The Visual-Spatial Learner: by Linda Kreger Silverman

21 03 2013

Many teachers try very hard to accommodate the various learning styles of their students, but this can be an overwhelming task, as some of the learning styles inventories and models are quite complicated. As a former classroom teacher myself, I know that there are a limited number of hours in the day, and even the most dedicated teacher cannot plan for all the different learning styles and intelligences of his or her students. Take heart! There?s an easier solution.

The visual-spatial learner model is based on the newest discoveries in brain research about the different functions of the hemispheres. The left hemisphere is sequential, analytical, and time-oriented. The right hemisphere perceives the whole, synthesizes, and apprehends movement in space. We only have two hemispheres, and we are doing an excellent job teaching one of them.
We need only become more aware of how to reach the other, and we will have happier students, learning more effectively. I?d like to share with you how the visual-spatial learner idea originated. Around 1980, I began to notice that some highly gifted children took the top off the IQ test with their phenomenal abilities to solve items presented to them visually or items requiring excellent abilities to visualize. These children were also adept at spatial tasks, such as orientation problems. Soon I discovered that not only were the highest scorers outperforming others on the visual-spatial tasks, but so were the lowest scorers. The main difference between the two groups was that highly gifted children also excelled at the auditory-sequential items, whereas children who were brighter than their IQ scores had marked auditory and sequential weaknesses. It was from these clinical observations and my attempt to understand both the strengths and weaknesses that the concept of the ?visual-spatial learner? was born.

Visual-spatial learners are individuals who think in pictures rather than in words. They have a different brain organization than auditory-sequential learners. They learn better visually than auditorally. They learn all-at-once, and when the light bulb goes on, the learning is permanent. They do not learn from repetition and drill. They are whole-part learners who need to see the big picture first before they learn the details. They are non-sequential, which means that they do not learn in the step-by-step manner in which most teachers teach. They arrive at correct solutions without taking steps, so ?show your work? may be impossible for them. They may have difficulty with easy tasks, but show amazing ability with difficult, complex tasks. They are systems thinkers who can orchestrate large amounts of information from different domains, but they often miss the details. They tend to be organizationally impaired and unconscious about time. They are often gifted creatively, technologically, mathematically or emotionally.

Parents can tell if they have one of these children by the endless amount of time they spend doing advanced puzzles, constructing with LEGOs, etc., completing mazes, counting everything, playing Tetris on the computer, playing chess, building with any materials at hand, designing scientific experiments, programming your computer, or taking everything in the house apart to see how it operates. They also are very creative, dramatic, artistic and musical.

Here are the basic distinctions between the visual-spatial and auditory-sequential learner:


Thinks primarily in words

Has auditory strengths

Relates well to time

Is a step-by-step learner

Learns by trial and error

Progresses sequentially from easy to difficult material

Is an analytical thinker

Attends well to details

Follows oral directions

Does well at arithmetic

Learns phonics easily

Can sound out spelling words

Can write quickly and neatly

Is well-organized

Can show steps of work easily

Excels at rote memorization

Is comfortable with one right answer

May need some repetition to reinforce

Learns well from instruction

Learns in spite of emotional reactions

Develops fairly evenly

Usually maintains high grades

Learns languages in class



Thinks primarily in pictures

Has visual strengths

Relates well to space

Is a whole-part learner

Learns concepts all at once

Is a good synthesizer

Sees the big picture; may miss details

Is better at math reasoning than computation

Learns whole words easily

Must visualize words to spell them

Prefers keyboarding to writing

Creates unique methods of organization

Arrives at correct solutions intuitively

Learns best by seeing relationships

Has good long-term visual memory

Learns concepts permanently; is turned off by drill and repetition

Develops own methods of problem solving

Is very sensitive to teachers? attitudes

Generates unusual solutions to problems

Develops quite asynchronously

May have very uneven grades

Masters other languages through immersion

At the

Gifted Development Center, we have been exploring the visual-spatial learner phenomenon for over 2 decades. We have developed strategies for working effectively with these children, guidance for parents on living with visual-spatial learners, and techniques to help visual-spatial students learn successfully through their strengths.
This information is now available in Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner (Denver: DeLeon Publishing, 2002) and Raising Topsy-Turvy Kids: Successfully Parenting Your Visual-Spatial Child (Denver: DeLeon Publishing, 2004).Over a period of nine years, a multi-disciplinary team created the Visual-Spatial Identifier?a simple, 15-item checklist to help parents and teachers find these children. There are two forms of the Identifier: a self-rating questionnaire and an observer form, which is completed by parents or teachers. The Visual-Spatial Identifier has been translated into Spanish. With the help of two grants from the Morris S. Smith Foundation, the two instruments have been validated on 750 fourth, fifth and sixth graders. In this research, one-third of the school population emerged as strongly visual-spatial. An additional 30% showed a slight preference for the visual-spatial learning style. Only 23% were strongly auditory-sequential. This suggests that a substantial percentage of the school population would learn better using visual-spatial methods.

Please visit our websites, and, for more information about visual-spatial learners. Or call the GiftedDevelopmentCenter (1-888-GIFTED1) or Visual-Spatial Resource (1-888-VSR-3744) to order a copy of Upside-Down Brilliance, Raising Topsy-Turvy Kids, the Visual-Spatial Identifier, or articles about visual-spatial learners. We also offer presentations for groups and phone consultations for parents.

? Copyright 1999 held by Linda Kreger Silverman. From Silverman, L.K. (2003, Winter). The visual-spatial learner: An introduction. SoundviewSchool Dolphin News, pp 6-7.


Guidelines for Teaching Visual-Spatial Learners (VSLs)

                                                                                                  by Linda Kreger Silverman

1. Present ideas visually on the chalkboard or on overheads. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Use rich, visual imagery in lectures.

2. Teach the student to visualize spelling words, math problems, etc. An effective method of teaching spelling is to write the word in large, colored print and present it to the student at arm’s length, slightly above eye level. Have her close her eyes, visualize the word, then create a silly picture of the word in her mind. Then have her spell it backwards (this demonstrates visualization), then forwards, then write it once.

3. Use inductive (discovery) techniques as often as possible. This capitalizes on the visual-spatial learner’s pattern-finding strength.

4. Teach the student to translate what he or she hears into images, and record those images using webbing, mind-mapping techniques, or pictorial notes.

5. Incorporate spatial exercises, visual imagery, reading material that is rich in fantasy, and visualization activities into the curriculum. Spatial conceptualization has the ability to go beyond linear thinking because it deals more readily with immense complexities and the interrelations of systems.

6. To accommodate introverts, allow the student to observe others before attempting activities. Stretch wait time after questions and have all students write answers before discussing. Develop a signal system during class discussions that allows introverts to participate.

7. Avoid drill, repetition, and rote memorization; use more abstract conceptual approaches and fewer, more difficult problems.

8. Teach to the student’s strengths. Help the student learn to use these strengths to compensate for weaknesses. Visualization and imagination are the visual-spatial learner’s most powerful tools and should be used frequently.

9. Allow the student to use a computer for assignments, and, in some subjects, for instruction. Teach the student how to use a keyboard effectively.

10. Give untimed power tests. Students with severe processing lags can apply to take their college board examinations untimed if the disability is documented through IQ and achievement testing within three years of the exams, and if teachers have provided extended time for tests.

11. Give more weight to the content of papers than to format. These students often suffer from deficits in mechanics: spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, etc.

12. Allow the student to construct, draw or otherwise create visual representations of a concept as a substitute for some written assignments.

13. If a bright student struggles with easy, sequential tasks, see if he can handle more advanced, complex work. Acceleration is more beneficial for such a student than remediation.

14. Expose VSLs to role models of successful adults who learn in a similar manner. Many of the most celebrated physicists were visual-spatial learners. Biographical sketches of famous visual-spatial learners can be found in The Spatial Child (Dixon, 1983), In the Mind?s Eye (West, 1991), and the spatial intelligence chapter in Frames of Mind (Gardner, 1983).

  15. Be emotionally supportive of the student. Visual-spatial learners are keenly aware of their teachers’ reactions to them, and their success in overcoming their difficulties appears directly related to their perception of the teacher’s empathy.

?Copyright 1998 held by Linda Kreger Silverman. From Silverman, L.K. (1998) Personality and learning styles of gifted children. In J. VanTassel-Baska (Ed). Excellence in educating gifted & talented learners (2nd ed., pp29-65). Denver: Love.




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