6 Highly Effective Strategies for Teaching Visual Learners to Read

October 01, 2018 0 Comments

6 Highly Effective Strategies for Teaching Visual Learners to Read

Sarah Major

Sarah Major, M.Ed. is passionate about working in harmony with a child's immaculate design to support their learning strengths. As a Title 1 Program Director and Designer, Sarah earned awards for creating her own multisensory educational resources that have now been sold in all 50 states and over 150 countries. By design, Sarah’s approach targets multiple pathways to the brain, empowering visual learners to move past memorization, fostering learning that is rapid and effortless.   

There are different kinds of "smart" & children learn in different ways

If we know there are no two brains alike, that there are many types of learners, and that there are multiple pathways to the brain, why do we present new material to all children in the same way? All children don't learn to read in the same way. What works fine for some, does not work at all with others. The discussion that exists between using phonics or whole language misses the point. Neither strategy is effective on its own. There are ways of teaching that create a flash of understanding in the child's mind, an ease of learning, an indelible memory created. Unfortunately, all too often we don't utilize those ways of teaching.

Reading traditionally targets one kind of learner

When we teach reading in the accepted way, we:

  1. Teach children their letter names (ay, be, see, dee), a corresponding sound ("ay says 'a,' as in 'apple'")
  2. Teach kids how to put those symbols in a correct sequence (abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz), (so far we are memorizing still, right?)
  3. Add some rules for decoding (i before e except after c, most of the time)
  4. Memorize sight words (words that appear most frequently in all texts for children)
  5. Add to this the expectation that children will successfully memorize endless sequences of letters (spelling) which they will use correctly in their writing

On top of all this, we expect children to extract meaning from what they have just done...and enjoy the process!

The results of teaching to only one type of learner

A quick glance around a typical school will show us the results of teaching all children this same way. In each classroom, there are a handful of children who just absorb all this sequential stuff as though through their pores. These are the children who can see a word once and just remember it. They would learn to read if you stuck them in a paper bag with a stack of books. They would figure out the pattern and the code for reading. 

Another group of children work at learning to read and do ok with it, but many of them do not enjoy reading, and many don't understand what they are reading because they are so focused on the task of recognizing the words and saying them correctly (which is what they think reading is). 

Yet another group of children lags sadly behind the rest and this group begins to struggle and then fail in any discipline that requires reading. 

The final group of children just don't make it. A lot of testing and sorting goes on; children are identified and named by the skills they do not acquire, and they are often removed from the regular classroom and are sorted into small groups, where intensive efforts commence to help them learn to read using the same methods they were unsuccessful with before.

The primary strategy that does not work is memorization

The one thread that runs through every part of the traditional process of learning to read is memorization. This is really the culprit; not the design of the child's brain. Those children who are labeled as "learning disabled" or "severely learning disabled" MIGHT actually be more accurately identified as:

  • one who cannot memorize strings of symbols or rules
  • one who learns far better with visuals, global maps, and patterns
  • one who needs movement for learning and remembering 
  • one who needs to see the WHY behind what they are learning 
  • one who finds sequencing to be difficult
  • one who needs to see the correlation between previously learned material and new material
  • one who must have more than one pathway to the brain for knowledge acquisition
  • one who needs to tie new learning to concrete, known objects
  • one who remembers when the "rule" is embedded in a story
  • one who has to do and say it in order to learn - not listen or watch it done
  • one who cannot make good sense out of auditory instruction (listening) 

Schools are trying differentiated instruction

Or different types of lessons for different types of learners. In the effort to reach all these various types of learners, schools have moved towards small group instruction, instructional goals for each student, differentiated instruction, and interventions planned for each child in each area of failure. I've been there and have done that. Unfortunately, I spent more time filling out forms, writing plans, documenting, etc., than I did in preparing engaging lessons for my students. I HAD to fill out the paperwork in order to keep my job and when time ran out, unfortunately, lessons were less than scintillating. I didn't feel very good about this.

I've worked with children in various settings; small group resource and special ed, individual interventions, ELL, regular classroom, looping 1st-2nd, and tutoring. The arena that afforded me the least amount of freedom to follow the learning needs of my students was the regular classroom. After my last two years of teaching in the regular classroom, I took serious inventory: how every single child did during the year (progress, lack of progress, areas that were strengthened, areas that still were not strong enough), how I planned instruction, how I balanced demands placed on me by the district and administration, and most importantly, how various parts of the instructional day paid off in terms of huge growth. 

I was able to identify the practices that resulted in enormous gains for all the children, and sadly was also able to quickly identify which "lessons" resulted in no gains or minimal gains. When I had reflected on all my experiences with children, some specific ideas emerged based on the years of research with real kids. Are there magic bullets for teaching all children? I truly believe there are. The best thing about these best practices is that learning can be rapid and effortless for the child.

If you give the child's brain what it likes, learning will follow

6 High-yielding reading practices

1. Use visuals integrated into symbols in order to access the visual cortex (totally powerful and effective for most children and always for visual/spatial learners). Visuals with symbols embedded in them are "snapped" like a photo and are recalled intact later. Here is an example of a sight word embedded in a visual. Because the word and visual are integrated, when the child sees the plain word later, their mind will retrieve the word complete with an image.


The accompanying jingle provides a rhythmic hook for memory for those children who learn best via rhyme and verse. Fronts of cards show the word embedded in an image, while the backs show the plain word in the same font, include a body motion to accompany the word, and finish with the word used correctly in a sentence, which will aid in comprehension.

The alphabet can be taught by embedding visuals with the letters. The mountains not only relate the shape of the letter M to a known object, but also provides a visual reminder of the shape of the letter. Same goes for the letter F. It is the shape of a flag, which automatically reminds the child of the shape of the letter, as well as the sound.


2. Use stories along with visuals to convey ideas we want the children to learn. Instead of memorizing letters and their sounds, we use Alphabet Tales, a full-color book of stories that explain exactly why each letter came to be formed as it is. Once children hear the story and see the visuals, they do not forget. 

3. Use body motion along with visuals and stories to engage the cerebellum as frequently as possible. The sight words and alphabet also rely heavily on body motions, which help those very kinesthetic learners store and retrieve  information. Here are body motions for the vowels.

4. Use fingermapping 
to help children correctly sequence sounds in a word as they are writing. Helping children SEE the sequence of sounds/letters makes them able to correctly write the word. They will not leave out letters, use incorrect letters, nor reverse letters. Fingermapping to these children is as powerful as seeing a visual map is to people who simply cannot recall verbal directions to a new location.

Specific directions for using fingermapping can be found in The Illustrated Book of Sounds & Their Spelling Patterns.

5. Use whiteboards and markers daily to help children learn new concepts in reading. Use of whiteboards rather than pencil and paper is pretty self-explanatory. Some children don't mind using pencil and paper, but for those who struggle with fine motor skills, whiteboards and markers are wonderful. Every day while in the classroom, I spent 15-20 minutes with the class on the rug in front of me teaching the new concept for the day in reading or math. 

Everything I taught them, they wrote. For kids who are visual, tactile, or kinesthetic, writing is a must. Our practice was for me to say the word we were discussing, sound the word out together (auditory), then while the kids sounded the word again, they wrote each sound on their board (tactile). 

6. Teach using patterns. For many children, just remembering a detail about how a particular word is spelled is nearly impossible. If you teach a particular sound spelling such as AY, don't teach it using one word in isolation. Generate a whole list of words containing that sound spelling and then have your children sound and write them on their whiteboards as you lead them through that exercise.

One of the hardest concepts for struggling readers to grasp is that a specific sequence of letters doesn't always sound the same. Lessons are done for you in The Illustrated Book of Sounds & Their Spelling Patterns.

Here is a chart that shows all the ways to spell the long A sound.

Child1st Sound Spellings

It helps visual learners to see the target sound spellings in a different color from the other letters in the word. In this lesson, every time children see orange, they will say the long sound of A. Easy peasy! 

And Here are Sound Spelling Teaching Cards for long A spellings