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Why your visual learner is struggling to read

by Sarah Forrest || 27 July 2018

Do you see your child constantly guessing when trying to read a sentence? Maybe they crack the word “elephant” no problem but seem to stumble over “for” or “from”? Are you both getting frustrated by endless reading practice without real improvements?

1 in 5 kids at age 11 fail a basic literacy test. These numbers are surprisingly consistent around the English-speaking world.

There is consistent evidence from multiple studies, like this paper by Conti-Ramsden et al, that early literacy difficulties often persist unless the right solution is delivered for each individual child.

In our experience, a large number of these strugglers are highly visual learners. Perhaps one of them is your child.

What we mean by “visual learning”

There’s a lot flying around the web about whether or not neurological “learning styles” really exist. But one thing seems pretty obvious — many children show clear signs that they much prefer taking in information visually over aurally (by hearing it). Some of these children are even on the gifted spectrum in visual-spatial processing.

Maybe your son loved to draw from a young age, adding details like hair, feet, or hands when his peers were stuck on stick people. Maybe your daughter has an amazing visual memory and can remember tiny details about places she has seen or directions. Or perhaps she is excellent at pattern/contrast recognition, like finding a lost item in a crowded room or picking out visual details on shoes or cars.

These are all signs of a visually engaged learner. The good news is that those skills will serve your child very well in the future.

The bad news is that those same skills can very often lead your child down a dangerous path when it comes to learning literacy.

Why visual learners fail to read the right way

When it’s time to learn phonics (an auditory skill, not a visual one), many visual learners choose to sight-memorize whole words instead of learning to decode. It is just much easier for them. Many visual children have been memorizing beginner books word for word, for several years.

So it comes naturally to store away beginner words in the visual memory. And long words like “elephant” are actually even easier to remember because they are so visually unique and often have clear contextual clues in the text.

But problems lie just around the corner. Soon, the words presented become more complex and harder to commit to memory. The visual memory was not designed to hold hundreds of very similar black squiggly lines! “For” gets interchanged with “from” or “of”; “and” becomes “the”. The short common words tend to break down first because they are less visually distinct.

Words or letters may get flipped. That advanced visual brain processes them as an image that can be rotated in space and still retain its identity — much like the picture of a cow could get flipped and still be a cow.

And so the visual learner starts guessing like mad just to keep up. They can have less developed phonological skills and so they lack any real strategy to figure out new words from the letters. The only option open to them is to guess.

In this way, their reading weakness actually stems from their visual strength. But it quickly leads to falling behind expectation in reading and spelling skills.

Don’t wait to get help for your visual learner

Research shows that when children with reading problems don’t get help by first grade, 90% of will still be struggling at the end of fourth grade. That is staggering. And it is normal for the parent of a 6-year-old to be told that their child will just “catch-up” on their own. Unfortunately, science doesn’t support that optimism. And the problems tend to persist through to high school years unless the problem is actively remediated.

The good news is that you are not on your own in this, as a parent. There are a number of literacy systems that appeal to visual learners. The key in whatever intervention you pick is to address the phonological weakness by harnessing that visual strength for good. We recommend the trainertext visual phonics (TVP) approach developed specifically for visual learner strugglers.

You can read about that here.

Sarah Forrest is a Program Adviros for David Morgan Education. After studying Spanish lit at Yale University, she worked at Easyread HQ in Oxford, England. She now lives in the sunny south of the United States with her two children, where she continues her work coaching parents and children through Trainertext visual phonics.