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Teaching Reading to Visual-Spatial Learners
Visual-Spatial Learners (VSL) 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, whereas most schools, most teachers, and most curricula are a haven for left-brain thinking or auditory sequential learners; children who think and learn with words rather than pictures, and step by step. Although visual-spatial students are often very bright, they are not always successful in academic environments.
Those who favor the right hemisphere of their brain, the kids I call “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 learn to read using a phonetic approach. However, for the visuo-spatial learner (VSL), this goes against the way 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 form whole words. Spatial visuals include the big picture information first, not the smallest details! Because VSLs think in pictures, they must read in pictures. What is the image of “ga”? Or “the?” Can you create a mental image of “the”? But when VSLs learn to read by first looking at whole words, not the smallest sounds, they can easily create mental images for those words and learn them permanently. A beginning reader can create mental images for many sight words and often the more difficult the words the better. There is a distinction in the shape of the letters that form “xylophone” or “Disneyland”, which the visuo-spatial will not find when reading the word “an”.
Some words naturally make you think of a picture because of the shape of the letters; as do the letters “M” and “N” in the word MoNtain.
Or “rain” when you add a raindrop to point the “i” like my son did for me.
Your beginning readers can probably think of many other ways to draw words that include pictures. For words that they can’t create a picture for (like “a” or “the”), they can create a picture of the word by shaping it with string, Wikki Stix, or clay. Some schools use letters made out of sandpaper so the student can trace the shape of the letter with a finger. Each of these techniques will help create mental images of the new words they are learning to read.
Whole 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 sorting all the words with similar start sounds, similar end sounds, or other categories they imagine. It’s called “analytical phonetics” and will help any reader become even better.
I have a huge piece of advice for visual-spatial learners regarding reading: read quickly! Just as beginning readers do not need words without pictures such as “the”, “and”, “like”, etc., the child who is ready to progress in reading does not create pictures for these words. So skip them! Have your visuospatial children practice running their fingers, very quickly, over one line of words, then over the next. Teach them to jump right over words that their mind has no image for. Here is an example. First, read this sentence:
Then, the next morning, Jody ran to the nearby grocery store to get a gallon of fresh milk for her mother.
Now look at how much easier you can read this line 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 ran a gallon of milk for her mother.
Can you do it? Can you ignore the words without a picture? Was it easier? Are any facts from the first sentence missing? Does the sentence with far fewer words still give 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 buying it that morning, right? Isn’t it easier to create a mental picture when you don’t have to stop and read the words without a picture? Next time your kids have a reading assignment, try reading quickly with them and see if that helps speed up the process while helping them remember all the details.
If your children need help remembering the pictures they are mentally creating, ask them to take “notes” in the form of actual drawings. They must do this in the margins, if it is their book, or in a separate notebook if the book does not belong to them. Really important information such as the plot of the story, or the dates of the information, or the names of the characters they are studying should be included in their drawings.
Review important information
Do you remember reading your own textbooks and being like, “Whoa, I know this is going to pass the test”? Did you know that because what you just read had a name, date, or definition or because it was printed in bold or italics? When I was in school, I used to bend the corners of the pages that contained this kind of important information that got me in hot water because the book was to be reused the following year and the pages would already be “eared”. “Office supply stores today carry many great products, including sticky Post-It Tabs that come in a variety of colors. Show your kids how to use them to mark the exact line on an information page. they just read. They can stick them right on the line of text, with the colored tab protruding from the side of the page. This way, they can easily find the exact line they need to remember. They need to use certain colored tabs for certain types of information. Maybe green tabs are for dates they need to remember? Or blue tabs are for names? Whichever system works for them.
One more note on reading
If your visual-spatial children struggle with reading, you might consider offering comics or fantasy books with lots of visuals. Maybe books about something they really want to learn, a favorite animal, or kids in another country, or something they find interesting enough to keep trying. You might consider checking out books saved in a library. Almost any book they might be asked to read for a reading report is available on tape or CD. However, don’t replace the reading with a movie or a made-for-TV version. Too much of the story may have been changed and they will miss the chance to create their own characters and scenes in their imagination. But listening to a book, instead of reading it themselves, will free them to use the author’s words to create mental movies. Listening to the story often helps visual-spatial 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 with a larger print size. Often this makes it easier for their eyes. You can also photocopy pages from a book to enlarge the print size. Some children find reading easier when they use a colored transparency, such as yellow or green, and place it on the page. Additionally, there are books from Barrington Stoke Publications that are printed on special paper using a font that has proven 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 filing cabinets, and labeling everything in your home, including furniture, stairs, doors etc. Turn your home into a gigantic visual dictionary! You can also play word games: what rhymes with ____, or play Scrabble®, or Boggle® with added pictures, invent your own games! Use clay or Wikki Stix® to write (shape) fun and interesting words that will become mental pictures for them.
Whatever strategy you employ to help your beginning VSL reader know that they will eventually master this skill, they may just not be wired to learn it the old fashioned way, using phonics . There are other options available. A sight or whole-word approach is often what helps them break 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 teacher in the early grades, I saw many reluctant readers who were afraid of losing “Mommy” or “Daddy Time” if they learned to read on their own. At 11 and 13, my kids and I still love snuggling up on a couch or bed for a good story.
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