Is it really possible to sort people by their primary characteristics into neat boxes with straight walls and no overlaps? Although we tend to think of people that way, it almost always takes many subsequent looks before we begin to fully understand the many facets of a person’s personality. For example, look at two categories of personality: outgoing and reserved. We casually assign people we know one of those general labels, but it is not that simple. There are times when those who are outgoing may display a huge degree of shyness or when they would love to melt into the woodwork and just observe. There are other times when those who are usually more reserved find themselves comfortable enough to “shine” unexpectedly.
The same applies to different types of learners. We have come to the point in our society where every child seems to need a label and one that details specifically how he learns or doesn’t learn. We have visual learner, tactile learner, dyslexic learner, autistic, and many many other labels. The implication is that each of those types of learners requires a specific set of directions for how to teach them successfully. In doing research, however, and as I have read the experts in each of the most common areas of disability, one element keeps on showing up: the fact that so many of these non-traditional learners learn best through pictures and hands-on lessons.
Let’s look at what the experts have to say on this subject.
Linda K. Silverman, Ph.D., and Jeffrey N. Freed, M.A.T. published an article that discusses what a visual-spatial learner is and how these learners best understand information. Following are a few excerpts:
A visual-spatial learner is a student who learns holistically rather than in a step-by-step fashion. Visual imagery plays an important role in the student's learning process. Because the individual is processing primarily in pictures rather than words, ideas are interconnected (imagine a web). Linear sequential thinking — the norm in American education — is particularly difficult for this person and requires a translation of his or her usual thought processes, which often takes more time.
In most cases, the visual-spatial learning style is not addressed in school, and these students' self-esteem suffers accordingly. Traditional teaching techniques are designed for the learning style of sequential learners. Concepts are introduced in a step-by-step fashion, practiced with drill and repetition, assessed under timed conditions, and then reviewed. This process is ideal for sequential learners whose learning progresses in a step-by-step manner from easy to difficult material.
By way of contrast, spatial learners are systems thinkers-they need to see the whole picture before they can understand the parts. They are likely to see the forest and miss the trees. They are excellent at mathematical analysis but may make endless computational errors because it is difficult for them to attend to details. Their reading comprehension is usually much better than their ability to decode words.
Concepts are quickly comprehended when they are presented within a context and related to other concepts. Once spatial learners create a mental picture of a concept and see how the information fits with what they already know, their learning is permanent. Repetition is completely unnecessary and irrelevant to their learning style.
A key component in the recovery of motivation for visual-spatial learners is experiencing success. Individual tutoring should be sought to help these students learn to use their strengths and build their feelings of competence. Sincere praise works wonders. Spatial learners often excel at activities such as Legos, computer games, art or music. Any skill in which these young people experience success should be encouraged and nurtured. Their skills, interests and hobbies may lead to careers in adult life.
Rachel Evans, author of two popular books, talks about autism as it relates to learning. Following is an excerpt:
Although many autistic children are able to read, some parents find that comprehension can be an area of concern. Special education teachers and parents of autistic children believe that autistic children learn best with hands on or very colorful activities. Books with pictures, audio books, and touch and feel books all work well.
According to Temple Grandlin, professor at Colorado State University, autistics are visual thinkers. Temple Grandlin lived in the world of autism and was diagnosed at a young age. Today, she uses her knowledge to help others. The easiest way toward teaching autistic children reading is to demonstrate words that aren't concrete. For example, a noun is typically concrete and easy for the autistic child to picture. A word such as "boy" is easy to relate to a mental image. However, words such as "up" are harder for the autistic child to picture. When teaching such words, the teacher should show the word by acting it out. Saying the word "up" and lifting the arm goes a long way toward helping the autistic child understand.
Most of the standard methods for teaching reading simply won't work for an autistic child. Temple Grandin, the high-functioning autistic woman mentioned earlier, explains that some autistic children learn to read better with phonics and others with a whole word approach and still others a mixture of the two approaches. One thing that may be of great help is testing the child to see which approaches might work best and to evaluate strengths and weaknesses.
Reinforce what the child is reading with repetition. Read books out loud, act them out, create visual aids and watch movies based on books. Don't be afraid to try new things and be patient. It may take a while when teaching autistic children reading to find the methods that work best for each individual child.
Temple Grandin, professor at Colorado State University and referenced above, expands on these ideas:
Anyone teaching an autistic child to read should remember that many think visually. This means they are more likely to learn about words and letters through visual stimulation. Almost every child has a special interest, and autistic children are no exception. If they like trains, you may want to use them as a visual guide to learning how to read. If they are interested in the subject matter they are more likely to pay attention for longer periods of time and are more willing to learn because they will find it interesting.
Studies from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development have shown that for children with difficulties learning to read, a multi-sensory teaching method is the most effective approach or treatment. This is especially crucial for a dyslexic child. But what does it mean? Using a multi-sensory teaching approach means helping a child to learn through more than one of the senses. Most teaching in schools is done using either sight or hearing (auditory sensations). The child's sight is used in reading information, looking at diagrams or pictures, or reading what is on the teacher's board. The sense of hearing is used in listening to what the teacher says. A dyslexic child may experience difficulties with either or both of these senses. The child's vision may be affected by difficulties with tracking, visual processing or seeing the words become fuzzy or move around. The child's hearing may be satisfactory on a hearing test, but auditory memory or auditory processing may be weak.
Right-Brained Learners, ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, Non-Specific Reading Disability
For right-brained learners, pictures and body motion are most effective. For kids who just can't sit still, if you flash them a concept within a picture and they have a related body motion, you will find the most success. For children who can't process oral language, or language they hear, nothing beats visuals and the extra layer of understanding will come from body movement. Any struggling learner will be boosted tremendously from having images that SHOW what they are learning in context.
So what does all this mean? One common thread running through all of these articles is that many people who are diagnosed with learning disabilities learn most naturally through images. If this is true, it helps to simplify our approach to teaching many types of learners at once. Instead of taking the time to create multiple plans, one for each child, why not try a multisensory approach and incorporate visuals and movement into each lesson? This will ensure that every learner is reached and make the teacher's life simpler at the same time! This is what we have done with all our reading and math products at Child1st.
(One of my favorite multisensory products is the 306 SnapWords® Teaching Kit that teaches sight words through visuals and movement without using flashcard drill and memorization.)