Learning Visually

By:  Staci Stallings

Life around here has been moving at warp speed.  My rate of learning has increased to such a velocity that it’s difficult to keep up.  I think this has to do with the fact that I’m no longer the “information gatherer” on my own.  Life has ceased to be a solo mission and has morphed into a combined mission with information coming in from several different angles at once–the primary “alternate source” being my children.

One of the angles is learning how extensively I’ve always learned visually, how that helped me greatly, and how if you do not have this skill or know how to use it, life and especially learning becomes very difficult.

The reason I’ve been dipped into this understanding is because of my son, who as you know has dyslexia.  When we first found out, my primary course of action was to teach him to read.  Makes sense, right?

What I did not know back then is that one of the primary causes of reading difficulty is that visual learning has been impaired or not fully developed and thus taking in words with the eyes accurately is a real challenge.

Let me see if I can explain for those who have never faced something like this.  (I’m also learning how radically different we all perceive our worlds and how just because something works for me, it might not work for you–not because you’re not trying but because your make-up doesn’t work the way mine does.)

When my son would try to read something from the board, he had trouble focusing close and then switching to focusing far away.  Each time he switched focus, it would take a few more seconds to get an accurate visual read-out of what he was seeing.  So, let’s say he’s trying to copy “cat” from the board.

First, he would look at his paper to get his pencil in the right place.  Focus = 3 seconds.  Then he looks up at the board.  Focus = 5 seconds.  He has to locate the word on the board, get a visual of the first letter.  C.  Then he looks down at his paper.  Focus = 8 seconds.  He writes the C.  He looks back up at the board.  Focus = 10 seconds.  He must then locate the word, remember that he’s copied C and locate the second letter.  A.

Then he looks down.  Focus = 12 seconds.  Locate the C.  Write the A… it was an A, right?  Better make sure.  So he looks back up at the board.  Focus = 15 seconds.  Locate the word, load the c and the a.  Yes, it was an A.  Look back down at the paper.  Focus = 18 seconds.  Write the A.  Look back up at the board.  Focus = 21 seconds.  C A T.  T. T. T. T.  Look back down at the paper.  Focus = 24 seconds…  That’s what it was taking him to copy 3 letters from the board.

Now notice that he was doing all of this not as a unit.  He did not have the visual ability or awareness to look at the board and load C A T in his head.  He could only load ONE LETTER at a time.  If he tried to load all of it, it came out like this, “starts with a c, then there’s a little letter and then a tall letter.”  Add to this that his hearing the letters was messed up too, and what did I think was going to happen?!

But here’s the thing… he had no idea that this wasn’t “normal,” and I had no idea this is what he was experiencing!  I was saying things like, “Concentrate.  Just look.  You’re messing around.”  The truth is.  He was trying to concentrate!  He was looking but he wasn’t seeing.  And after awhile of trying so hard, his brain and eyes just needed a break!

What I’m only now beginning to comprehend and appreciate is just how visually I learn.  I’ve always been a good reader.  It was the thing I loved first off in school.  But more than that, pictures stick with me for a LONG time.  I told my husband the other day that I can’t watch anything gruesome because once that picture is in my brain, it’s stuck forever.

My husband is very different.  He can see a movie and ten minutes later can hardly tell you anything that happened.  The pictures don’t stick.

He doesn’t read unless forced.  He struggled in school, didn’t go to college, and had his mom read much of his homework to him.  (Seems that was a pattern in their family… and now I know why.  The eye thing is genetic.)

But here’s the thing.  Last night I was helping my middle daughter with studying for her history final.  She could get the terms but the people were really throwing her.  One was Ghandi.  I said, “Well, you know Ghandi.  He’s the old guy who always wore the sheet.”  It was only then that I realized, she had no picture of these people in her brain.  None.  So she was trying to pull names (unfamiliar names at that) out of a hat to fit who did what.  Impossible with more than one or two people!

I remember Ghandi from when I was in school.  In fact, in my brain I have a picture of him sitting there in his sheet (no offense intended) with his tiny, little circle glasses.  Under that “picture” is all the stuff about him.  India.  Independence.  Non-violence.  Hunger strikes…  But all of that info is tied together with the picture which is only then given a name.

Same with Winston Churchill.  Fat little guy.  Always had a funny black hat.  Smoked a cigar.  “Never give up.  Never, never, never give up.”  World War II.  Great Britain.

Ben Franklin.  Flying that infernal kite with the key on the end.  Man on the $100 bill.  Short.  Stout.  Bald on top with strings of hair on the sides.  Little round glasses.  Founding Father.  Wrote about very practical things.

But all of that info is tied up to the picture in my head.  Without that picture, I’m not at all sure I could remember all the details or if I could, if I could get them with the RIGHT name and thus, the right person.

As we were studying, my husband commented that maybe he should study with her because he didn’t know any of this stuff.  I was like, “Well, you know Churchill surely.”  Uh.  Nope.  “Ghandi?”  Negative.  “Mussolini?”  Who?  “Hitler?”  Ah, finally one he knew.  He said, “I have no idea what those people looked like.”  To which I said, “Didn’t you look at the pictures in your history book?”  He said (jokingly, I think), “Oh, is that what those were for?  I always thought those were just so you didn’t have to read so much.”

So I’m learning how I learn and how others do not.  I don’t know where this understanding might take me, but it is an interesting path.  So how do you learn?  Just curious.

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4 Responses to Learning Visually

  1. Mary Curry says:

    Stacy, this is really interesting to me as a teacher and as a learner myself.
    My sister had severe reading disabilities and had to get vision training to teach her eyes to work together. My nephew was having reading difficulties so my other sister had a test done on him. Somehow the machine tracked his eye movement. When she saw what his eyes did when trying to read a sentence, she developed a whole new sympathy for why he got tired reading.

    I remember years ago attending a workshop about images. The presenter asked us whether we saw things as snapshots, movies, or not at all. Over the years, I’ve tried that experiment with my classes. It’s always enlightening to see how students see things (or don’t). There’s definitely a connection with their ability to do math too!

    • Yes, my son had the eye-tracking thing on the computer done as well. It was stunning to see how much shaking his eyes were doing as he tried to read. I just kept thinking, “NO WONDER!” And this definitely runs in families. My husband and a couple of his brothers all had reading issues. So did my sister. I wish more teacher were aware of it so that when a kid starts showing the signs, they could educate parents that there is help out there and not leave parents to search and search and get so very frustrated.

  2. Stacy says:

    It’s amazing to me how strong the link between vision & learning can be. I just began vision therapy for myself and realized why I never was able to read out loud, or read to myself & properly internalize information. Now I’m struggling to get insurance to pay for vision therapy and failing, but I’m still going because it’s worth the (ridiculously expensive) investment.

    • Stacy, I’ve been developing vision “fun readings” for my son. I’m wondering if you would be interested in trying some of them out to see if they are helpful or would be helpful. Reply here and if you are, I will get you some of them.

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