I’ve said so frequently that visual learners need to see the finished product before they can start to learn. I’ve said visual learners learn from whole to part. I’ve said they are pattern-seekers, see the big picture, and know how to create their own steps once they get a firm grasp of the goal. But these are just words, and it is nearly impossible to clearly convey the idea behind these words and what this has to do with teaching reading unless I show examples of what this would look like. In a recent post, Difficulty Learning Sight Words, I shared a conversation I had with the mother of a seven-year-old who had repeated first grade and still was not “getting” how to read.
How She Learned Marketing
This mother readily accepted the idea that her son might be a strongly visual learner. She said she herself was probably visual also; she’d always been considered slow, and she had difficulty learning to read. “Why even now,” she said, “I have to copy what other people do because I’m not smart enough to come up with something on my own.” I asked what she meant. She told me that when it came time to market her new business, she wasn’t smart enough to create a marketing strategy for herself, so she studied the marketing efforts of successful businesses and then copied elements from them in making her own campaign.
I don’t consider this to be a sign of a lack of mental acuity. What this woman did (let’s call her Valerie) was clearly demonstrate just how visual she is. Visual people need to see examples of successful end products before they can successfully create an end product for themselves. Valerie studied successful campaigns so she could see what a successful marketing piece looked like. She was smart enough to recognize what is successful, was smart enough to extract the elements of the marketing pieces that made them successful, and was smart enough to create a successful marketing campaign tailored to her own business from principles she gleaned for herself just from seeing how it was done by “experts.” Problem is, she’d been told as a child that she was slow, and so everything after that was colored by this deeply-engrained belief about herself.
Let’s apply this idea to how visual children learn to read. They have to see and understand the goal first just like Valerie did. They need to learn the basics, and then they need to be allowed to utilize their amazing pattern-seeking brain to apply what they have learned across the discipline.
How to Hinder the Visual Child
One huge mistake pretty much all of us make is that we teach children a whole lot of unrelated details before showing them what we are doing. Why this doesn’t work for visual learners is that they learn all at once via pictures and images. If we don’t show them the goal and explain why we’re learning the little bits first, they will struggle because they will not have any clue what the point is and if they don’t know what they are going to make out of all the little pieces, they won’t remember them. We MUST learn to start at the end as we teach them, and move backwards.
Words Talk To Us and Tell Us Stories
Say I have a bright, shiny five-year-old sitting expectantly in front of me and I am supposed to teach her to read. If I do it in the way that is most friendly to this little visual learner (children that age are naturally visual learners), what I will do first is take a book with a simple story I feel will really be engaging to her. I'll sit by her, open the pages, and point out the little black squiggles on the page. I'll tell her that these are little magic pictures that we learn to recognize, and when we know them, we can hear the wonderful stories they have gathered to tell us. Pointing at the little black squiggles, I would begin to read the story slowly, giving the child time to absorb the fact that I am pointing to each word, I recognize it, and it is what is telling me the story. (What? No memorization of the alphabet first? No chanting “A says /a/ for apple”? You got it! Those are details that won’t make sense until a child knows the point of learning the sounds of letters).
We Use the Same Words over and over Again
Once you are sure the child understands that books are full of words and that words speak to us and tell us stories, show her that words repeat and once you know some, they crop up everywhere just like dandelions on a lawn. Select a word that repeats often in the book and point to it. Say, “This is the picture of the word ‘THE.’” Let’s see if we can find some more just like him. Go through the pages together, finding all the “THE's” you can find. You might want to re-read the story saying “Let’s watch for this word THE. When we come to a THE in the story, you read it.” (Still no ABC's please.) The point is not to learn the word THE, but to show that THE will always look like it occurs a lot in books!
These Are the Little Pieces that Make up Words
Finally we get to the little bits: the ABC's. I’ve written all this down in our Easy-for-Me™ Teaching Manual, but for our purposes, I will repeat here. Use Alphabet Tales and read the story of A and how he came to be formed as he is and the sounds we associate with him. Do the fun follow-up activity to let your visual learner have time to cement her mental images of A. Use the SnapWords™ card for the sight word A and talk about the visual and the hand motion for this letter/word. Let your child find A in the story you read. From the very first day, relate a sound from the alphabet to a word that is used to communicate information. This is the all-important WHY behind the question “Why do I need to learn all this stuff!” (This is a question visual learners ask frequently!)
The Process Is Laid Out for You
In a nutshell, the Easy-for-Me™ Reading plan takes a child through learning a very small handful of sounds using a story and a visual that looks just like the shape of the letter. My experience with this approach has been that as a rule, children learn the sound and the shape of the letter right away and do not forget them. The special feature of this approach, however, is that from day one we are introducing words through visuals and hand motions. By the time the child has grasped three tiny words and eight simple sounds, he or she will be ready to read seven whole books. The reason for doing this is critical. One is that we’ve eliminated everything that is not completely essential to understanding what reading is. Nothing, including letter names, is present to confuse the child. All of that will come later. Also, the approach gets the child reading as soon as possible. The point is, children have to understand the purpose behind learning to read, and the sooner you get them reading, the sooner they will quickly absorb the details of learning to read, such as how to read and write the sounds that appear in words.
The reading program has greatly simplified the process of learning to read. Children don’t need to learn to sound out nonsense words. They don’t even need to break words into little sounds. Visual learners devour words whole, break them into their various patterns, and find those patterns repeated in other words in all the books they read. After the child is reading, then teach the phonics.