Problems with learning that affect many young children may be a

Problems with learning that affect many young children may be a problem with teachers rather than learners. Formal teaching tends to favour verbal learners, ignoring the needs of children who are “visual learners” and whose thinking is dominated by the right hemisphere of the brain which processes information in pictures.

Head: Learning the ‘right’ way

By Kerry Cullinan

If your happy pre-schooler has been transformed into a miserable Grade 1, unable to sit still in class and battling to read and write, your child might be a “visual learner”.

“Visual learners”, according to Durban-based psychologist Dr Elaine Lowenberg and occupational therapist Elsie Lucas, are people whose thinking is dominated by the right hemisphere of the brain.

The right hemisphere processes information in pictures, whereas the left hemisphere houses the main language centre of the brain and processes information in auditory form.

A visual learner copes well in pre-school where a lot of learning is picture-based. But when they reach formal school, where learning tends to be based on verbal instructions, they struggle.

Although visual learners are often creative and have normal IQs, many fail to reach their true potential because formal teaching favours verbal learners.

“What we are interested in,” says Lucas, “is for children to be exposed to whole brain learning, where there is integration between the right and left brain.”

Lowenberg makes the analogy between the two hemispheres of the brain and a person’s two hands: “One hand is dominant, but the two hands work together.”  

Many more boys than girls are visual learners. As the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, the majority of left-handers are right-brain dominant. However, there are also right-handed visual learners.  

The right brain generally controls non-verbal skills, including creativity, lateral thinking and the imagination. The right brain also processes spatial relationships (good for geometry), colours and rhythm.  

The left brain controls linear, analytical thinking, language, handwriting, reading and phonetics. It is often difficult for a visual learner to absorb the many verbal instructions given in class, so the child may become restless and unable to concentrate.

Other characteristics of visual learners include:

  • poor performance in phonics,
  • difficulty with rote memory (the alphabet or numbers in sequences,
    multiplication tables);
  • underachiever in language, but copes well with mathematical calculations;
  • reading may be good, but will be sight-reading rather than using phonics.
  • poor listening skills;
  • poor co-ordination (especially when using scissors);
  • tend to produce mirror images of words and letters.

Lowenberg and Lucas have written a book, “The Right Way”, as a guide for teachers and parents on how to cope with visual learners.

The authors assert that school lessons need to be modified to accommodate visual learners, and they challenge teachers to “try to teach in the way the child learns” if a child is not responding to conventional teaching.

In other words, says Lucas, children should be shown and not told what to do. Once visual learners see what they are supposed to do, they are able to do it. However, too much language can confuse them.

“The only successful teaching method for the child who is not coping with his school work is to provide instruction at his level of competence, without expecting any chance learning to take place,” assert the authors. To do this, they advocate a number of teaching techniques – for both teachers and parents.  

These include:

  • flash cards for reading, spelling and phonics and visual material to match the sounds;
  • drama, film and video;
  • acting out work;
  • rhythm for rote learning, for example tables to music;
  • allow the child to present his work my means of drawings, maps, tables or labelled diagrams;
  • Mnemonics for remembering spellings (e.g. The mnemonic for because is “Betty eats cakes and uncle sells eggs”.)
  • mindmaps (summarising work in diagram form) and charts.

The most important thing teachers and parents can do, argue the authors, is to encourage children to have a positive self-image and self respect by praising their efforts.

The Right Way costs R78 and is available from University of Natal Press.