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Why the Blank Stare? Strategies for Visual Learners

by Patricia Vakos

Introduction: Contrasting Styles
From Personal Experiences
Challenges of the Visual Learner
Strategies for Teaching Visual Learners
Implications for the Teacher


young children sitting on floor in classroomSilent and very still sat 18 kindergarten students, patiently waiting for the teacher to begin her lesson. Then, and only then, may they take out their beloved bears that they had permission to bring to school on this special day. With her pigtails swinging side to side, Alex looked up at her teacher and proudly proclaimed that her bear Amy had been to every doctor's visit since she was born. Not to be outdone, Ross jumped up and shouted that his bear had been around the world at least 20 times when it was accidentally left on an airplane. Each child waited quietly to begin the language arts lesson on the letter B. One after another, they will share stories of their bears—the ones on their beds and those bears in their favorite storybooks, such as "Goldilocks". The teacher is overjoyed with the lesson. Tomorrow, they will study foods that begin with the letter B. Many foods will be brought to class, from broccoli to biscuits and bologna. "B's" are everywhere in the room, from blankets to bears to bologna sandwiches.

older children looking bored, napping, etcAcross town at the local high school, a different story is playing out in the classroom. In a history class, students in the back have their arms stretched out across the desk, head on one arm—napping or listening? Other students are bent over their notebooks, writing. But what are they writing? The teacher is giving a lecture on the Reformation, which will be followed by a 15-minute movie on Martin Luther. The teacher then reads the two-column notes to the class. Zach is watching the teacher but not listening. He is wondering if the news report was correct in its prediction of another snowfall. Melinda is writing down the notes as she replays in her mind what happened at lunch. Vanessa had an argument with Alena just before class. Will the teacher notice if she writes a note to Alena, especially if she looks up periodically as if she were listening? group of children coloring in a mapThen there is John, who is dying to leave class. No, he can't ask to use the restroom; he did that yesterday. Maybe if he looks as if he's distressed and hostile, the teacher will send him to the guidance office. Needless to say, there is no excitement, no anticipation, and very little thought processing in this class.

Why do we creatively present materials using manipulative and visuals almost exclusively in elementary school classes, yet subject students to almost exclusive oral learning techniques in high-school classes? What happened to the excitement and thought-processing? Are the learners in elementary school really that different from those in a high-school setting?


adults in a computer classThe irony is that many educators proclaim they are visual, not oral, learners. In the mid-1990s, I served on a city-wide curriculum committee whose function was to narrow every high-school course into six broad objectives. At one point, the group facilitator began to record our collective thoughts on a computer across the room. My group was not close to the computer, so we sat quietly while those within sight of the computer screen discussed the objectives. Embarrassed that I was not contributing, I stated that I was a visual learner and I must see the objectives to be able to discuss the rewordings. Everyone at my table concurred! Strange that educators can admit they have trouble with oral presentations of complicated materials yet they don't also recognize it in their own students.

I did not fully recognize the ramifications for the visual learner until my own child, in second grade, was diagnosed with central-processing disorder. My daughter Alex lacks the ability to process oral information, particularly if there are outside noises or disruptions in the classroom. She has to listen to each word spoken and translate the words into visual modes. This process takes time. Often, there were gaps between what she heard the teacher ask and that which she answered. She became increasingly frustrated with school and felt that she was dumb. I took her to a child psychiatrist to find out what her abilities and weaknesses were. Tests showed that Alex was of high intelligence, scoring "gifted" in nonverbal tasks, but with low scores on auditory sequential tasks. Her oral memory at the end of second grade was that of a four-year-old. She is not hearing impaired but is strictly a visual learner. Every year, her 504 plan (individualized resource program) emphasized that Alex is a visual learner and that certain learning strategies work best for her in the classroom. Now in the eleventh grade, Alex has acquired her own strategies that she uses in the classroom to understand the oral presentations.


What about the many students in high schools today, however, that are like Alex? Their problems with oral learning have not been diagnosed. Their parents do not have 504 plans that provide the teacher with instructional strategies for optimum learning. Some are labeled A.D.D. or slow learners, even though many are not. Many may be gifted or have high intelligence yet are frustrated with oral instruction. Gifted or not, the fact remains that 65 percent of the population consists of visual learners; therefore when teachers lecture, they are reaching less than half of the class. Students need learning strategies that accommodate their learning styles. Many of these learning strategies help not only the visual learner but also make the classroom activities more engaging and therefore better learned by all.

Issues for the Visual Learners in Your Classroom

  1. They may have difficulty with oral directions, especially those with more than two steps.
  2. They often look to see what everyone else is doing.
    kids looking at other's work
  3. They have a keen sense of observation and need to be able to focus on the speaker, sitting close enough to pick up visual cues.
  4. Outside noises or background music impairs their ability to maintain attention, because many have difficulty filtering out sounds.
  5. They learn best when the assignment is demonstrated or illustrated rather than given orally. They have difficulty following lectures.
  6. They often do not remember information given orally without being able to see it. They memorize using visual clues. Even when doing oral spelling, they must first write the word.
  7. They may appear to "zone out" during lengthy oral presentations.
  8. They often think in pictures, not words, and store visual images. For this reason, they process oral input slowly—because they must translate oral to visual imagery.
  9. They recall information better if allowed to read it silently first.
  10. During a lecture, they will write down everything they hear and will process it later. They will take notes even when given printed lecture notes in advance.
  11. They will perform poorly on oral or timed tests.
  12. They can often remember where they saw an item in their notebook or text. Their minds capture a mental image of the material.

In summary, they must see it to learn it.


There are many teaching strategies for social studies that will enable the visual learner to have the proper environment for maximum learning. The strategies that follow can be expanded on greatly. Any activity that the classroom teacher provides to the class, that allows visual learners to form a visual image of that which they are learning, will enhance everyone's learning in the classroom.

Visual Learning Tactics

  1. Before a lecture, provide students with a general outline of the material to be covered.
  2. Oral directions with more than two steps should be given on the overhead projector or on the board.
    teacher next to overhead projector
  3. If you are presenting extensive class notes, hand out a copy of the notes, rather than having students copy volumes from the overhead. In order to ensure that the notes are read and not just stashed with many other unread notes in the notebook, give students an assignment based on the notes or have them make up test items or questions on the notes.
    student writing notes on a book
  4. Use any of the following with each lesson: flip boards, photos, diagrams, laminated pictures that can be used with group assignments, power point presentations, charts, maps, movies, filmstrips, timelines, mnemonics.
    students studing a model of the human body
  5. Have students construct their own flashcards. Encourage students to illustrate them.
  6. Provide access to computer programs or CD-ROMs that come with your textbook to provide greater visual exposure and practice.
    students in a computer class
  7. Use the computer in the classroom to construct mind maps or webbing of the material. The student can see the material and manipulate it at the same time. I have used the computer with the class to construct graphic organizers for AP essay questions. At the end of the lesson, I provide them with a hard copy of their answers so they can spend their class time analyzing and participating, not copying.
    student at the computer
  8. Use concepts maps with key points, boxes, circles, and arrows showing the connections of information. Webbing provides the connections that visual learners must have.
  9. Give a face to a name and an illustration to an event. Show a student a picture of Stalin and many visual images and facts will come to mind.
  10. Encourage the visual learner to copy over notes and key facts. Make sure they are writing down what is important. Only by writing it down can some visual learners ever hope to retain some information. Having them illustrate what they have written not only will provide them with color clues later but will make the learning more enjoyable. Many of your students may complain if you nag them constantly to write it down, but with the visual learner, it is imperative. This is especially true if the learner is a ninth-grader in a regular World History class.
    student taking notes
  11. When doing oral questions and answers in the classroom, allow adequate wait time before calling on students. This is very important for the visual learner who must retrieve visual images before formulating an answer. If you give them time to determine what you are asking, they will have greater success.

Sample Lessons for World History

Lesson A: Defining a Civilizationa ziggurat

Objective: Students will understand the various characteristics defining a civilization.


  1. Laminated strips (3" long) that contain the various characteristics, such as organized religion, cities, social classes, organized government, written language, and division of labor
  2. Laminated strips containing the location of the early civilizations, such as Indus River, Huang He, Tigris and Euphrates, and Nile River valleys
  3. Laminated pictures of each civilization that have been cut out of magazines, old history books, or books found at used-book sales, including pictures of gods, temples, pyramids, artwork, and statues
  4. Graphic organizer with the characteristics and river valleys
River Valley Civilizations
  Indus Huang He Tigris Euphrates Nile
Written Language        
Organized Religion        
Organized Government        
Social Classes        
Division of Labor        


  1. Put the laminated strips on the board and discuss what each characteristic means.
  2. Provide students with laminated pictures of each civilization.
  3. In groups, have students study the pictures as if they were archaeologists and then complete the graphic organizer. The pictures are "proof" that these characteristics existed in each civilization.

Lesson B: Comparison of Medieval and Renaissance Arta Medieval tapestry and DaVinci's Mona Lisa

Objective: Students will learn the characteristics of Medieval and Renaissance art and be able to compare and contrast the styles of various artwork from these different eras.


  1. Poster board
  2. For the Medieval era: a list of characteristics of the period, placed on laminated strips with magnetic backing, one trait per strip
  3. For the Renaissance era: a list of characteristics of the era, placed on laminated strips with magnetic backing, one trait per strip
  4. Laminated artwork with magnetic backing


  1. Divide a board in half and label one side Medieval art and the other side Renaissance art
  2. Give each student a strip with a description or characteristic of one of these periods. The student must determine whether the characteristic applies to the Medieval or the Renaissance period. Students will then put their magnetic strips on the board in the appropriate sections.
  3. After some discussion of why each characteristic belongs to either Renaissance or Medieval art, divide students into groups. Give each group eight to ten pictures of art. As a group, students are to decide if the artwork is from the Renaissance or the Medieval period and why. The laminated art pictures are then placed on the board and each group presents its decisions to the class. (For more of a challenge, I include several selections of art from the Greco-Roman period.)
  4. After all pictures have found their correct homes, have an in-class field trip to the "museums" that have been created on the board.

This activity takes the students through the necessary steps for learning—going from visualization, to manipulation, and then to application of knowledge.


protraits of Charles II and Oliver CromwellAny activity that presents the learner with the opportunity to visualize information enhances learning. For this reason, storytelling is an effective strategy for the visual learner. In social studies, there are many interesting stories to be told about the great heroes and villains. For example, when we teach information about the English Civil War, students often get lost in the many phases and participants. I tell the story of Charles II to create a lasting visual image in their minds.

After the monarchy was restored to the throne in the period of the Restoration, Charles II sought revenge against the man responsible for the beheading of his father. However that man, Oliver Cromwell, had died. How then could Charles II gain his revenge? He had the body of Cromwell exhumed and beheaded. His head was then displayed on a pike in the castle yard.

This story creates a strong visual image that helps students remember the English Civil War. (You might also tell students that Cromwell's head has recently appeared at an English auction!) There is no end to the vivid tales and anecdotes of history. The visual learner thrives on this imagery.


There is a great deal of information on the Internet about the visual learner. While articles may vary on the percentage of students that are visual learners, they all stress that the visual learner must be able to see the information. (Some suggest that 80 percent of all learners are NOT oral learners.) The implication for the secondary-school teacher is that we must look to the style of the elementary-school teacher and provide more visual clues to enable learning. In an era of end-of-the-course testing, teachers need to be more aware of variations in learning.


Dunn, Rita, and Kenneth Dunn. (1992) Teaching Secondary Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: Practical Approaches for Grades 7–12, Allyn & Bacon

Felder, R.M., and L.K. Silverman (1988) "Learning and Teaching Styles" Engineering Education, April 1988


Read an article by Lesley Sword, "I think in pictures, You teach in words," that discusses the gifted visual spatial learner.

Compare the auditory-sequential learner and the visual-spatial learner by using the chart at the Visual-Spatial Resource Web site.