reading comprehension strategies - anchoring visualizationsSome kids have trouble with reading comprehension. There can be many reasons they have difficulty, but one of the main causes of reading comprehension problems is that students do not create vivid images as they read.

In my educational therapy practice, I often listen to students read. Some students have difficulty with word recognition, but many do not. When your child has little or no difficulty sounding out the words in the passage, but still has comprehension difficulty, the problem may be that he or she is not skillful with visual imagery. And even if your child does have trouble sounding out words, he may still have difficulty with comprehension as well.

Researchers have noticed that students are not as adept at making pictures in their minds of the material they hear or read as they were years ago. Perhaps the explosion of visual images all around us has a lot to do with that. Kids are “fed” visual images from television, movies, magazines, and billboards. They may not be getting as much practice in generating their own images.

Visualization is used by top athletes and performers as an effective tool for positive outcomes. Research has shown that athletes who practice their sport only “on the field” do not reach the same levels of success as those who, in addition to practicing “on the field” also practice their sport “in their mind.”

The brain is highly adept at using visual information. In fact, more brain area is devoted to vision than to any other sense. The brain is also very good at using spatial information. These abilities have come down to us through the millennia as a survival mechanism. We are highly adept visual and spatial thinkers.

The “anchoring visualizations” strategy teaches students to create visual images, and then to “anchor” them to a particular spot in the room. What’s so amazing about this technique is that students are using two innate abilities, vision and spatial understanding, and the strategy can be used when students are involved in class discussions, lectures, or independent reading to significantly increase students’ visualization ability and reading comprehension.

Here’s how the “anchoring visualizations” technique works:

As students listen or read, they use their visualization ability to create “pictures” (I call them “mind movies”) of the information. These images should include rich detail because more vivid images will be remembered better.

The student directs his or her attention to a particular spot in the room, for example, the door, the chalkboard, or a picture on the wall.

The spot has now become a place to anchor the visualizations created while reading or discussing the contents from a story or textbook. The spot is the visual and spatial storing place associated with the parts of the story that need to be remembered.

To recall an important fact from the story, simply have the student look at the spot that anchors the information.

Applying the “anchoring visualizations” technique

Since it will be Halloween soon, let’s apply this technique to the story, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Although this is a story at the elementary level, the technique works for any information, at any level of sophistication.

The story begins as Little Red Riding Hood is asked by her mother to take some food to her grandmother, who loves Little Red Riding Hood so much she has given her a lovely red cape with a hood.

For this part of the story, a student can choose a place in the room, let’s say the TV set. While discussing or reading this part of the story, have your child look at the TV set and create a vivid image of a little girl. Ask questions such as: how old is she, what color is her hair, how long is the cape, does she have her hood up on her head or not, what color are her eyes, what is she going to carry the food in, what shape is the container…etc. The point of the questions is to teach your child how to create detailed images.

For the next part of the story, have your child choose another location, such as the table, as you read or discuss the next section of the story and encourage your child to make vivid images by using questions to get the information to come to life.

In our example, this technique was applied to an elementary-level story, particularly because the story of Little Red Riding Hood is well-known. But as I mentioned, it also works for middle school and high school content.

I’ve used this approach to teach kids about DNA, the story line in Romeo and Juliet, and other high school level material. It is an approach that works on any content, for learners of all ages, because it uses the concepts of locations in space combined with visual input, visual imagery, and language, making it a multi-sensory technique. And multi-sensory techniques work better because they engage more than one part of the brain.

What are the characteristics of “vivid images”?

Use your questioning to help your child create memorable images. What makes images memorable? First and foremost—images should stimulate emotion (think of a crying man holding a limp child). Another necessary quality is that images are unusual (try a blue dog). Encourage your child to include other aspects of memorable imagery: color, details and especially for kids of all ages—is the image gross! Yes, I said gross (think of a snot sandwich). The gross factor is very powerful for memory!