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Visual Learning Style

LD and ADD/ADHD Expert Advice from Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D.

Q: My son is in the fourth grade. He has been struggling with his reading and writing for the past two years. Finally, he has qualified for a 504 plan. I just met with the school's resource teacher and she tells me he is a visual learner, that if he can't see a picture of the word in his head, he can't read it. Can you give me any information on this type of learning style? Thank you.

A: You say your son has "finally" qualified for a 504 plan. Sounds like you've been trying to get appropriate services for a while! Here's my question: Since your son's been having trouble in reading and writing, why is he on a 504 plan, and not an Individual Educational Plan (IEP)? A 504 plan is a provision of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Acts of 1973. Section 504 guarantees that individuals, regardless of disability, will not be deprived of their civil rights. A 504 plan is sometimes written for kids who don't have conditions that require special educational services. An example of this might be Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that does not have a serious negative effect on learning. The parents of a child with ADHD want to make sure that the school makes "reasonable accommodations" such as preferential seating, small group instruction when indicated, or to have a nurse administer his medication in private. Section 504 assures that such a child will not be discriminated against because of his handicap -- in this case, ADHD. It is curious that the school has provided a 504 plan for your child who has been struggling with reading for the past two years. I wonder, especially since you say that he's working with the resource teacher, why he's not on a regular IEP (individual educational plan).

At any rate, I'm glad he's getting services! I don't believe there are many people who are "pure" visual learners. Many people, apparently including your son, do a better job in school if they can visualize a word or a concept. Being able to get a picture in their "mind's eye" helps to make the concept more concrete or real to them. This is what the resource teacher means when she talks about your son needing to see a picture of a word in his head. It's not so simple, though. If the word is 'cat', for example, a visual learner can build a visual association between the way that word looks, and a visual image of a cat. But what if the word is 'slowly', or 'industrious', or 'charade'? In these cases, a visual learner can get clues from the way the word looks. For example, if you draw an outline around the word slowly, you might be able see that it has two humps like a camel (you might also be able to see a 'tail' in the Y at the end). This is called using configuration cues and is another way that a person who is strong visually can learn to remember a word. Also, children who have strong visual skills may do well with shapes or designs or puzzles. The parts of their brains that process visual information are more efficient than the parts that analyze language. So a child who has poor auditory skills, but good visual skills, would do better with a word problem in math if she (or the teacher) draws a picture of the problem as it is read. Consider this problem: "If a car (draw it) travels 15 miles (draw the road), and stops for gas for 10 minutes (draw the gas station with a clock)." See what I mean?

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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.


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