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Teaching Reading to Visuospatial Learners

Visuospatial Learners (VSLs) are our artists, inventors, builders, creators, musicians, computer gurus, visionaries, and healers. They are empathetic and often very spiritually aware, even when very young. These children have powerful right hemispheres and learn in multidimensional images, while most schools, most teachers, and most curricula are a haven for left hemisphere thinking or auditory sequential learners; children who think and learn with words, not with images, and step by step. Although visuospatial learners are often very bright, they don’t always find success in academic settings.

Those who favor the right hemisphere of their brains, the kids I refer to as “upside down,” are at a disadvantage in traditional classrooms. One of the many challenges they face is learning to read. In schools today, most children are taught to read using a phonetic approach. However, for the visuospatial learner (VSL), this is counterintuitive to how they think and learn. Many VSLs struggle with phonics because the strategy is to teach reading by breaking words down into their smallest sounds like: ra, ta, ga, and fa. Then you have to build on those little sounds to make whole words. Visuospatials understand general information first, not the smallest details! Because VSLs think in images, they need to read in images. What is the image of “ga”? Or from “he?” Can you create a mental image of “him”? But when VSLs are taught to read by looking at whole words first, not the smallest sounds, they can easily create mental images for those words and learn them permanently. A beginning reader can create mental pictures for many high-frequency words, and often the more difficult the words, the better. There is a distinction in the shape of the letters that make up “xylophone” or “Disneyland” that the visual-spatial will not find when reading the word “an”.

Some words naturally make you think of an image because of the shape of the letters; like the letters “M” and “N” in the word MOUNTAIN.

Or “rain” when you add a raindrop to splatter the “i” like my son did for me.

Your beginning readers can probably think of many more ways to draw words that include pictures. For words you can’t create a picture for (such as “a” or “the”), you can make a picture of the word by shaping it with yarn, Wikki Stix, or clay. Some schools use letters made of sandpaper so that the student can trace the shape of the letter with a finger. Any of these techniques will help them create mental images of the new words they are learning to read.

Complete words can be placed on large index cards and hung on a key ring or stored in a special word box. Then the beginning reader can practice classifying all the words with similar beginning sounds, similar ending sounds, or other categories that come to mind. This is called “analytic phonetics” and it will help any reader to become even better.

speed reading

I have some great advice for visuospatial learners regarding reading: speed read! Just as beginning readers do not need non-picture words like “the”, “and”, “like”, etc., the child who is ready to progress in reading is not creating pictures for these words either. So skip them! Have your children practice moving their fingers visuo-spatially, very quickly, over one line of words, then the next. Teach them to jump right over words that their mind doesn’t have a picture for. Here is an example. First, read this sentence:
Then the next morning, Jody ran to the nearby grocery store to buy a gallon of fresh milk for her mother.

Now, notice how much easier you can make this line read by skipping the words that don’t have a mental image, reading only the words that create an image in your mind:
In the morning, Jody poured gallons of milk for the mother.

You can do it? Can you skip the words without pictures? Was it easier? Do you miss any information about the first prize? Does the sentence with far fewer words still form a picture in your mind of what the character is doing, when, and for whom? You don’t even need the adjective “fresh” because you know he’s going to buy it that morning, right? Isn’t it easier to make a mental picture when you don’t have to stop and read the words without pictures? The next time your kids have a reading assignment, try speed reading with them and see if it speeds up the process and helps them remember all the details.

If your children need help remembering the images they are creating in their heads, ask them to take “notes” like actual drawings. They should do it in the margins, if it is their book, or in a separate notebook if the book does not belong to them. The really important information, such as the plot of the story, the dates of the information, or the names of the characters they are studying, should be included in their drawings.

Reread for important information

Do you remember reading your own school books and saying to yourself, “Wow, I know that’s going to be on the test”? Did you know this because what you just read had a name, a date, or a definition, or because it was printed in bold or italics? When I was in school I used to turn the corners of pages that had this kind of important information which would get me in trouble because the book had to be used again next year and the pages would already be “worn”. ” Today’s office supply stores offer many great products, including Post-It stickers that come in a variety of colors. Show your kids how to use them to mark the exact line on a page of the important information they just to read. They can stick them right on the line of the text, with the colored tab sticking out from the side of the page. This way, they can easily find the exact line they need to remember. They must use certain colored tabs for certain types of information. Maybe the green tabs are for dates they have to remember, or blue tabs for names, whatever system works for them.

One more note on reading.

If your visual-spatial children have difficulty reading, you might consider offering them comics or fantasy books with lots of pictures. Maybe books about something they really want to learn about, a favorite animal, or kids in another country, or something they find interesting enough to keep trying. You might consider checking out recorded books from a library. Almost all of the books that you might be asked to read for a book report are available on tape or CD. However, don’t replace reading with a movie or made-for-TV version. It is possible that too much of the story has been changed and they will lose the opportunity to create their own characters and scenes in their imagination. But listening to a book, rather than reading it themselves, will free them to use the author’s words to create mental movies. Listening to the story often helps visuospatial learners better remember the plot and characters because they can then “see” the story. When they listen to the story, they don’t have to spend time decoding the words and forgetting to follow the story line.
Also, many books come in a larger font size. This often makes it easier on your eyes. Or, you can photocopy the pages of a book to increase the print size. Some children find it easier to read when they use a colored transparency, such as yellow or green, and place it on the page. In addition, there are books from Barrington Stoke Publications that are printed on special paper in a font that has proven to be easier for many to read. You can find them at http://www.barringtonstoke.co.uk.

Other strategies to help beginning readers conquer this new task include using magnetic letters and words on refrigerators and file cabinets, and labeling everything in your house, including furniture, stairs, doors, etc. Make your home a gigantic visual dictionary! You can also play games with words: what rhymes with ____, or play Scrabble®, or Boggle® with pictures added, make up your own games! Use clay or Wikki Stix® to write (shape) fun and interesting words that will become mental pictures for them.

Regardless of the strategy you employ to help your beginning VSL reader, know that you will eventually master this skill, but you may not be ready to learn it the “old fashioned” way, by using phonics. There are other options available. A view or whole word approach is often what helps them crack the code. Be sure to encourage reading all the time by continuing to read to your children, even after they have mastered reading. As a first grade teacher, I saw many reluctant readers who feared losing “Mom Time” or “Dad Time” if they learned to read on their own. At ages 11 and 13, my kids and I still enjoy snuggling up on a sofa or bed for a good story.

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