target sound – in this case, of course, it is short O. I always told my students that they didn’t have to remember how to spell any word; they just needed to listen to the sounds. When the target sound is written in another color or highlighted or underlined, the child just needs to say /O/ every time they get to a red section in the words.

We enjoyed making lists of words, posting them in groups by sound, and after some time, those words became friends and the space on the bulletin board or wall was ready for new sound spelling postings.

Children do not have to memorize which words go together. Having done the work/play of putting the words into like groups and writing them, talking about them goes a long way towards helping the child remember how to spell the sounds in each word – and most importantly, how to read words they encounter with these sound spellings in them. It's very powerful for global learners (and often, visual learners also learn globally) to know how many sound spellings there are and that there is not an infinite number. That way, the children feel that any word they come to can be taken apart and mastered. This is also very empowering!

Easiest of All

We did add one element that cemented sound spellings for the children. We’d make up sentences using the words in each column. For instance: “What I want is water, Father, I was not going to wander!” “The fawn on the lawn was in awe at the awful straw.” “I caught and taught my naughty daughter.”

Stylized words such as our SnapWords® play a very crucial role in jump-starting children into reading, but the images on the words are bridges that are used for a time and for a purpose. Other strategies also need to come into play to carry the learners into more advanced language.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published