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How to Help Your Visual Learner with Reading Comprehension

by Sarah K Major February 04, 2016

How to Help Your Visual Learner with Reading Comprehension

It is not a coincidence that as the current generation of children becomes more and more visual in their learning preference, that difficulty with reading comprehension is also sharply on the rise. It sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? You would suppose that highly visual learners would be the absolute best at comprehending what they read. But this is not the case, quite simply because learning to read is traditionally a very NON-visual task. We teach children to read in very left-brained ways, and children focus so hard on learning those little symbols and what they represent; in the process of learning to sound out words or just plain remember words they have learned, the meaning behind the symbols is lost. Oftentimes, children can rattle off a book and then look blankly at you if you ask them to tell you what they read.

So what can we do about this shift in our children’s learning styles?

Our children spend so much time with technology that by its very design works to rewire their brains in ways that are not compatible with traditional methods of teaching reading. This technology flashes colorful images across the screen in a constant stream while children hear the words spoken. The images they are absorbing are images that their own minds and imaginations did not create. And I don’t think the technology that is reshaping our children’s brains towards the visual side is going away any time soon. The ideal of course would be to get kids outside more, playing with objects rather than technology. Barring that, however, our method for guiding children towards comprehending what they have read needs to change drastically. As our children’s brains are being reshaped, our teaching approaches must follow with alacrity or we will see an increase in the numbers of children who struggling with reading.

What is reading comprehension anyway?

Back in the days when I was administering the John’s Reading Inventory to scads of children, I remember feeling squirmy during the comprehension segment of the test. When children were asked to name the characters in the story and they couldn’t do it, I had to mark them down for those missed names. I don’t remember names I read either; to me that doesn’t mean I did not comprehend what I read. It really means that I don’t remember names I read as I am visualizing and consolidating the action in the story into images in my mind.

Actually, the natural way for me to think about the word “comprehension” is by thinking about “visualizing.” Visual learners are not detail people. They think in pictures, after all, not in words. So while my left-brained counterparts recall facts, names, and dates with amazing fluency, I remember the feeling of the story, what each character was like personally, and how the story line went.

How can we help our children move from words (symbols) to pictures?

For those children who struggle with knowing and being able to retell what they have read, let’s think in terms of helping them VISUALIZE the meaning the symbols on the page were supposed to convey. (Our SnapWords® get this point across effortlessly as each one is embedded in a visual that conveys the meaning behind the word.) Children can learn to form images to accompany the words they read if we teach them to do that! We don’t need complicated procedures, expensive technology, fancy organizational charts, or anything other than a very clear focus, humor, and relaxed time with the children. This is a perfect activity for summertime, time spent driving in the car, dinner table time, etc. The key is to make this fun, to work on it incrementally, and to celebrate your children’s visual giftedness.

Start with verbal games

Tell your child you are going to play a game. Say one sentence. The child will repeat what you said, and then he will embellish and add to what you said. For instance, you might say, “I see a green dragon flying in the sky.” Your child would repeat, “I see a green dragon flying in the sky. He has scales on his back, and he is breathing fire out of his mouth!”

Then, let your child have a turn to make up a sentence. You repeat what he says and embellish it. Inject humor and the unexpected into the game to attract his attention and engage him in the process. Humor is a wonderful teacher!

Continue with images

Many visual learners like to draw. Provide your child with paper and coloring or drawing materials. Play a similar game to the first one, only this time have your child draw pictures of what you say. She can draw exactly what you said or she can take it further and embellish. For example, if you say, “I see a green dragon flying in the sky blowing bubbles with his pink bubblegum,” she might draw that and then add a red umbrella the dragon is clutching.

Finish with the written word

I don’t mean to sound like you will do these three exercises once and your child will suddenly be transformed into a reader who practices visualization. However, if you do this sort of thing frequently, it will result in improving your children’s reading abilities.

Using the written word as a starting point for visualization will need to be done from simple to more complex as your children become comfortable with the process.

  • To begin, this time, you can write on a 3x5 card or on a sheet of drawing paper, “I see a green dragon flying through the sky.” The child will read the sentence for himself and then draw an illustration for it.
  • Go from a sentence to a short paragraph for him to read and illustrate.
  • Next, use his own books for the activities. Tell him you will have him read a sentence or two and then he will close his eyes and see in his imagination in the form of pictures what he just read. For example if he reads, “Once there was a man and his wife that lived in a little house by a big lake,” have him stop and picture the scene in his mind. If you start small (not waiting until the whole story is finished to ask for a visualization) your child will gain the practice of seeing what he’s reading in his head, not in words, but in their translation into pictures.
  • Finally, have him read a paragraph or a short page to you and then either tell you in his own words what he read, or draw a picture of it, a page at a time to begin with. Let him know that the hardest part is starting to see the story in his mind when he’s not really sure what is coming. As soon as he can imagine that first image, what he reads next can be added to his mental image just like you would add characters to a play.

Aim for the sky

One of the smartest tools you can use with a child who has been failing at something is to show confidence in her and share your belief in her giftedness. Those who can visualize are in so much demand in so many industries. What you can imagine in your mind and heart, you can also create. Find out if the idea of writing and illustrating a whole story would appeal to your child. This could be the ultimate reward for work well done--to showcase her progress in getting a book she writes and illustrates bound for her.

Sarah K Major
Sarah K Major


Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.