I have no trouble with spelling personally, in fact I LOVE words and am fascinated by the way words are put together. However, although I work with the most amazing, brilliant and creative kids… kids with more visual/artistic talent in their little finger than I have collectively, most struggle greatly with spelling…


For about 1 in 5 children the elementary school years can be immensely stressful in regard to academically meeting grade level expectations for reading, spelling/writing and math.  There are many children who ultimately develop adequate fluency with their reading, but will continue to struggle to spell well, despite testing in the high range of IQ scores (another sore subject but I’ll leave that for another post).

FACT: The ability to spell well, or accurately, has NOTHING to do with intelligence… nothing whatsoever.

The reason for this struggle lies in the way they read; their practice and approach to reading. Therefore, the solution to supporting these kids lies in changing their approach to reading and the way they apply strategies to ensure their comprehension.


Why we mustn’t hold the same expectations for all kids at the same time…

Auditory Reading Style

There are two main reading styles: visual and auditory.  Most children – about 4 out of 5  – will naturally use an auditory path.  These kids are naturally able to  map text patterns to the individual sounds in words as they read through their auditory cortex, in other words, they easily make the letter-sound connection.  They then process the sounds as if they were spoken aloud; they are able to hear them in their heads.   This route engages the entire auditory and linguistic cortex that we as humans have developed over thousands of years.  Pretty cool…

Visual Reading Style

This second style, often used by more right-brained, visual-spatial learners and thinkers, is the ability to process text purely using their visual memory.  So for example, the word cow is processed in much the same way as a picture of a cow.  This explains why highly visual, dyslexic children sometimes flip letters and whole words like ‘was’ to ‘saw’. You can flip the picture of a cow and it will still be a cow, but unfortunately, the same technique doesn’t apply to most words in our English language. When words are flipped they typically say something else!

Visual-spatial learners generally think in pictures rather than words.  And if you’re not a visual-spatial learner (most teachers  are NOT) then it can be difficult to conceive.  Visual-spatial learners tend to learn holistically, instead of sequentially, or in smaller parts.  They are able to see the “big picture” of things but can easily miss the details.

The Challenge For Visual Readers

Bright children who are able to make progress and cope with reading but who continue to spell poorly are almost always visual-spatial learners/readers.  I would say 99% of the time…

They have the ability to recognize and recall the shape of common words from memory.  For words they don’t know they’ll skip or guess from cues like the first letter or the length of the word and the context.   And for this reason they will tend to make more mistakes when reading shorter words than longer ones.  Have you noticed?  They struggle to read words like a, the, on, if, for, it, etc.  And sometimes you’ll see them read a totally different word than the one on the page like they just pulled one out of mid air.

These kids process so fast that their brains are 10 miles ahead of where their eyes and mouth are if they are reading aloud… it’s very tough for them to slow this processing down.  This is why they tend to struggle with writing as well.  Their brains have sped ahead and they are challenged to slow the processing down enough to get their thoughts from their minds to the paper.  This can be painfully challenging for some kids!

The Spelling Challenge

This reading strategy they’ve come to rely heavily upon causes much difficulty for them when it comes to spelling because they haven’t been truly engaged with the internal structure of the words through reading.  Not on purpose… they just have difficulty grasping the small parts of words; vowel combination, suffixes and endings are small parts that make up whole words, visual learners struggle with small parts. As previously mentioned, visual-spatial learners (both kids and adults) see the whole, they grasp the big picture with ease but struggle with the smaller parts that make up the bigger whole.

This difference in learning (NOT a disability!) leads to two types of mistakes when they write.  The first consists of little omissions and errors that an auditory reader would never make, like fist for first, smoak for smoke, snugle for snuggle.  I see this consistently with my students.

The second type of mistake they tend to make is to write what they hear, based upon the phonics they’ve learned, but they may choose a different set of letters that make the same sound as the correct spelling pattern. For example:  furstsmok, bowt, feal, or snuggul.

Memory Challenge

Often these kids will manage to do well on their weekly spelling test because they can hold the photographic memory of a list of ten words overnight.   But when we retest them at a later date the memory of those words has gone ESPECIALLY if they weren’t clear on the meaning of those words.

However… the right strategies can be used to rectify this reality, but more on that in a moment.

The Solution

Being that the underlying problem is reading, it’s obvious that the only solution is a re-engineering of these right-brained, visual-spatial kids’ approach to reading.  We need to engage the auditory part of the brain (auditory cortex) in the process of reading and writing so that they become familiar with the internal structure of the words; all the parts and pieces.

We can do this by incorporating entertaining visual support structures, which allow for the linking of imagery to all the different sounds/phonemes in the words they read and at the same time appeal to their natural learning style. This brings our visual learners back into their comfort zone and allows them to build the visual-auditory synaptic links that they need if they are going to read in an auditory way.  Does all of this make sense?  Basically what I’m suggesting is the OPPOSITE of black print on white paper whether it’s connected text or individual letters/sounds used for teaching phonics lessons.

Visual learners need visual and kinesthetic, hands-on, stimulation to help build the visual-auditory synaptic links that they need if they are going to read in an auditory way.  Things like:

  • colorful mnemonic pictures that help make the connection between the letter shapes and the sounds they make,
  • phonics lessons that are systematic, sequential and explicit in their instruction so that kids get modeling, practice and review of all they are learning,
  • pictures embedded into sight words for easy, fun and meaningful memorization,
  • cartoons and skits for strategy use and sound review that are filled with fun and humor,
  • spelling strategies that are supported with visual memory…word parts such as vowel combinations (/oo/, /ea/, /ue/), prefixes and suffixes such as /ed/ and /ing/ written in different colors to help visual learners see the separate parts of words and how words are basically built,
  • spelling games with physical movement; clapping the letters and saying them aloud for each word,
  • segmenting words and counting the sounds prior to spelling along with teaching kids to write words in several different ways and to then really look at those words and to ask themselves “which one looks right?”   ie; bowt or boat… treet or treat?
  • And here’s a great spelling strategy video from one of my FAVORITE, FUN, hands-on teachers; Mr. Smith!

Most importantly, visual learners need instructors who understand the way they learn.  They also need time for their literacy skills to develop. Most aren’t quite ready for the left-brained, auditory-sequential expectations that school places upon them until they are in the upper elementary grades.  It eventually comes together for the majority but the danger is in the loss of confidence due to a lack of understanding or a mis-understanding of the way these kids learn.  When this learning style is not understood these kids begin to feel like something is wrong with them and they internalize all kinds of negative thoughts and emotions centered around being “not smart” and not good enough… I see this all too often and it breaks my heart.

If you’re an educator I hope this post brings some awareness to your own understanding and will in turn positively effect your instructional practice and perspective of the students you teach.  Brainstorm accommodations that might best support the individual needs of your v/s students. Check the resources page of this blog for recommended reading.

And if you’re the parent of a brilliant, magnificent, right-brained child then I urge you to do some research. Gain some level of understanding around how your child learns best and BE the advocate they need… because they WILL need you until these left brained/auditory-sequential skills are integrated when they are a bit older.

Let’s be sure these amazing kids know how awesome they are and that they have a very special purpose here on this planet!  As Daniel H. Pink describes in his amazing book; A Whole New Mind, they are the ones who will continue to support our shift from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.  We need their vision, creativity and brilliance to evolve as a whole!

If your child is a visual-spatial learner and you’d like some support, please reach out to me, I’m here to help!


Cindy Gaddis; http://www.therightsideofnormal.com/

Dr. Linda K. Silverman;  www.visualspatial.org

Daniel H. Pink; http://www.danpink.com/books/whole-new-mind/

Mr. Smith aka: the Teacher Tipster: Youtube