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!!)


Charlene said...

Thank you so much! This post describes my son perfectly and it is nice to get that reassurance that we are not alone :)

Eclectic Homeschooling said...

This post describes my son - except for the dissection. He won't do that. I really appreciate the curriculum lists. There were some I hadn't heard of before.

Sara said...

Wow, what a wonderful resource for parents of gifted VSL kids. Thank you for this post!

Marta said...

Thank you for that extensive list of curriculum. I just discovered what Spacial-Visual Learner means. My boy has 3.5 years old and I'm so excited to understand the true way how he learns. I started early learning since he was born with huge success, but after he finished 3 years he became fast learner to the point that I shown him something one time and it was enough for him to learn. There were many activities I Prepared when he looked only once and he understood the subject. And.. yes.. he didn't like step by step approaches. Teaching him become a little more difficult but now knowing so much more I'm able to teach him differently. Thank you again.
Greetings from Hawaii

Marta said...

Check out 17 Tech Tools for Visual/Spatial Learners:

Karrie E said...

What a wonderful post!!!! Thank you! I want to add the Barton System for Reading and SPelling to your list of reading curricula. My VSL kids are dyslexic and Barton has actually opened the world of reading to them.

Fleur Morgan-Payler said...

I cannot tell you how excited I am to have found your post! I am just learning about VSL and it is wonderful that you can point me to so many great resources! You are a star!!! Thanks, Fleur x

Angela said...

This is really, really wonderful! Thank you so much.

DSardinas said...

You just described my 8 year old son perfectly.I am stuck on teaching him his math facts (1st grade math) when we haven't even touched third grade math.I'm freaking out because I will be putting him into a private school at the end of October and am afraid they will expect him to learn 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade math all in one school year. And learn it their way! Worse yet, he hates anything 'school' right now.But then, we watched a you tube video of a solar eclipse and he literally cried.He was so in awe of it and overwhelmed with the joy in learning that there really is so much more out there in our universe.I cried because I couldn't believe my 8 year old son was so in tune....that he really 'got it' to the point that he cried.He's so amazing and intelligent yet I am torturing him with 2 + 2. Thank you for your post!

Joyous Web said...

Some of these curricula are good for VSL and others are only more visual, but not more spatial! It's important to watch for this difference. It means they work great for early elementary (kids enjoy them more and seem to do well with them) but then they may fall apart about 3rd-4th grade for more complex work... because they aren't truly teaching in a spatial manner (and the visuals start being less effective because of this).

3rd-4th grade is where you will likely start seeing problems, also, because these children are usually gifted and learning has come easy so far. Once they hit more difficult material that does not come easily, the frustration, along with perfectionism and the common lack of resiliency in many gifted kids, can show themselves in huge ways.

The answer? Ahhhh... you have to get to know your kid intimately, of course, AND you have to learn to translate their material into the form they can retain it. For example, for Teaching Textbooks Math (being pretty darn good for VSLs) still required me to watch the lessons first, mark down the basic concept to be learned, then be prepared to go over it with my child after she watches it. So while being visual, it is NOT spatial, it is very sequential and can be quite repetitive. I had to make it spatial by presenting it in a spatial way with diagrams, humor catch phrases, and colors after she watched the video. THEN we had to have spatial/visual cues for memory (we used sticky notes), providing a couple days between quizzing those (avoiding repetition), and a clear point at which we visual marked those as retained (sticky note into trash to make room for another).

All this I had to figure out on my own, there is NO CURRICULA to teach you what your child needs, unfortunately. Most books are about identifying VSLs and those are helpful but your child is unique. You are the best equipped person to translate material for them and then as they grow to teach them how to translate it for themselves.

It requires a ridiculous amount of dedication and consistency on your part. A little bit every day through the tough subjects, don't let them whine or coerce out of it, but keep it visual, keep it spatial and you will see them blossom (and sometimes make huge scary leaps in logic getting to the end before you've had a chance to explain it all!).

Hang in there! From a VERY sequential mom learning how to teach a spatial girl.

Magic Pill for VSP math facts:
Memorize in Minutes, The Times Tables by Walker. My 9 year old finally learned her facts IN ONE WEEK after 3 years of struggle. Best $13 I have EVER spent!

Mr Jon said...

To help make learning to read fun and engaging, our reading program includes lesson stories that are matched to the progress of your child's reading abilities.

These lessons stories are part of the learning program, and comes with colorful illustrations to make learning reading fun and engaging for you and your child.

These are the exact same stories and step-by-step lessons that we used to teach our own children to read!

Find out here: Teach Your Child To Read?

Best rgs

Leah Mccullough said...

There are math programs i found out about from a teacher from Oklahoma.They are called rhymes n times,divide n slide,fishn for addition ,and subtraction in action. I have used rhymes n times and it is really awesome.These programs contain all learning methods. visual, verbal, kinesthetic and hands on materials for counting. They are $149.00 a piece or $549.99 for all 4 programs. I know that is high but if you are at whit's end they may be your last option. is the website.