We parents can have a pretty linear view of our children’s ability to perform well in school. We tend to speak about children as “smart,” “struggling,” or “learning disabled.” The problem with this view of children’s scholastic ability is that there is room for a whole lot of error in mis-labeling children and when we have subconsciously determined what group a child falls into, it might not occur to us to make the effort to find out what exactly is causing a lack of success.
This is the whole issue: there are certain cognitive strengths that are necessary for children to have in order to do well in traditional classrooms or with traditional teaching materials. There are also various ways of describing this learner who finds school easy. “Smart” is probably the least accurate way to classify these successful learners because there are many ways in which children can be smart.
In the Old Testament when God was gathering workers to collaborate on building the temple, He gifted each person with skills in different areas because all those skills were necessary to make the project a reality. Today, in our society, we accept without hesitation that some adults are gifted in the arts, some in calculations, some in leadership, some in organization, some with numbers, some with illustration, some with speaking, others with writing, etc. We are not expected to all be gifted in the same way.
If a person is gifted in art and design, I am pretty sure that person would never attempt to enter a field in which they would need to excel in engineering or math. They would hone their skills and enter a field that required their particular gifts.
When it comes to school, however, we tend to expect all children to be able to perform well in a field that focuses the most on symbols, on verbal abilities, and on sequences and rules. Those children who are gifted in these areas, do well. Those who are more gifted visually or spatially will likely struggle.
If your child’s area of strength or learning preference is not identified, what often results is failure and discouragement. Once we identify each child’s learning strengths and weaknesses, we can knowledgeably work on strengthening those weak areas. Learning weaknesses are not life sentences. Thanks to our very plastic brains, doing exercises in areas in which we are weak will result in stronger “learning muscles!”
There are several different ways to describe learning strengths: Visual/spatial, kinesthetic, left-brained, right-brained, figural, semantic, symbolic, etc. Let’s choose one set and expand on them.
Children who are strongest in the area of figural intelligence do best with concrete, tangible information that they can see, touch and manipulate. The key descriptor for these learners is HANDS-ON. These children learn easily when they are given images, charts, visuals, graphs, and when images are embedded in their symbols (letters and numbers). They do best if they can see what you are teaching them, rather than just listening. They do better if they can see a visual example of what you are describing to them. They enjoy and benefit the most from seeing learning concepts inside a map.
Most young children fall into this group and even after age 7, many children remain strongly figural. One reason for this is because young children’s experience to this point has been with tangible, touchable objects. They are also in a developmental stage in which the right hemisphere of the brain is rapidly developing. As children listen to and tell stories, color, handle new objects, sing, look at pictures, draw pictures, etc., their right hemisphere will elaborate more and more.
What figural learners struggle with the most is learning that is primarily about rules, verbal directions, symbols, etc. This means that teaching them numbers, calculations, and phonics rules or asking them to look at this word and sound it out and remember the sounds the symbols represent will be hard for them. The more you can use images completely integrated into the symbols, the better. We've created over 600 sight word cards that incorporate each sight word into a relevant image. The cards also include a body motion and word used in a sentence to provide context and meaning and to deepen learning.
Children who are figural learners very often have a difficult time learning to read. They are frequently labeled as learning delayed or disabled. This does not need to be the case! Identifying your child’s learning intelligence early on will prevent him from experiencing failure.
Semantic learners handle ideas and intangible concepts well. The key descriptor for these types of people is WORDS. Semantic learners deal with words as their stock in trade. They are great teachers, presenters, counselors, and communicators. It is not hard for them to put their ideas into words in a linear fashion as it is for figural learners. Semantic learners are valued very highly in school settings.
The tricky thing about semantic learners is that while they are really good at linking symbols of language (letters and words) to sounds, they are not so good with grasping the meaning of what they are reading.
Typically the children who can read fluently but cannot tell you what they just read fall into the category of semantic learners.
A good way to help semantic learners practice making meaning out of what they read is to practice visualization—have your semantic learner read a sentence to you out loud and then close his eyes and make a mental picture of what he just read.
Doing this often will encourage him to think about the meaning of what he reads, even when he reads quietly on his own.
Of course for symbolic learners, the key descriptor is SYMBOLS! These learners handle abstract representations well—
letters, numbers, and musical notes. Because much of early education involves using the symbols of numbers and letters for math and reading, those children who are weak in symbolic intelligence will have a harder time than their symbolically intelligent peers.
Figural and semantic learners will experience more difficulty with sounding out words, spelling, or calculations in math. Although symbolic learners typically do very well in school, they may struggle if asked to create something out of nothing or to think outside the box. Playing imaginative games with your symbolic learner will help get her used to thinking imaginatively and strengthen her creativity.
Most of us expect that a child will approach school ready to learn, especially if we have spent time with them, talking, reading books, counting objects, singing the alphabet song and other preparatory activities. It might be distressing to find when you begin to introduce your little figural learner to the joys of arithmetic and reading that he or she shuts down. But don’t despair! There is help readily available that will make it easy to teach your semantic and figural learners successfully! The first step towards successfully teaching our children is to identify the type of learner they are.
Next, we need to get our hands on teaching material that is friendly to these types of learners. For all of us with beginners, this means materials that we can use to teach math and reading that relies heavily on right-brained elements such as images, stories, body motions, charts, graphs, mind maps, and so much other fun stuff! Let’s plan ahead and let our children love learning!