Visual learning for dyslexic children and teenagers: evidence and classroom practice
We often hear people – dyslexia advocates, parents / caregivers, celebrities – saying that visual learning is the best way for children or teenagers with dyslexia to succeed in school. It’s a compelling claim, and as educators it is an intriguing one. If people with dyslexia have long struggled to find both success and satisfaction at school, perhaps we need to look at the approaches we use to reach them. But in education, a perhaps is seldom good enough – experimenting with children’s schooling is a dangerous game, and without proper didactic principles to guide us, it is a game we are bound to lose.
Therefore, when we hear visual learning being proposed to help those with dyslexia, we need to unpack what exactly is meant by visual learning. We’ll start by looking at the fundamental question behind the debate: why a more visual approach might be important for children with dyslexia, before looking at evidence to support this. Finally, we’ll examine the practicalities of this approach in our classrooms, in particular the methods and techniques that can be applied without disturbing our established classroom practices.
Why visual learning matters
We can agree that one of the challenges facing teachers is to get the best out of all their students, inspiring, instructing, and guiding them so that they leave school prepared for life in the 21st century. However, when it comes to children with dyslexia, the numbers are shocking. According to research (IDA, 2017; Dyslexia Action, 2017; Dyslexia Centre for Utah, 2018), whilst around 15% of the population has some form of dyslexia, between 70-80% of poor spellers may be dyslexic, 62% of non-readers drop out of high school, and 45% of dyslexics end up unemployed. This is to say nothing of the high percentage of dyslexics in prison (perhaps 60% of prisoners), the nearly 50% increased likelihood of attempted suicide among dyslexics, and the fact that at present, less than one third of students with specific educational needs are receiving targeted help in their schools. Clearly, something needs to change.
Morgan and Klein (2000) argue that one way dyslexics are disadvantaged is in the way that learning materials are presented. Approaching 75% of dyslexics have phonological decoding difficulties, and up to one third of them have fine visual processing issues, meaning that the more we as educators fixate on the written word, the more we present barriers to learning. Furthermore, convergence issues mean that dyslexics don’t have linear, left-write reading habits, while working memory problems mean that if we concentrate on reading and writing, the reading will be forgotten before it’s sunk in, while the writing risks ending up as an unstructured, often incoherent stream-ofconsciousness. Where children expend their energy simply by transferring their ideas onto the page, we shouldn’t be surprised if those ideas appear disjointed, unfocused, or incomplete.
Evidence of visual learning
If new strategies are required, it’s important we define and understand the terms of these strategies. Visual learning can be many things, and without sufficient reflection can be misinterpreted by teachers. It doesn’t, for instance, mean reading: neither does it mean focusing on one detail at a time, nor has it got anything to do with the eyes. But there’s enough research to suggest that visual teaching of some sort is highly beneficial to dyslexic learners.
The Canadian Dyslexia Association (Brazeau-Ward, 2002), has claimed that while typical subjects process around 150 images per second, dyslexic subjects can process between 1500 and 4000 images per second – that’s approaching a two and a half thousand percent increase in processing speed. This may help explain the 2018 survey from Dyslexic Advantage (Marshall, 2015) that showed, from 1100 participants, how 72% of dyslexic respondents were able to manipulate 3D spatial images in their mind, whereas only 24% of non-dyslexic respondents were able to do the same thing (Figure 1). It may also help explain the plethora of anecdotal evidence we have from dyslexic learners themselves, calling overwhelmingly for visual aids, colours, and graphical imagery in teaching.
In fact, we’ve known about dyslexia and visual thinking for over 20 years. In 1999, Steffert found that three quarters of the year’s intake at St Martin’s School of Art and Design had been recognised as dyslexic, and investigation showed that there was a strong trade-off between the ability to see the world three-dimensionally on the one hand, and reading and writing on the other. West (1997) argued that dyslexia appears to be linked with visual-spatial capacities and a visual imagination. Morgan and Klein made a very similar point, while Mortimore (1998) and Exley (2003) each produced research corroborating these conclusions. In one study, 5 out of 7 students preferred a visual-spatial learning style, the implementation of which actually improved dyslexic results in academic work.
But it’s not only visual thinking that appears improved in people with dyslexia – it’s visual memory . In a 2013 study researchers compared the performance of 11-year-old dyslexic children with non-dyslexic children on visual memory tests. The dyslexic children performed significantly better than the control group, notably demonstrating far superior visual recognition memory (Hedenius et al). These findings complemented earlier reports of enhanced cognition in visuo-spatial processing.
Visualisation in practice
If teachers are able to access this visual talent, they undoubtedly start to see dyslexic students as talented rather than disadvantaged, and the process of teaching them becomes much easier. Firstly, we can address the visual techniques we already use in the classroom. Do we use images in our teaching? Do we make good, consistent use of colours? How graphic is the information we present? Below, we’ll look briefly at some classic visual teaching tips for those with (and without) dyslexia as well as some things to avoid.
➡ Visualisation through colour
Use colour to help differentiate ideas, for example a fact vs a counter-argument vs a quote. Colour can be used to show levels of importance and value as well as to make certain things stand out, ultimately helping to simplify complex information.
➡ Visualisation through connections
Dyslexics see connections where others don’t, so find ways to highlight them to facilitate deeper learning. Connections can be made visual via arrows, overlaps, and also via colours.
➡ Visualisation through hierarchy
The way information is placed can help to convey it’s meaning in a more visual way. Place information in a pyramid, or using different sizes to highlight levels of importance.
➡ Visualisation through perspective
The perspective from which you look at an idea can also be represented visually in order to highlight different points of view or ways of approaching a problem. Different perspectives could include perspectives of time (including historical viewpoints, perspectives on urgency, cultural perspectives on time), or importance. We can also address different cultural or religious perspectives.
➡ Visualisation through direction
Visualisation through direction can show the direction of thought,the growth of an idea, priorities and possibilities for the future. Timetables, schedules and study plans have ample scope for visualising directionality, while simple tasks such as helping children memorise the way to and from the sports field can be visualised rather than explained.
Graphs have long been known to help visual learners. Seeing at a glance, complex concepts, figures, and information presented in charts, Venn diagrams, and cascades, is perhaps the easiest way to grasp the big picture and form a deep understanding of the data we have.
Jigsaws can be used in a kinaesthetic way to piece together information in new, easily-perceived, and surprising ways. Using flashcard jigsaws, picture jigsaws, and word jigsaws, are all fun and interactive ways to engage visual learners – and they can be wonderfully multi-sensory.
Images are great explainers – be they concrete or abstract, pictures or video, graphic or infographic. Indeed, infographics are often considered among the most elegant ways to impart knowledge, and the forms they take can definitely help concepts stick. Allowing visual learners to engage with information and form, re-form, and explain their infographics is one of the simplest ways to direct them towards what is most important in an idea – and it doesn’t have to be overly literal.
Using colours and images, flashcards and board markers to show morphology is a great way of teaching those with dyslexia the structure of spelling. As visual learners, dyslexics have been shown to perceive structure and connection in what they see, so demonstrating this in the context of reading and spelling is a great technique, and one which experience tells us has been used to great effect!
And finally, all of this can be brought together in a constructivist methodology where students are active agents rather than passive recipients. Expecting dyslexic students to read information, learn and inwardly digest it seldom works and often leads to increased levels of stress and disengagement. Asking these students to create , on the other hand, accesses just those areas of the brain that dyslexics use to their advantage.
➡ Avoid overloading a page with monochrome text and don’t rely on literary methods for delivering information. Dyslexic learners need a visual map to guide them.
➡ When presenting the written word make sure that lettering is clear – 12-point fonts are a minimum, and stick to simple fonts such as sans-serif. Limit underlining, italics, and bold which can distract and confuse. Ensure paragraphs are of a manageable length with enough space to avoid unattractively large blocks of text. Where there are fine visual processing issues, soften the contrast between word and page.
➡ Keep the visual environment clear. Make sure students can see the board and don’t expect everyone to be able to copy what you write.
➡ Ensure instructions are short and where possible, provide simple, clear, and bullet-pointed notes (ideally accompanied by short video recordings) to remind students of what to do, how, and by when.
Thinking visually is not difficult. It’s what we all do anyway, most of the time. But while dealing in long, often complex text-based information can be tempting for ease of information-dissemination, the chances are it may be a waste of resources, and a hindrance to the learning of some very talented students.
○ Brazeau-Ward, L. (2002, revised 2005). Dyslexia in the Workplace. Canadian Dyslexia Centre. Retrieved from https:// dyslexiaassociation.ca/ english/files/workplaceanddyslexia.pdf 3 December 2019
○ Dyslexia Action. (2017). Dyslexia – the facts. Retrieved from https://www.cache.org.uk/news-media/dyslexia-the-facts 3 December 2019
○ Exley, S. (2003). The Effectiveness of Teaching Strategies for Students with Dyslexia Based on Their Preferred Learning Styles. British Journal of Special Education 30(4), 213-220.
○ Hedenius, M. Ullman, MT. Alm, P. Jennische, M. Persson, J. (2013). Enhanced Recognition Memory after Incidental Encoding in Children with Developmental Dyslexia. Editor: Linda Chao, University of California, San Francisco.
○ International Dyslexia Association (2017). Dyslexia basics. Retrieved from https://dyslexiaida.org/dyslexia-basics/ 3 December 2019
○ Marshall, A. (2015). Survey results from dyslexic advantage. Retrieved from https://blog.dyslexia.com/survey-results-from-dyslexic-advantage/ 3 December 2019
○ Morgan, E. & Klein, C. The Dyslexic Adult in a Non-dyslexic World. In Cooper, R. (2017). Dyslexia: Compensatory Strategies or Different Approaches? Retrieved from https://www.achieveability.org.uk/files/1460064671/neurodiversity-and-dyslexia-by-ross-cooper.pdf 3 December 2019.
○ Mortimore, T. (1998). A Comparision of Learning Style in Dyslexic and Non-Dyslexic Undergraduates. Unpublished M.Ed Dissertation. Cardiff: The University of Cardiff.
○ Steffert, B. Padgett, I. (1999). Visual Spatial Ability and Dyslexia: A Research Project. London: Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Research Centre.
○ The Dyslexia Centre for Utah (2018). Five steps for identifying dyslexia in your child. Retrieved from https://www.dyslexiacenterofutah.org/ Statistics 3 December 2019
○ West, T. (1997). In The Mind’s Eye: Visual Thinkers – Gifted People With Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties. Prometheus Books.