Friday, July 20, 2012

Teaching the Visual Spatial Learner: When Your Child Thinks in Pictures.

VSL. Visual-spatial learner. Whole-to-parts learner. FRUSTRATING. All fabulous synonyms. ;) Do any of these situations sound familiar?

Douglas can figure out complex geometric ideas in his head, but struggles to remember 6+2.
Kathy can spend hours every day building complex structures out of Legos, but can’t spell “Lego.”
Leila knows every species of frog by name and can tell you various characteristics from memory. She can’s tell a noun from a verb with ten minutes of lead time.
Marcus can read very well and explain what he reads. However, his standardized test scores are abysmal.
Mya has been working on subtraction for a year and still gets upset when given 10-8. She can figure out 10 times 8 instantly.
Connor writes amazing inventive stories with interesting plots and rich characters. Asking him to write two sentences in school with proper capitalization and spelling is like pulling teeth.
Dee spends hours outside catching bugs, waiting for spiders to emerge and catching dragonflies by their tails. She can’t sit still for more than two minutes indoors.

Welcome to life with a VSL.

Many gifted children are “visual-spatial learners.” They don’t see the world quite like the standard, linear, left-brained thinker. They see the world in pictures. They see the big picture clearly. They often grasp large and complicated issues in an instant. It’s the details that often trouble them. Here’s a basic overview followed by a subject breakdown. (NOTE: Not every single thing here will apply to every single VSL child!! As in all things, there are individual differences and variants! Your child may not work quite like the classic VSL child. Pick what does help and go with that.)

I have a VSL daughter preparing to begin third grade work in the fall, and I am not a VSL myself, so I have done an inordinate and possibly unhealthy amount of research on the subject. (I take it back. There are still books I haven’t read. Research ho!)

Linda Kreger Silverman, author of  Upside-down Brilliance, describes VSLs in this way: "The visual spatial learner thrives on complexity, yet struggles with easy material; loves difficult puzzles, but hates drill and repetition; is great at geometry and physics, but poor at phonics and spelling. She has keen visual memory, but poor auditory memory; is creative and imaginative, but inattentive in class; is a systems thinker, all the while disorganized, forgets the details. He excels in math analysis, but is poor at calculation; has high reading comprehension, but low word recognition; has an excellent sense of humor, and performs poorly on timed tests."

Rebecca L. Mann wrote that VSLs are “holistic” (perceive relationships), “Aha! processors” (grasp it all in an instant or don’t get it AT all, repetition/drill is ineffective), “creative,” “reflective” (need extra time to process—which sounds like it contradicts “Aha” but if you’ve ever seen a VSL, it doesn’t), and appear careless and sensitive.

My VSL can grasp infinity, logic puzzles, adores negative numbers and algebra, thinks area and perimeter problems are simple, but still struggles to remember 6+2 and mixes up her place values. She is at a middle school level in science, but struggles with phonics and spelling. She is not merely inattentive—she is, after years of struggle and natural methods and working around it, on medication for being, to quote her doctor, “on paper extremely ADD, and what I’m seeing in person matches.” In Freed’s book, Right-brained Children in a Left-brained World, he claims that all children with ADD are VSLs (although the reverse is not always true). There is a lot of overlap between suspected ADD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-Inattentive, to be precise), dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia,  CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder), and VSLs. They don’t process information in the “usual” way. It can be extremely frustrating!

These children think in pictures. They learn best with a visual “hook” of some kind. Whiteboards with colored markers work beautifully. Use different colors for different meanings. Draw a green line down the left side and a red line down the right side to encourage reading left to write. We have done place value with a different color for each place. Letting them illustrate things appeals greatly to them. Sight words, illustrated books, non-fiction books packed with pictures—these all work well with VSLs. One method described by Freed for spelling involves the idea of mentally picturing burning the word letter by letter into a wall, as if with a flamethrower or a laser. Also, VSLs may be able to spell backwards as well as forwards! Have your child make her own flashcards, with the answers on them, and use those or hang them around the classroom to help burn the image of that equation with its answer in your child’s brain. Computer games and video learning methods are also very popular with VSLs, for obvious reasons!

VSLs can see how things fit together and work. Many VSL kids have that engineering bug—building constantly with Legos and blocks, making elaborate Snap Circuits and taking apart appliances. My girl likes those a little bit, but they’re not her “thing.” Her spatial/engineering bent comes out when she fixes my glasses, or walks out of the bathroom announcing that the toilet broke but she fixed it with a diaper pin, or when she uses a laundry basket or chair and an upside-down stick horse to lift a 6-foot-high hook & eye latch to get into a locked room. If you want some quiet, just hand these kids a box of Legos, pattern blocks, or a set of ½” PVC pipes and joints and let them go.

Whole to Parts:
VSLs are “whole to parts” learners. They need to see the entire picture first. Showing them the proverbial pieces and then trying to fit them together one at a time will result in frustration and little, if any, progress. More on that in a minute. Many VSLs are late talkers, watching and observing speech quietly until BAM—they begin using it in large measure and with gusto. In fact, my VSL did almost everything like that. She never tried things. She waited, and watched, and thought about it, and the just did it. Reaching for things—she never waved her hand near things or tried to grasp them. She waited. She watched. When she was at the tail end of normal developmental range, she suddenly reached straight up and wrapped her hand perfectly around something she wanted. Done. She refused to even lay on her stomach, so crawling practice was non-existent. She never scooted or scootched or army-crawled, either. She saw something she wanted, crawled backwards once, reversed within a few feet, and crawled forward in textbook fashion. Never looked back. She refused all phonics instruction. Any that I did give her went, as they say, in one ear and out the other. She couldn’t remember any of it at all. Instead, she watched me read to her. One day I pointed to a page of Dr. Seuss and asked her what it said, not expecting an answer. She read the entire page to me. And the next page. And the next. This continued for several months. Once I realized she was truly reading (at a basic level), I tried to give her actual phonics instruction, thinking she was now “ready.” She shut down and refused to read at all for six months. Only when I dropped all instruction and pressure would she look at a book. Then again, I read to her and after a few months, bam, her reading level would jump. Read to her for a few more months, her reading level would spike again. Explicit instruction, tried again on occasion, yielded no results but a fair share of tears. She literally ran away from The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading. So you can see that teaching a VSL brings its own challenges and requires careful attention and selection of curricula.

VSLs are excellent at grasping the large picture while struggling with the details. Incremental programs that teach in tiny pieces and through drill/repetition are a death sentence to a VSL’s love of learning. They need to see the “why” and then they seemingly intuit the “how.” Telling them the rules of a subject without providing the context of the whole is just meaningless data to them. Math fact drills are pointless, but using those same facts in games and patterns where there is a clear goal and purpose to the math facts? Perfect. On several occasions, my daughter has claimed to not know how to solve a problem, sat in silence for a moment, then blurted out the correct answer without any intermediate steps. She says that her brain knows the answer. Curricula like Saxon Math, Ordinary Parents’ Guide to Teaching Reading, First Language Lessons, and other step-by-step programs often bomb terribly with VSLs. Curricula that are either very visual or guide the VSL to see the large picture generally work much better. Documentaries and books full of pictures work well. Silly mnemonics and songs help trigger the memory of the whole package of whatever they are working on.

Organization and focus is difficult for VSLs. Color-coordinated checklists are an option. Workboxes are a popular choice (we’re trying this next year.) Little hourglasses let them see the time passing. Watches with timers or stopwatches help. Teach them to prioritize and make lists from most to least important and then how to follow the lists. Reduce audio clutter—try quiet music in headphones or audio-cancelling headphones. There are several books on organization for ADHD/ADD children. Those would also be helpful to VSL children. Smart but Scattered is the one I see most often recommended.

Subject Mastery:
Reading, phonics, spelling, basic arithmetic and math facts are some of the hardest areas for VSLs. There are some curricula that work better than others, detailed later, but really in these areas I recommend letting go. This will be a huge struggle for them and for you. If you wait until they master these before moving on, they will be stuck on the same material for a long time, far too long to hope to keep their interests. They WILL get there in time, and keep working on these, but don’t hold them back until they have full mastery of these areas or you will mostly likely have a resistant learner who thinks school is horrible. I wouldn’t skimp on the understanding, of course, but mastery/memorization of facts and rules is completely out of proportion to the rest of their abilities in these kids. For example, timed fact quizzes make my dd dissolve into tears, and we’ve worked on addition for several years. Basic addition. However, she can also do multiplication, pre-algebra, geometry, and so forth, despite her struggles with math facts. Should I hold her back in first grade math for years until she can add well when she can do most other areas of math with ease? Of course not! I understand the huge dichotomy between the two kinds of math—the basic computational arithmetic and “real math”--and she now uses a laminated 99-chart behind her math work to help with facts she forgot. Then she can focus on the important parts, like algebra. Soon we’ll add a multiplication chart. In reading, we do ten minutes of phonics a day and I require a tiny amount of reading but that also follows her lead... and now she’s reading chapter books on her own.

To quote Rebecca Mann about something I have seen over and over and over again in my house: “Do not force the student to succeed at easier material before trying difficult work. Emphasize mastery of higher level concepts instead of perfection of simpler ones.” If you attempt to get a VSL to memorize all the basic math facts, or achieve a certain speed or complete reading fluency before moving on, you will spin your wheels for months or years, burn out your child, and learning will become a chore. This is not how their brains work. I know of children who are beginning algebra (and should be!) and are still working on subtraction facts, or in algebra (and should be) and still need multiplication tables. Play to THEIR strengths, not the typical expectations of linear learners.

Thankfully there is a growing body of work on VSLs! There is a large list of VSL and gifted resources to peruse at
The most popular books on teaching VSLs appear to be Upside-down Brilliance, Unicorns are Real, and Right-brained Children in a Left-brained World. There is a fantastic paper by Rebecca Mann available as a pdf here:
and an essay by the author of Upside-down Brilliance here:

Some curricula that work well for VSLs in general include the following. This is not a comprehensive list! I’m sure I will find or remember more as soon as I post this. Feel free to add any other ideas in the comments section!

In math, try doing the five or ten hardest problems on the page. If they get all right, move on. Repetition and drill are not helpful with these children. (We’ve spent two years on 1st grade math. Dd still can’t tell you some of her facts to 10. She does much better with 3rd grade math and prealgebra! Computation is just the most elementary piece of math. REAL math should be much more appealing to VSLs. Last time I checked, most people in the math field actually use calculators. I don’t advocate handing a VSL a calculator—they need to understand how math works—but don’t think your child is bad at MATH because he or she is bad at COMPUTATION.) Timed tests are a nightmare to VSLs. Mine will actually curl up and cry within a few problems. You can encourage speed in other ways—make it a game, or see “how fast can you do (a very small amount) of problems” and then just try to beat his or her own speed. Try word problems—VSLs love stories. This also means a lot of VSLs will enjoy math storybooks! Check for ideas there. We also do “number stories” (from Peggy Kaye’s Games for Math) and these free-flowing math stories not only get the girls doing math, but loving it, seeing its application, and participating in creating the math story and more math problems. After number stories in complete, my VSL often turns it into a full story with illustrations and word puzzles!
Help your VSL identify patterns, such as in skip counting and in the multiplication table.
A note about math—while manipulatives provide a great visual and kinesthetic tool that works brilliantly for some VSLs, other find the creative potential of manipulatives as art and building tools to be too great and are therefore highly distracted by them. Focus, people, focus!
VSL-friendly math:
Beast Academy
Times Tales
Timez Attack
Teaching Textbooks
Hands-on Equations
Paper Patty Geometry
Right-Brained Multiplication & Division
Addition the Fun Way
Times Tables the Fun Way
Mathematics Their Way
Multiplication and Division Story Cards
Math Wizardry for Kids
How Math Works
Mathematical Mystery Tour
Math Mammoth is not a very visual curricula, but it works for us because it is so clean and simple in the subject lessons. There is nothing to distract my girl!
Base-ten blocks
Pattern blocks
Math-U-See blocks
Cuisinaire rods
Games for Math
Living math books/storybooks such as (just a few here):
The Cat in Numberland
Math for Smarty Pants
Penrose the Mathematical Cat
G is for Google
Sir Cumference books

Oh, they love this. Any logic puzzle will do! Prufrock Press makes a lot of fabulous logic items, as does the Critical Thinking Company. Games like Chocolate Fix, Rush Hour, River Crossing, Tangrams, Pattern Blocks, and so forth are great choices.
Primarily Logic
Logic Countdown
Lollipop Logic
Logic Safari
First-time Analogies
Rhymes, Riddles, and Reasoning Activities to Make Kids Think

Many VSLs do extremely well with sight words. They remember the shape of the words. Some VSLs can spell as well backwards as forwards. This creates frustration when learning to read and spell, as they sometimes write completely backwards, too. I have only found one spelling program that works for my VSL, but there are several phonics options.
Explode the Code
Leapfrog DVDs
Itchy’s Alphabet
Dancing Bears
Reading Reflex
The Illustrated Book of Sounds and Their Spelling Patterns
Easy For Me Reading Program
All About Reading
Drawn into the Heart of Reading
101 Ways to Love a Book

All About Spelling
Apples & Pears

Encourage your VSLs incredible creative capacity, and be gentle with the mechanics. Whole to parts is hard to find in grammar and writing, but those sort of programs do exist!
Teaching Writing To Auditory, Visual, and Kinesthetic Learners
English for the Thoughtful Child
Michael Clay Thompson grammar
No More; I’m Done!
Teaching English thorough Art

Science is great for some VSLs, because there is such a rich visual cornucopia to be enjoyed. In science, my VSL takes a literal approach to the “whole-to-parts” methodology. She adores dissection. For those who do not want to get messy, there are virtual dissection options and “look inside” products/books. There is a series on PBS called “Inside Nature’s Giants” that documents dissection of large wild animals, such as a beached sperm whale. This is free to view on the PBS Website.
Otter’s Human Body (Guest Hollow)
Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding
Any documentaries (Blue Planet, Nova, anything by PBS, many others)
Any non-fiction book with lots of pictures such as DK Eyewitness books
Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method
The Private Eye
The Berenstein Bears’ Big Book of Science and Nature
Max Axiom books
Bill Nye
Magic School Bus
Ellen McHenry’s science programs
Science Fusion
Nancy Larson
Dissection kits
Bug collecting kits, butterfly nets, magnifying glass, nature journal

Long read-alouds are typical in history and will be tough for VSLs. You can get your children more used to listening by using audiobooks in the car and at quiet time. It works best to have something to occupy the hands—a snack, thinking/silly putty, coloring activity, Legos, etc.
Voyages through Time
A Little History of the World: Illustrated Edition
Story of the World with Activity Book
100 Sacred Places
Horrible Histories
Liberty Kids
Hands-on Culture
Any documentaries
Most non-fiction books
Create a visual timeline across the wall

Anything. Everything. I can’t think of an art program that wouldn’t work with a VSL.

Foreign Language:
Most language courses involve a lot of multi-sensory techniques, with songs and games and DVDs. Many libraries have access to foreign language programs like Mango for free. My favorite language for a VSL is American Sign Language, as it’s extremely visual and tactile! For that, Signing Time DVDs and the LifePrint website are fantastic. I’m not well versed in this area, as we only focus on ASL at this time and as I said, many many programs would fit the bill. I can give my personal seal of approval to:
Signing Time
Salsa Spanish
Rosetta Stone
There are many, many more that use visual and mnemonic techniques that would be fabulous. Please share if you ahve any favorites.

Following Directions
Linguisystems Executive Function workbooks
Sue Patrick’s Workbox System
What Shall I Do Now, Teacher?
Learning to Listen
Listen, Remember, and Do
Organizing the Disorganized Child
Smart but Scattered
The Organized Student

I’m ending with another quote from Rebecca Mann. “Believe in these children, they may well be the future Edisons and Einsteins of the world.”

(ETA: I will add hotlinks in a bit. I’m late posting as it is! Sorry!!)

Friday, June 29, 2012

Back again!

Well, I obviously haven't posted here in a while. A long while. I've posted on our family blog, but nothing for the public (outside of running my mouth on message boards daily). But, I may have a post going up soon for Gifted Education Week, so I thought I should revitalize this one a bit so it's less dusty....

At this point, A is entering 2nd in the fall but working all over the board, from 1st/2nd up to middle school level, depending on the subject. C is officially entering K in the fall, but will move up to 1st grade material soon. This year I'll be homeschooling two plus dealing with the adorable and demanding toddler.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two in a row, woohoo

Aren't you pleased? LOL.
So, today was the letter "B," and dd1 is more comfortable with that. Long lines are easier to draw than short ones. She had fun coloring and reading the words, but dd2 kept demanding my attention and dd1 started to get bored without interaction. She left a little bit undone on her papers, but that's fine at this point. She wanted to do something else, so we learned our ASL/French for the day, button/bouton. Dd2 had some more transferring activities, and dd1 and I had fun with our "what starts with _" game. Yesterday she surprised me with "apricot" for "a." We play that at home and in the car. Today was dd2's therapy playgroup and dd1's dance, so we kept the other stuff to a minimum. Dd1 had a blast at dance. I was impressed with her ability to dance as a penguin (her animal of choice)--keeping a penguin element while dancing gracefully. Seriously--you try to dance beautifully as a penguin with a straight face and see how well you do! Dd2 had fun at playgroup too. She kept diving into the ball pit. Normally that would sting a bit, jumping bum-first into a shallow ball pit, but dd2 is not afraid of something as ridiculous as "pain." She was more upset by the fact she couldn't dance with dd1. It makes her sad. She points to herself and asks, "too?" in a little lonely voice. Some of my curriculum showed up and I'm excited--I think we might stop the alphabet when the rest of it gets here, as the phonics part starts at A anyway. I just wanted to get her brushed up with a little overview and a taste of scheduling every day, esp since dd2 NEEDS a schedule, I think, to thrive. I am cheap and am waiting to hear back from some people on used curriculum books but if I don't hear by tomorrow I'll just grab the last ones I need new. I am also getting math manipulatives soon, hopefully. I have a fun book where you use the rods to make letters and do alphabet activities as well as sneaking in math. I think dd1 will like it a lot.
Yes, this one was boring, because it's late and I can't remember half of it, lol. But I wanted to update daily like I said. Two in a row, yay! Oh, and the cupcakes are long gone. Of course.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Homeschool, Take.... 3?

We usually unschool, but I have discoverd structure is very helpful for dd2, and dd1 loves to learn new things all the time, so I'm starting a more official homeschool schedule. I have some curricula, and I am also making a conscious effort to do our own schooling every day. I found a wonderful website called, and it has tons of printouts. Not just coloring pages and letter tracing, but mini books in French-English, lined paper to print out for our own use, worksheets like "label the parts of this airplane in Spanish" with answers, the detailed scientific parts of flowers, a short essay the history of aviation with related printouts, etc. Tons of resources. So while we wait for the official curricula, we are doing my stuff. Hopefully we'll stick with it! I think the packaged curriculum (Hearts of Dakota "Little Hearts For His Glory" will be really fun for dd2 to participate in, as well as being both fun and educational for dd1. Lots of songs and dramatic play that tie in with the reading and such. I *want* to update here a little of what we did every day, for some extra accountability, lol. 

So, before we start her phonics program, and as HOD hasn't arrived, I started us on a basic alphabet review--26 days. Today was A, obviously. We had pages to write out the letter A/a, color A words, color letter A/a, match the picture with the word, a little French-English page, and learning a new A sign. Dd1 loves capital A and can already draw it, but gets frustrated with little a. So we did a picture match, wrote one a. Did another picture match, wrote one a, etc. In the reading for the picture/word matches, dd1 was again foiled by the Engish language--she noted that "apple" had a silent E so the "aah" should be "A." But it's not. Ack! They both colored, and dd1 did write several decent a's but also several that were really a d or just messy. But not bad at all. Then she traced A/a/B/b (she likes B better than a too, apparently), and colored some more. Friends came over and we stopped, only learning an A sign while they were here--"awake." But then I decided we should learn the same sign & French word, so we learned both after our friends left--"avion," for airplane, and the sign for it. Then dd1 colored her avion, wrote out avion (had me help her with the a, but was quite happy to write "v i o n" on her own, and then wrote a capital A afterwards. It seems to make her happier to show that she can write one of the A's well on her own. She does not stay in the little lines yet, but seriously. She's how old again, lol? Not even going to worry about that. Then she cut out two pictures of airplanes (and cut them into tiny pieces), and is supposed to be drawing an airplane/avion but I hear scissors so I think avion #3 is being shredded too. She loves to cut. Dd2 colored a picture, learned "awake" before her nap. and transferred blocks from a bread pan into a bowl and back (using her hand and then her hand inside an oven mitt), and she liked the latter the most.

ETA: Then we cleaned up the cut paper shreds and made cupcakes. We traced letters in the batter with the whisk as we stirred, plus reading the ingredients and doing addition/subtraction with the eggs!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Yoga time!

So, the dds hate it when I do yoga. So I am on a mission to find yoga we can do together as a family, kid-friendly yoga that still wears me out. We are hitting up the library first. Today was our first victim, Kids Yoga ABCs. It was actually much better than I anticipated. There are a lot of yoga moves disguised as fun letters and animals (from the traditional cat and cow to fun animals like iguanas), plus a few basic yoga concepts (a short song about Namaste and an Om exercise). Dd1 had a blast being a caterpillar and an eagle, and I got a workout with "iguana" and the wheel. I am apparently sorely out of shape, lol. We only get each DVD for a week at our library so we'll see what the replay value is tomorrow, but I think it's entertaining enough for kids to keep dd1 involved and until I'm strong enough to do a proper backbend (sorry, the wheel) it will work quite well for me, too. I also discovered that I either need to steam clean the carpets or pull out the yoga mat. It smells funny.

Fun with speech

So, dd2 has a speech evaluation next week. Dh and I both think there is nothing organically wrong with her. She just doesn't see the point. She can sign very well, and picks up new signs as fast as we can teach them now that she conquered her receptive issues. She says, "ma," "da," "ba," and "w" plus vowels. She does NOT babble. She will now say "dada" or "mama" for an adult and this week she started to imitate "bah...bee?" when we say "baby" (very, very emphasized per the usual to help her pick out the sounds). She doesn't say it on her own, but it's her first two-sound combo besides "uh-oh" so that's impressive. She also now says "mi" for milk instead of "mah." So see, she's progressing! She just doesn't see any need to use speech, really. She signs and signs and if you ask her to speak instead of sign, she just signs again and again and again and gets very frustrated and cries/screams. It is kind of nice to have a 21-month-old who can't say "no," LOL, but she can shake her head and then throw a tantrum. *sigh* We're working on the self-control stuff. She doesn't have any. But that is half the SPD and half her personality. There's nothing inhibiting her speech but her own desire or lack of. When the developmental behavioraist tries to get dd2 to talk, dd2 just stares blankly at her, so it's not just her ignoring us. She just sees no reason to use her mouth. She'll sign. That's "saying" it to her. And if she does make her sounds, she signs along with them. The vocal is just for emphasis, lol. We talk and add gestures for emphasis. She signs and adds a sound for emphasis. It's not "speech" to her.

I need to start blogging again

I have all these fun ideas and I'm usually just too tired. But I'm going to try. I need to actually make contact with the outside world occasionally, lol. I need to talk about more SPD insanity (speech evaluation next week. Seriously?? It's not that she can't talk. She just has no interest in it whatsoever.), ways for broke peeps to go green (it's actually cheaper when you break it down, and there are really, really easy ways to get started), going vegetarian for carnivores (as we go from meat twice a day to maybe once a week and beyond, and meet interesting characters like "TVP" and "seitan" and find out how to make them honestly taste like meat without slaving away in the kitchen), lots of budgeting and money-saving ideas, breastfeeding (but TopHat usually has that covered), babywearing, dh's new self (or "adventures in therapy, medication, support groups, starting school again and generally growing up"). And how to do all of this on 4 hours of sleep a night, every night. For years. Help... ;P