When parents call to talk about their child’s learning needs, they tell me their child is struggling, but then they quickly follow that by telling me how very bright their child is. Often I sense that the parent is expecting me to doubt that their child is bright but that is never my response.
I know first-hand how capable and bright visual learners are. It is not their brain or their lack of talent that is to blame for their struggles in school. What I have come to understand is that the culprit is the mismatch between a visual learner’s gifts and the design of the lesson and materials used.
Visual learners have specific gifts for learning. They can see learning concepts as pictures in their heads. Once they understand their own strengths, they will be able to help themselves all through their education.
What follows are specific strategies that won't work for them
- This visual ability of right-brained, visual learners is the most powerful gift they have but also the hardest for adults to utilize with confidence. We adults are habituated toward doling out tidbits of learning in a prescribed order, in a linear, sequential manner. That is directly opposed to how these children learn.
- Teaching children the letter sounds and then trying to get them to sound out words based on phonics rules they have been taught. This is the downfall of so many visual, right-brained learners. They just stumble along and don’t ever get into really reading when they are approached this way.
- Using flashcards to drill and review math facts in hopes the children will eventually learn their basic math facts. This practice is not consistent with how visual, right-brained children learn.
- Giving children a list of spelling words to memorize for a test. Spelling words consist of groups of letters in a particular sequence that the child will have to chant repeatedly in hopes that the sequence of letters will remain in their brains long enough to last through the spelling test. This practice does not work well for visual learners.
- Giving children lists of sight words to memorize in order to speed up their reading, because sight words are supposedly words that are not easy to sound out. Again, this practice relies on basic memorization which is not a strategy that works for visual learners.
- Teaching children math or phonics rules that they will need to apply to specific situations as they do their seat work or homework.
None of those topics mentioned above can be translated by a visual learner into pictures they can see, snap a mental picture of, and recall intact later. Not unless the child has been taught specifically how to order their learning material in such a way that their right-brained self can absorb it successfully.
It makes a lot of sense for the adult teacher to embed the learning concepts in visuals that will be the means of a child learning the concepts they need to learn.
They remember easily when content reveals a pattern
For children that struggle with reading in regular schools, the knee-jerk reaction is to make their body of learning smaller. But this is really the opposite of what works with these students.
For instance, in my Title 1, 2nd grade classroom, I had a group of non-readers. Each time we met, we had a list of words (about 10) that they were supposed to learn. I would select a list of words that had something in common such as a long vowel spelling.
Now, instead of teaching the children to recognize each word (which they obviously could not do) we focused on the common element. The EA spelling in each word allowed the words to be written in a way that the children could detect the pattern in the words. We would highlight the EA so that visually it stood out. These kids would see those words with the EA spelling pattern in common on their papers and it helped them learn and remember how to spell and read those words.
So with these children, while I began with their 8-10 words, I would always add more and more words that followed the same pattern to their list. If they could write 8 words using the spelling pattern EA, they could write 20 or 30.
The Illustrated Book of Sounds & Their Spelling Patterns utilizes both color-coding and pattern discovery to teach spelling successfully.
An Example of Teaching with Patterns
Say the students’ spelling list is: nail, fade, back, came, bank, hail, wade, lame, rank, sack. First, put words in pairs that are similar: Nail/hail, fade/wade, back/sack, bank/rank, came/lame. We have the tiny beginnings of a good right-brained lesson that utilizes patterns.
1. Start with the first pair of words, and rather than say, “This word says NAIL. N, A, I, L. Spell it with me, copy it on your paper, memorize it.” I would say, “The AI in this word says Long A. You can find AI in both NAIL and HAIL. Take your yellow highlighter and color the AI in those words.”
2. Next, I would have created a list of several other words for them to add that also had the same AI spelling: mail, fail, rail, sail, tail, bail. These would be added to the column of AI words and their common spelling pattern would also be highlighted yellow.
What you have now is a whole column of words with yellow "AIs." What this creates for the child is a pattern that they can visually snap into their memories. They are learning the spelling pattern by sight. The "ai" in each word is the core or the foundation to which a few other sounds are added.
3. Then I would take the next pair of words and do the same thing, this time highlighting the sound spelling the words have in common.
They remember if new information is linked to something known
Children remember novelty: a visual, a jingle, a metaphor. “1 is a thin man standing up straight.” “8 is a snowman, makes me laugh.” “M is mountains.” “S is a snake.”
When I teach digraphs SH, TH, PH, WH, CH, I don’t just say, “CH says ch like in chop.” I tell a story and the kids act it out.
For instance, I might say: The handsome Mr. H walked into town one day. He walked up to a nice yellow house where Miss S lived. He rang her doorbell and when she came to the door, he invited her to come out and walk with him.
Well, Miss S was so excited that instead of being able to say her normal sound, she got all flustered and she and Mr. H, together, made a brand new sound: SHHHH.
Children will learn to help themselves
The first thing to do to help your struggling visual learners is to assure them that they have giftedness that many people don’t have, but we haven’t been using it. They need to have their confidence restored first.
The second thing to do is to use vastly different materials so that the lessons you do with them are totally and utterly different from what they used before.
Third, just come out and tell them the strengths they have, because over time they will learn to transform left-brained content into a format they can absorb more easily.