Visual Learners and How They Learn

Sarah Major

Sarah Major, M.Ed. is passionate about working in harmony with a child's immaculate design to support their learning strengths. As a Title 1 Program Director and Designer, Sarah earned awards for creating her own multisensory educational resources that have now been sold in all 50 states and over 150 countries. By design, Sarah’s materials employ memorable images that empower visual learners to discern the meaning of the individual elements that make up the global whole.  

Who is the visual learner?

A visual learner learns holistically (all at once) rather than in a step-by-step fashion. They see the big picture, need to see the whole in order to understand where details fit. Visual learners think in pictures. So pictures, whether printed or imagined, play an important role in the learning process.

Because the child is processing primarily in pictures rather than words, ideas are interconnected, and the child intuits (sees) the relationship between elements in the whole. The visual learner needs processing time both for learning and then for recalling what was learned. The visual learner must not be rushed and should not be judged on how well they can put into words what they see and understand.

What are the strengths of the visual learner?

  • They have mental cameras that snap an unforgettable picture of the concept if it is designed favorably for them. For example, if a difficult word is embedded in an image, they "snap" a mental picture of the word, image and all, rather than trying to sound it out.
  • They are amazing detectives, searching for and finding similarities between elements, grouping those together naturally, and learning them by snapping a picture of the pattern.
  • They are global thinkers. This means they see the whole picture with all of its elements, and once they are shown the goal, they are excellent at creating efficient and effective steps for reaching that goal.
  • They are intuitive. They extract meaning, they read between the lines, they understand shades of meaning. They are very good at reading people and their emotions and caring for them.

What are the learning needs of the visual learner?

Because visual learners must see the whole picture before they can make sense out of a single detail, we must provide them with a global view of what they are learning. They have to see how each detail fits into the whole and see the relationship between all the parts.

Any detail not located within the map (not related to other details) becomes a serious distraction. When presented with details they don’t know how to deal with, visual learners can come to an abrupt, stammering halt. They can appear to be incapable of grasping what seems obvious and simple to their sequential peers. Thinking in whole pictures is actually a wonderful ability. It is just not appreciated in traditional lessons.

Is my child a visual learner?

Learn more about how to tell if your child is a visual learner here. 

As a parent, you naturally want to provide the best learning experience for your child. You’ve doubtless heard a lot about the various learning styles and how they might impact how your child learns, but you also might wonder how much of it is relevant to your situation.

If your child is sailing through learning reading and math, likely not much of the learning styles discussion would impact you and your family. However, if your child is struggling with reading and/or math, looking at learning styles is important. In particular, visual learners tend to face learning difficulties because traditional curricula are designed for the non-visual learner.

Are there other kids who learn via images?

We have come to the point in our society where every child seems to need a label and one that details specifically how they learn or don’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.

I have studied the experts in each of the most common areas of disability, and one element I found kept showing up: the fact that so many of these non-traditional learners learn best through pictures and hands-on lessons. 

How to help visual learners who struggle to read

One of the constants in classrooms across the country is the sight word list. Every teacher has a list and one of their important tasks is to get their children to learn all the words on the list. I remember paying a lot of attention to sight word acquisition when I was in the classroom. After all, we had testing every quarter and a big component of each test was sight word recognition.

The children who had become very fluent in instantly being able to call the words as they flashed before their eyes scored highest on their testing. Those children who preferred to think a bit, to make sure they were saying the right word, or who needed to look for clues to help them remember, well, they scored lower. At any rate, it was something we all focused on quite a bit.

One teaching tool that proved to be most effective with struggling readers were SnapWords® (sight words embedded in pictures that show what the word means). SnapWords® are perfect for any child who is a picture thinker (including visual learners, kinesthetic learners, children with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, Down syndrome, among others). The images convey meaning, they snap a picture of the image containing the symbols and it is stored in long term memory.

Once students know a good number of SnapWords®, reading becomes far simpler. They will avoid all the steps to reading that just don’t work for their learning style and will launch into reading successfully. Check out SnapWords® here and discover why they are so effective.


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