The Power of Visualization: Transformative Techniques for Struggling Learning

Thanks to Kristy Jacobs in Malaysia for a wonderful post/review of my See It. Say It. Do It! lectures on I Love VT online courses in May 2020.

Part of Kristy’s review:

This is a summary of one of her three sessions from the event, all of which centre around her steadfast belief in the power of visualization (which is backed up by solid science), and which illustrate the three step model she developed – “See It, Say It, Do It” – which she says can be applied not just in a learning or therapy context, but in any area of life.


Many common struggles faced by children in the schooling environment with reading, writing, and math are misunderstood and overlooked, and can be addressed using a variety of visualization and multi-sensory techniques – a sample of which are outlined below.

Further insights and examples can be found in Dr. Hellerstein’s book: “See It. Say It. Do It!: The Parents & Teachers Action Guide to Creating Successful Student and Confident Kids”.

Reading: Fundamental Principles

  • The purpose of reading is to get the picture in the writer’s head into the reader’s head. The reader’s ability to visualise what’s on the page is key.
  • When faced with reading problems, it’s important to ask: is it a visual problem or a language problem? Visual dysfunctions are different from language dysfunctions. Both must be checked and addressed. There are still educators that are convinced that symptoms which are labelled as dyslexia, for example, are entirely a language based problem and refuse to acknowledge the visual element.
  • The essential reading skills are decoding, sight word recognition, comprehension, and fluency (speed / time).
  • Good reading fluency is what schools are looking for. Fluency requires strong visual efficiency skills, and knowing all the words on the page. Oral and silent reading fluency are different competencies.
  • Kids who have great comprehension but struggle with decoding and sight word recognition often do poorly in tests because they can’t read the questions properly (but are good at “bluffing” the rest of the time).
  • Fluency can be helped by doing movements before reading that cross the body (i.e. bi-lateral integration) such as the bean bag toss – throwing a bean bag from hand to hand and following it with the head 20 times, then following with eyes only for 20 times (see for more ideas).

Reading: Visualisation Techniques to Reduce Anxiety

  • It’s important for children to feel safe when learning.
  • When anxiety is present, visualisation can be used to help create a safe place.
  • You can give children specific visualisations to use before going into stressful scenarios such as timed tests (e.g detailed imagery of themselves moving calmly through the test from start to finish) and reading out loud in front of people (e.g. imagining themselves puffed up very big like a giant). Safe place visualisations can also be useful for bedtime.
  • Kids often dread having to read out loud to people. It can trigger a lot of stress and anxiety. One of the most damaging things you can do to a struggling learner is make them read out loud while correcting them over and over. It is humiliating and will stop them from wanting to try.
  • Studies show that when kids read to their pets, their fluency improves – because developing confidence and experiencing a lack of judgement are both very important for success..

Reading: How Parents Can Help

  • It is good for children to practice reading an easy book together with a parent. Most kids love this because they can create great pictures in their mind when somebody else is reading.
  • Keep three levels of books at home:
    1. The hard book that they want you to read to them, which you do so they develop a love of stories and practice developing pictures in their mind.
    2. The “stretch” book that they can read some of, but need help with.
    3. The easy book that they can read themselves for developing fluency.

Reading: The Importance of Creating Imagery

  • Some children might get great pictures in their mind when you read to them, but they have no idea they should get that when they are reading themselves.
  • When somebody says reading is boring, it’s usually because they are not getting much of a picture in their mind: good readers have no idea that poor readers don’t get that movie in their head.
  • Some kids can be great at visualization, but may experience a translation problem between the written language and their ability to make it into pictures.

Reading: Visualization Techniques to Boost Word Recognition

  • Visualization can be used with multi-sensory methods to help with word recognition using a word card, as follows:
    • Have the child draw the word big and bright on a card and design it as they wish. They usually love to do this: it brings in fun, and this helps to trigger a positive state for learning and memory.
    • Once the card is made, hold it up at a bit of a distance and ask them to take a picture of it in their mind.
    • Then ask them to describe the shape of the word as letters that are either short, tall or long (see example below) so you know that they are picturing the image in their mind.
    • Get them to highlight any letters they are struggling with (getting reversed or confused) with special use of colour and texture (e.g. glitter) to help trigger the memory.
    • Then ask them to write it down. Some children respond well to movement, so tracing it in the air and on different surfaces while spelling and saying the word out loud can help too. Also practice spelling forwards and backwards.
  • Math: Misunderstood Struggles
    • Some kids are good at doing math in their head, or things like lego and geometry-based problems, but do poorly on timed tests, recalling math facts (e.g. times tables), and written / story problems.
    • Many smart kids who have high level math thinking skills but are in lower math classes are there because so much of it is word-based and they can’t read the instructions.
    • Silly errors may also be holding them back due to things like misaligned columns, which occur due to poor visual motor / handwriting skills, or struggles understanding the basics of shape, size or form (which shows up as backward numbers etc).
    • Kids can also get hung up on not being good at one traditional way of learning math facts. and this can make them lose confidence and give up e.g. “I don’t know my 8s”, or “I don’t know division”.

    Math: Solutions for Common Struggles

    • Math facts – such as division and multiplication – can be learned to great effect by visualizing the three components of a diagram as per the image below, which again uses a graphical representation and can be combined with colour and texture.
    • To remove errors resulting from written alignment and spacing issues, try using ruled paper flipped on its side as per the image below (better than graph paper which is too detailed). Some kids have such terrible spacing and writing that they get wrong answers, even when they know the answer. This helps to prevent those errors.

    • For dealing with story-based questions, ask them to become a detective or a spy who is looking for clues in the words, to take the focus off the amount of text, and to stop them from becoming overwhelmed and losing concentration.

    Writing: Visualisation for the Creative Process

    • Often children can’t think of anything to write about.
    • To help get them started, ask them to first visualize a scene and then draw a picture of it. Encourage them to include a lot of detail. The more they draw in the picture, the more they have to write about.
    • Or use mind mapping prior to writing in the form of a word tree (see below) to help brainstorm ideas and organize thoughts.
    • Then get kids to write about their picture and let it flow. Don’t stop them to make corrections while the story is forming or they won’t enjoy it, will lose confidence and will give up. Editing can be done later.


    “For best learning, you have to have fun. Every day we have fun in our office.” – Dr. Lynn Hellerstein.

    “I believe there are two ways to be in the world: in fear or in love.” – Dr. Lynn Hellerstein.


Lynn Hellerstein
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