Stumped? Your Child, Visual Memory, and Navigating New Concepts

Visual memory is an important element in learning how to read, spell, understand, use numerals, and even to develop social skills.  It helps your child to remember and interpret schoolmates’ facial expressions and gestures so that your child can learn to give the correct response.  It also helps your child to remember what a shape looks like or the formula that the teacher just wrote on the board.  See, e.g., “New study reveals visual working memory may provide clues to autism’s social struggles,” Science Daily, 2/10/16.  

Basically, visual memory is the camera inside your child’s head.  And, like a camera, when it is working well, it will produce crystal clear pictures and help your child process foundational skills in school.        

We use visual memory all the time, in all sorts of situations.  For example, back in the early 1990s, my daughter and I moved to North Carolina.  This was before GPS and cell phones.  The move went without a hitch – even our remarkably fussy mutt, Pepper, managed to survive the cross-country trip without too much trouble – but when it came to buying groceries, we were…well, lost!  I asked a neighbor how to get to the local grocery store, which was called Harris Teeter (yes, that is really the name).  I expected him to give me directions with street names and highways and so on.  

That didn’t happen.

“Well,” he drawled, “y’all go yonder down this road and bear left at the tree stump that’s all slanted at the top, and then you keep going till y’all get to the house with the blue garage door, and then y’all make a sharp right.  Y’all will get there in a piece, don’ mind the traffic.  The store’s on the right.”  

“Oooookay-dokey,” I thought, a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to tell one tree stump from another.  In Los Angeles, I’d always relied on the Thomas Guide to get me around town.  I understood the pages and how to locate streets and highway entrances and exits with the map’s colored grids.          

But here, in North Carolina, the directions to the grocery store depended entirely on my neighbor’s visual memory - and, eventually, on mine.               

I thanked him, and my daughter and I set out on our first adventure in North Carolina.  We had that particular adventure a few times – okay, several – before our brains were able to spot the right tree stump without a lot of effort.  Finally, though, I taught myself to navigate my new surroundings with my own visual cues – things that would be in mind’s eye to help me get from one place to another.  (The blue garage door proved elusive – we never did find it.)  
Visual memory is processed differently and more sharply by the brain than certain other senses – for example, auditory.  We’ll address listening skills in another blog post soon.  However, stimulating and utilizing visual memory is of the utmost importance for students’ success.  There’s an old Chinese proverb that says it best:  “I hear and I forget; I see, and I remember.”  Visual memory helps your child navigate through new places and concepts.  Just like me and that old tree stump.

Here are some suggestions and sites for practicing with your child to improve visual memory:

Use a deck of cards and play Concentration or Go Fish.

Play the Memory game.

Put fun items found in the home on a tray, ask your child to look at the items on the tray, cover the tray, ask your child to recite what was on the tray.
Ask your child to draw a map of his/her bedroom from memory

Here’s an excellent short presentation about using simple objects to improve visual memory:

And here’s a marvelous site with a variety of skill enhancement activities, including visual memory:

Teaching Vocabulary: Hamlet as Man, Mystery, and…Delicious Pastry?

Teaching vocabulary helps students’ brains grow and expands their ability to make connections for new information.  It also helps them to do better on tests – whether the test is for language skills, math, or science.  In fact, studies have shown that the depth of a student’s vocabulary is a key indicator of the student’s ability to test successfully.  See, e.g., Marzano, et al., Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual (2005).  Flashcards and workbooks will help a child learn words, but for a child to truly learn vocabulary – that is, how words build context and meaning – children need experience and conversation.  Every time you talk with your child, you have a great opportunity to help them enrich their vocabulary and to help your child bridge the little gaps that may exist.

Several weeks ago, I was Skype tutoring a student to help him with his 9th-grade English assignments.  His class was reading Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Hamlet.  I asked my student to give me a short summary of Act I.  As he spoke, I became very confused: I didn’t remember that Hamlet involved so much eating.  But that’s what my student kept talking about – Hamlet eating.  I asked my student to tell me the exact lines that talked about eating.  He said, “Well, it’s all over!  It’s every time they talk about the danish!”

And that’s when I realized: Danish and danish.  This student only knew about the delicious pastry…not the citizens of Denmark!

When I explained what “Danish” really meant here – what the actual context was -- we both had a good laugh.  After all, Hamlet is pretty hilarious when it’s just baked goods on the line!

This is a funny and somewhat extreme example, but it shows you how important experience and attentive discussion are to building your child’s vocabulary.   As adults, we know how to ask clarifying questions when something is unclear to us.  Children learn how to do this when you ask them questions – whether it’s about something they’re reading, talking about, or observing.  Asking children questions, encouraging them to ask you questions, and responding with varied intonation, phrases, and colloquialisms helps a child’s vocabulary become richer and deeper and helps your child’s brain to make connections and develop the problem-solving skills that will help on tests – and everything else they do.

So, talk with your children.  Read with your children.  Talk with your children about what you’ve read with them.  And…eat danish with your children.  Just don’t eat the Danish.