Visual learners are often viewed as "problem students." They are frequently described in negative terms like these: distractible, disorganized, slow, messy, inattentive, cranky, uncooperative, etc. And when children hear themselves described in these terms, if anything, it will reinforce those behaviors.
If visual learners came to grade school with a degree in psychology under their belts, they might be more prepared to help themselves succeed in an educational system that is not especially designed for them. But since they are children, they naturally start out trusting adults to understand them and know how to teach them. Following are just a few of the strengths of visual learners. Let's celebrate these children who learn in their own unique way!
Children who are visual learners have busy brains that snap pictures of things just like a camera does. Once they have visualized a concept, it is very hard for them to forget it. This is their blessing as well as their downfall.
For example, in learning sight words using SnapWords®, the blessing is that they recall each word complete with its meaning by way of the visual embedded in the word. But if you leave them to figure out what a word is and they call it wrong, likely that wrong word will stick in their heads due to the mental association they made first time around.
It is for this reason, when I am using stylized words to teach reading, I always, always tell the child what the word is right away. For instance, the word FUNNY shows two children (the initial F and the final Y) laughing uproariously. I remember one time I let a child guess the word and of course he said LAUGH because that is what the figures in the picture are doing. That meaning of the sight word got stuck in the child’s head and tripped him up for weeks. So I learned to always TELL the child the meaning of the word right away. I now say, “This word says FUNNY. See the children are laughing because someone told a joke and they think it is funny!”
I have discovered that the shortest route to getting a visual learner reading without confusion is to introduce words as series of sounds, not letter spellings. I teach a SOUND at a time. (Please go look at The Illustrated Book of Sounds and Their Spelling Patterns.)
If you teach a child that AY sounds like long A, it is critical you show all the other spellings of long A to her at the same time. Otherwise when you get to a word that has a long A spelling spelled AI, she will be confused. “But you said AY says A!” Post the chart (see sample attached) at the very first lesson in the sound of long A so the child will see where the detail she’s learning fits into the whole picture.
This chart shows in color all the ways you can spell the SOUND of long A. A beginner will have no problem with the long vowel concept if you use this sort of chart. Note that the target sound spellings are colored red. When teaching with this chart, I would simply say, “Each time you see red, say (long sound of) A.”
One beautiful thing about the beautiful minds of visual learners is this: Once they are given a chance to see what the goal of learning is and allowed time to absorb and think about this, they are going to be ready to quickly put together the steps to get there.
Let me share a little story. You have two children standing in front of you expectantly. One is a left-brained sequential soul who readily listens to and executes directions. The other child is a visual learner. You say, “Kids, let’s build a Sizzlesnoffer today.” You have, of course, already explained that a Sizzlesnoffer is a really neato-keen gadget that you trust will greatly reduce your time spent in removing kernels of corn from their cobs (because you have just finished planting nine looooooooong rows of corn and you are blanching at the thought of manually cutting all those juicy kernels from their cobs before freezing them).
But because the children are young, you believe it is kind to tell them what to do one step at a time. Child A is great with this. He feels most confident when given steps to do. He can listen to oral instructions well, can interpret what the words are saying, and has no trouble executing the task. Child B, on the other hand, is still looking at you like a deer caught in the headlights when you are already at the end of step 4. “I don’t get it,” he intones mournfully.
You don’t SAY it out loud, but you’re thinking “These easy steps? And you don’t get it? You poor child!” But you don’t say this. You start at the beginning again repeating your steps, and then choose the outcome. Child B will either cry, or he will say “This is stupid anyway” or he will smash what Child A is doing so beautifully. So then he gets in time out and everyone leaves the exercise believing Child B is slow and bad tempered.
The next time you build a Sizzlesnoffer and have many Child B's in the group (every family and every classroom has them!), try this:
“Kids, we’re going to build a Sizzlesnoffer today. This (show picture) is what one looks like. We use it to remove corn kernels from corn cobs so we don’t spray corn juice all over the kitchen walls by doing it by hand with a knife.” This time you let both children study the picture all they want. Child A likely won’t spare it a glance because he’s getting really nervous that you won’t be handing out step-by-step directions. The Child Bs in the group will study the picture in detail and might ask questions such as “How fast does it need to go? Does mine have to look just like this one?”
Next, in your absolute brilliance, you hand Child A the list of directions (remember, there are always directions for putting things together, and they come printed in four languages). He goes off happily to read and follow the directions. You do not offer Child B the same boon. He doesn’t want directions anyway, especially not if there are no pictures to go with them. He will go off and armed with the purpose of the exercise, an example of what one looks like, he will (if he’s given freedom to do so) make a new version of the Sizzlesnoffer, but his likely will have improved details, such as a chute for the newly beheaded kernels to travel down on their way to the attached freezer bags. His machine likely will also have incorporated an automatic sealing feature. So by the time both children are done, Child A will have demonstrated the art of following directions perfectly, while Child B will have created an amazing machine that will do more than what you asked for. This is the beauty and the gift of the visual learner.