It is not a coincidence that as the current generation of children becomes more and more visual in their learning preference, difficulty with reading comprehension is sharply on the rise. It sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? You would suppose that highly visual learners would be the best at comprehending what they read, but this is not the case, because learning to read is traditionally a very non-visual task. We teach children to read in very left-brained ways and they focus intensely on learning those little symbols and what they represent. In the process of learning to sound out words or just plain remember words they have learned, the meaning behind the symbols is lost. Oftentimes, children can quickly read a book and then look blankly at you if you ask them to tell you what they read.
The shift in our children’s learning styles
Our children spend so much time with technology that, by its very design, works to rewire their brains in ways that are not compatible with traditional methods of teaching reading. This technology flashes colorful images across the screen in a constant stream while children hear the words spoken. The images they are absorbing are images that their own minds and imaginations did not create. And I don’t think the technology that is reshaping our children’s brains towards the visual side is going away any time soon. The ideal of course would be to get kids outside more, playing with objects rather than technology. Barring that, however, our method for guiding children towards comprehending what they have read needs to change drastically. As our children’s brains are being reshaped, our teaching approaches must follow with alacrity or we will see an increase in the numbers of children who struggle with reading.
What is reading comprehension anyway?
Back when I was administering the John’s Reading Inventory to scads of children, I remember feeling squirmy during the comprehension segment of the test. When children were asked to name the characters in the story and they couldn’t do it, I had to mark them down for those missed names. I don’t remember names I read either; to me that doesn’t mean I did not comprehend what I read. It really means that I don’t remember names I read as I am visualizing and consolidating the action in the story into images in my mind.
The natural way for me to think about the word “comprehension” is by thinking about “visualizing.” Visual learners are not detail people. They think in pictures, not in words. So while my left-brained counterparts recall facts, names, and dates with amazing fluency, I remember the feeling of the story, what each character was like personally, and how the story line went.
Helping children move from words (symbols) to pictures
For those children who struggle with knowing and being able to retell what they have read, let’s think in terms of helping them visualize the meaning that the symbols on the page were supposed to convey. (SnapWords® get this point across effortlessly as each one is embedded in a visual that conveys the meaning behind the word.) Children can learn to form images to accompany the words they read if we teach them to do that. We don’t need complicated procedures, expensive technology, fancy organizational charts, or anything other than a very clear focus, humor, and relaxed time with the children. This is a perfect activity for summertime, time spent driving in the car, dinner table time, etc. The key is to make this fun, to work on it incrementally, and to celebrate your children’s visual giftedness.
Start with verbal games
Tell your child you are going to play a game. Say one sentence. The child will repeat what you said, then embellish and add to what you said. For instance, you might say, “I see a green dragon flying in the sky.” Your child would repeat, “I see a green dragon flying in the sky. He has scales on his back and he is breathing fire out of his mouth!”
Then, let your child have a turn to make up a sentence. You repeat what they said and embellish it. Inject humor and the unexpected into the game to attract their attention and engage them in the process. Humor is a wonderful teacher!
Continue with images
Many visual learners like to draw. Provide your child with paper and coloring or drawing materials. Play a similar game to the first one, only this time have your child draw pictures of what you say. They can draw exactly what you said or take it further and embellish. For example, if you say, “I see a green dragon flying in the sky, blowing bubbles with his pink bubblegum,” they might draw that and then add a red umbrella the dragon is clutching.
Finish with the written word
I am not saying that after doing these three exercises one time your child will suddenly be transformed into a reader who practices visualization. However, if you do this sort of thing frequently, it will result in improving your children’s reading abilities.
Using the written word as a starting point for visualization will need to be done from simple to more complex as your child becomes comfortable with the process.
- To begin, you can write on a 3x5 card or a sheet of drawing paper, “I see a green dragon flying through the sky.” The child will read the sentence for themselves and then draw an illustration for it.
- Go from a sentence to a short paragraph for them to read and illustrate.
- Next, use their own books for the activities. Tell them to read a sentence or two and then close their eyes and see, in their imagination, the form of pictures they just read. For example if they read, “Once there was a man and his wife that lived in a little house by a big lake,” have them stop and picture the scene in their mind. If you start small (not waiting until the whole story is finished to ask for a visualization) your child will gain the practice of seeing what they're reading in their head, not in words, but in their translation into pictures.
- Finally, have them read a paragraph or a short page to you and then either tell you in their own words what they read, or draw a picture of it, a page at a time to begin with. Let them know that the hardest part is starting to see the story in their mind when they're not really sure what is coming. As soon as they can imagine that first image, what they read next can be added to the mental image just like you would add characters to a play.
Aim for the sky
One of the smartest tools you can use with a child who has been failing at something is to show confidence in them and share your belief in their giftedness. Those who can visualize are in so much demand in so many industries. What you can imagine in your mind and heart, you can also create. Find out if the idea of writing and illustrating a whole story would appeal to your child. This could be the ultimate reward for work well done: to showcase their progress in getting a book they wrote and illustrated, bound for them.