Does your child struggle to spell? Does he work on memorizing words and forgets them ten minutes later? Does she spend all afternoon learning word families just to fail the test the next day? Keep on reading because you might be dealing with a visual-spatial learner.
Some people can spell without giving it a second thought; because of their strong auditory sequential skills they instinctively know how to sequence letters, words, and sentences. The first message, and go-to method for intervention for children who struggle with spelling, is that they just need to work harder.
Working harder means more time memorizing and more time learning the spelling rules. If your child has a strong visual-spatial learning style, all this effort has probably been met with failure and a creeping suspicion that they are not good enough nor bright enough to learn. Most parents of visual-spatial learners will tell you they know that their children are bright, but their test scores just do not reflect the effort they put in. The lesson here is: If they could, they would.
If they could they would!
What is a visual-spatial learner?
Linda Silverman has assessed more than 6000 children at the Gifted Development Center in Denver and has coined the phrase “Visual-spatial learner.” In her book “Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner" (Denver: deLeon, 2002) she describes these children as “unorganized, unfocused, poor spellers...” According to Silverman, visual-spatial learners would rather build lego’s or engage in creative play than other activities.
Visual Spatial learners engage the more creative right side of the brain to learn.
Visual Spatial learners engage the more creative right side of the brain to learn. These learners think in pictures rather than words, and they are divergent rather than convergent thinkers. They learn by looking at the whole and breaking it down into its parts. Visual-spatial learners are brilliantly topsy turvy and sadly not always recognized by traditional school systems that cater strongly to auditory-sequential learners. They are out-of-the-box thinkers who look at letters as objects that can be manipulated in space. To them, letters do not have to follow each other sequentially. They do not have to be two-dimensional; instead, letters become three-dimensional objects that can be manipulated and moved around on the page.
Visual-spatial learners are out of the box thinkers who look at letters as objects that can be manipulated in space.
To a parent who has achieved academic success using auditory-sequential skills, this might not be good news. I remember how surprised I was when I asked my visual-spatial learner to describe a cube. Her answer: "There are four sides, a top, and a bottom."
Completely satisfied with the response I moved on to the next question, but she stopped me mid-sentence with these words: "Wait, I am not finished yet. If you climb inside a cube, there will be a wall on this side (left) and a wall on this side (right), a wall behind me, a wall in front of me, a floor and a roof." In all my years of interaction with children, I have never heard anyone describe a cube from the outside and then also the inside. I have never seen someone engage with spatiality so naturally, and I knew this was not how I think, and it scared me.
How do you help someone learn a skill in a way that is utterly foreign to you? How do you guide a young mind to develop in a way that comes easily and naturally without reverting to the techniques that you have relied on for success? You start learning - you read, and interview professionals and you collaborate with other parents. You reject the work harder paradigm, and you start working smarter.
Work smarter, not harder.
Below are seven techniques that changed our lives, and it might help you too. Some of them are not unusual at all, but some might take you by complete surprise! Remember: no two children are alike. Keep trying until you find what works for you and your child. Be open-minded, educate yourself, and become an advocate for what your visual-spatial child needs.
7 Techniques to teach visual-spatial spellers:
1. Play a game
For longer words with multiple syllables, we used to play a skipping or jumping game. We would set a finish line or a prize and then jump or skip to get there. For example, the word 'impossible' has four syllables. Every syllable that is spelled correctly buys one jump or skip closer towards the finish line or the prize. Every syllable that is misspelled buys a jump in the opposite direction, further away from the finish line. We kept cycling through spelling words and jumping or skipping until the child got the prize. We usually reserved this game for words that came easily to my children - words that promised a fairly good success rate or words that we already knew and were revising.
2. Use color
Bright pinks and oranges are the way to go. Use them to decorate spelling words or to highlight spelling words in sentences.
On a side note, I noticed how color improved my daughter’s reading ability in kindergarten. We tried sounding out words in Bob books till we were blue in the face, but they just would not stick. One day my daughter picked up storybook about a little puppy called Biscuit. It was definitely much harder reading than the Bob books, but she started identifying words, and before I knew it, she was putting sentences together. Looking back, I realize how visually unappealing the Bob books must have been to her. The Biscuit books were colorful, and the images where interesting. It created a fun context for a believable story.
3. Outline the shape of the word in color.
Use flashcards to write your spelling words in big letters. Next, outline the shape of the word. This frame gives the word a shape and helps the visual-spatial learner remember the place value of the letters in the word.
Here's how to draw it:
4. Use pictures.
Visual-spatial learners might depend on the English spelling rules as a way to compensate for their inability to spell phonetically. This does not serve them well. They will often follow these rules indiscriminately and apply them even to exceptions. As a way to counter this tendency, use pictures to create an image of a word that does not follow the rule. This association speaks to their natural strength to recall images.
For example, take the word green. The spelling rule says that a closed syllable with a long vowel should have a silent ‘e’ at the end of the word to indicate that the vowel is a long vowel. However, green does not follow this rule. If it did, it would be spelled 'grene.' So, to help your child remember, you might draw a picture like this:
5. Make friends between words.
Some spelling programs teach word families, but others teach spelling rules. If your program teaches more than one rule per lesson, connecting words that are similar might help.
For example, if the spelling words for the week are listed in columns, pair ones that look the same with a colorful thread.
6. Take a picture of the word with your eyes
This technique might surprise you, but for a visual-spatial learner, it might be the missing link to success. Why anyone would want to learn the spelling of a word without knowing why it is spelled in a certain way might not make sense at first glance.
Visual-spatial learners learn the shape of the word before they break it down into individual letters. They move from the whole to the parts. Remember, visual spatial-learners see letters as unique shapes that can be placed at random on a line (if you are lucky) or on a page!
When you ask these learners to take a picture of a word with their eyes, they commit an image of the objects and their relationship to each other to memory rather than a sequential list of letters. Next, tell them to do something crazy with that picture – in their minds, of course. Pin it somewhere, turn it on its side, hang it from the roof! Doing this creates a context. Then ask them to spell it.
7. And finally… close your eyes and say it backward
Wait! What?! Yes! There is a series of techniques to teach visual learners to commit a word to memory:
1. Take a picture of the word with your eyes,
2. Do something crazy with it,
3. Close your eyes, recall your picture of the word and then spell it... backward!
If the learner can spell the word backward with their eyes closed, the deal is done, and the money is in the bank. This word is committed to memory for life.
Instead of relying on the phonetic approach to sound each letter sequence in the word, the visual-spatial learner recalls a picture of the word in their memory and easily names each letter as smoothly as if they were reading it from a book. Spelling the word backward verifies that the image is committed to memory. They are simply saying back what they see. One strength of visual-spatial learners is that they do not benefit from a lot of repetition. If the students can spell the word backward once or twice, it’s probably time to move on.
These techniques should help you to learn at least the 100 most common English words. Of course, there will always be words that visual-spatial learners will never be able to spell without looking them up first, and that is what spellcheck and autocorrect is for. These seven techniques will help your struggling student unleash his or her powerful visualization skills to succeed at spelling and writing. But better yet, they will learn that they too are bright and, and this will affect much more than just their ability to spell.