Is it really possible to sort people by their primary characteristics into neat boxes with straight walls and no overlaps? Although we tend to think of people that way, it almost always takes many subsequent looks before we begin to fully understand the many facets of a person’s personality. For example, look at two categories of personality: outgoing and reserved. We casually assign people we know one of those general labels, but it is not that simple. There are times when those who are outgoing may display a huge degree of shyness or when they would love to melt into the woodwork and just observe. There are other times when those who are usually more reserved find themselves comfortable enough to “shine” unexpectedly.
The same applies to different types of learners. We have come to the point in our society where every child seems to need a label and one that details specifically how he learns or doesn’t learn. We have visual learner, tactile learner, dyslexic learner, autistic, and many, many other labels. The implication is that each of those types of learners requires a specific set of directions for how to teach them successfully. In doing research, however, and as I have read the experts in each of the most common areas of disability, one element keeps on showing up: the fact that so many of these non-traditional learners learn best through pictures and hands-on lessons.
Let’s look at various types of learners more closely.
A visual-spatial learner is a student who learns holistically rather than in a step-by-step fashion. Seeing visuals plays an important role in the student’s learning process. Because the individual is thinking and processing primarily in pictures rather than words, ideas are interconnected as though they were elements together in a scene. Step-by-step or sequential thinking which is the foundation of American education – is very hard for visual-spatial learners and those who can translate words into mental images, or their mental images into words are the lucky ones. This takes time and is a skill that needs to be learned.
In most cases, the visual-spatial learning style is not addressed in school, and these students’ self-esteem suffers accordingly. Traditional teaching techniques are designed for the learning style of sequential learners. Concepts are introduced in a step-by-step fashion, practiced with drill and repetition, assessed under timed conditions, and then reviewed. This process is ideal for sequential learners whose learning progresses in a step-by-step manner from easy to difficult material.
By way of contrast, spatial learners are systems thinkers-they need to see the whole picture before they can understand the parts. They are likely to see the forest and miss the trees. They are excellent at mathematical analysis but may make endless computational errors because it is difficult for them to attend to details. Their reading comprehension is usually much better than their ability to decode words.
Concepts are quickly comprehended when they are presented within a context and related to other concepts. Once spatial learners create a mental picture of a concept and see how the information fits with what they already know, their learning is permanent. Repetition is completely unnecessary and irrelevant to their learning style.
A key component in the recovery of motivation for visual-spatial learners is experiencing success. Adults working with these students should focus on helping these students learn to use their strengths in order to allow the child to experience success. Spatial learners often excel at activities such as Legos, computer games, art or music – or anything hands-on and creative. Any skill in which these young people experience success should be encouraged and nurtured, and not viewed as secondary to other skills.
Those with Autism
Although many autistic children are able to read, some parents find that comprehension can be an area of concern. Many autistic children learn best with hands on or colorful materials with images to help with comprehension.
Many autistics are visual thinkers. The easiest way to autistic children reading is to show them images of the word (image embedded in the word) and to let them act out the word. For instance, the word “sit” should show a person or animal sitting, and the child should sit as he or she reads the word. When learning the word “down,” tilt the word at an angle on the paper as though it is sliding down the surface of the table and have the child make a downward motion as he or she reads the word.
Most of the standard methods for teaching reading simply won’t work for an autistic child. Some children on the spectrum can learn to sound out words given enough time and support. Others will do better if they learn a whole word at a time, and this is why embedding images is very helpful. It will teach the child that the letters in the word go together in an array that together make a word that they can recognize and say. For some children, sounding out words is just not going to work, so it will be helpful to quickly determine your child’s preferred learning method.
Reinforce what the child is reading with repetition. Read books out loud, act them out, create visual aids and watch movies based on books. Don’t be afraid to try new things and be patient. It may take a while when teaching autistic children reading to find the methods that work best for each individual child.
Studies from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development have shown that for children with difficulties learning to read, a multi-sensory teaching method is the most effective approach or treatment. This is especially crucial for a dyslexic child. But what does it mean? Using a multi-sensory teaching approach means helping a child to learn through more than one of the senses. Most teaching in schools is done using either sight or hearing (auditory sensations). The child’s sight is used in reading information, looking at diagrams or pictures, or reading what is on the teacher’s board. The sense of hearing is used in listening to what the teacher says. A dyslexic child may experience difficulties with either or both of these senses. The child’s vision may be affected by difficulties with tracking, visual processing or seeing the words become fuzzy or move around. The child’s hearing may be satisfactory on a hearing test, but auditory memory or auditory processing may be weak.
So what does all this mean? One common thread running through all of these articles is that many people who are diagnosed with learning disabilities learn most naturally through images. If this is true, it helps to simplify our approach to teaching many types of learners at once. Instead of taking the time to create multiple plans, one for each child, why not try a multisensory approach and incorporate visuals and movement into each lesson? This will ensure that every learner is reached and make the teacher’s life simpler at the same time!