How Visual Perceptual Skills Relate to Reading
Today, we’re talking all about visual perceptual skills. I’ll share some of these visual perceptual skills with you, give examples, and explain how they can contribute or take away from a child’s ability to read with ease and fluency. You see as primary teachers, it’s easy to get “comfortable” in how we teach and approach reading skills in the classroom. Today, I’m challenging you to dig deeper and consider some areas of learning that you may not have given any attention to in the past. The ideas, activities, and exercises in this blog post will help any student, whether they have weaknesses in their visual perceptual skills or not. Anytime you work on building visual processing skills, you build neuron connections in the brain. So, what are we waiting for? Let’s build some neurons!
But First…What Are Visual Perceptual Skills?
Visual perceptual skills are skills that allow us to make sense of the information that our eyes are sending to our brain. In other words, our visual perception allows us to interpret information, analyze information, and make sense of what we are seeing. Why am I writing about this to an audience of classroom teachers? For starters, it’s important for educators to understand that when we say to students, “Look at the word closely,” or, “Use your eyes! What do you see?” we’re referring to much more than their 20/20 vision. Before a child even begins to read, he or she must have obtained competency in visual processing skills. These important skills allow students to recognize words they’ve already seen (think sight words and high-frequency words), see how letters work together to form a whole word, recognize the difference between the letter b and the letter d, and so much more! Without these skills, our students would just be seeing words on the page, not understanding them. That’s a pretty important difference, huh? If students have weaknesses in some areas of their visual perceptual skills, it could affect their ability to reach their highest level of potential at reading, writing, and/or spelling. (It’s important to mention that some students DO have visual processing disorders, and that the information in this post should never be used to diagnose or suggest that a child has a disorder. You should seek a professional opinion if you suspect your child or student has visual processing disorders.) If students do not have visual processing disorders, these are still skills that we can and should be aware of in our classrooms. Areas of weakness can be strengthened! Even if students do not have weaknesses in these areas, building stronger visual perceptual skills can exercise the brain and form new and stronger neural pathways. Stronger neural connections within the brain result in stronger learners! (Talk about a win-win!)
How Can I Build Visual Perceptual Skills In My Classroom?
There are MANY different visual perceptual skills. We could devote pages and pages of blog posts to the visual perceptual skills that we want our students to have acquired. For time sake, I am going to focus on just five of them in this blog post:
- Visual Figure Ground
- Visual Memory
- Form Constancy
- Visual Closure
- Visual Discrimination
I’ll share what each skill is, how the skills relate to reading, and I’ll provide you with a list of easy activities and exercises that you can implement within your classroom to build these skills in your students! I’m also going to share a FREE Brainamin phonics game with you at the end of this post! You can use it in your classroom to build phonics skills, fluency skills, and visual perception skills! Yay! (Trust me, you’re kids are going to L-O-V-E this game, so keep reading!) Are you ready to learn some valuable information and have a little fun? Let’s get started!
(Note: This post contains some Amazon Affiliate links to resources and activities that I personally think are helpful within the classroom. This just means that Amazon tosses a few pennies my way if you click on the links to check them out – at absolutely no extra cost to you. These little links help me to maintain my little corner of the online teaching world.)
Visual Figure Ground
Visual Figure Ground is our ability to identify objects within a busy background, or, the ability to attend to and focus on a detail without being distracted by everything surrounding it. A student who has a weakness with Figure Ground may have trouble focusing on a difficult word within a book or a passage because he or she is having trouble blocking out the other words around it on the page. This can also be true for the child who has trouble finding “chunks” within a word because the child may not be able to zero in on the specific vowel team or diphthong without being distracted by all of the other letters and words that are happening on the page. Let’s make this visual perceptual skill more understandable with an easy little exercise for you.
Look at the photograph below and QUICKLY find the starfish toy.
Try it again. Find the starfish toy:
Students who may have weak Visual Figure Ground may take a really long time to find the starfish toy because they have a hard time focusing on one detail among a busy background. As you have probably already figured out, this can impact reading fluency and cause students to slow down in their reading speed. So what can we do as teachers to help these students? (In fact, doing the exercises and activities below can help ALL struggling readers – not just readers who struggle with Visual Figure Ground.)
- Limit the amount of text on the page in order to lessen the distractions. Too much text can cause frustration.
- Think carefully about the type of passages and printables you are having students read off of. Busy formats that are cluttered with graphics can make it difficult for students to focus on the text.
- Use Hidden Picture activities as a learning center. You can photocopy a page and place it into a sheet protector for a write on/wipe off center that will strengthen visual perception skills and teach students to pay attention to details.
- Sight Word Fluency with Word Searches– Students search and identify a specific sight word on the page and within a short, manageable amount of text in order to help the child’s focus and attention. My Sight Word Fluency Practice Packs contain a simple, easy-to-read format to eliminate distractions, focus on sight words, and increase fluency. Students will search and find three target sight words on the page. This helps them attend to detail. Then, they will practice reading those three words within the context of a sentence three times for fluency. Finally, students illustrate the sentence to demonstrate comprehension.
(PSST!!! –> By downloading the FREE Preview File in my Sight Word Practice Pack Bundle, you can snag three FREE passages to try out with your students! Just click HERE to check out the Sight Word Practice Bundle Pack. It covers the first 300 Fry Sight Words.)
Let’s play a game to understand what visual memory is. I want you to set your phone or a timer for 30 seconds. When you’re ready, carefully study the photograph above of the box of toys for exactly 30 seconds. Then, write down everything you remember seeing in the box. How many items were you able to remember? Your ability to immediately recall details of what is seen is known as visual memory. Visual memory skills play a vital role in our ability to read – especially when it comes to sight word recall. Students who have looked at a sight word over and over and over again, and yet can’t remember or recall what that sight word is five minutes later, may have a weakness in their visual memory skills. If you think you may have students who have a weakness in visual memory, I encourage you to check out a blog post I wrote on teaching sight words within your classroom HERE. You can also help students to build visual memory skills by placing The Original Memory Game in your morning tubs, within your literacy or math centers, or as a fun indoor recess game. It also makes a nice brain booster or critical thinking tub!
Form constancy is the ability to accurately identify and understand that symbols and objects remain the same, even when it changes size, color, direction, font, texture, etc. Let’s do a quick exercise to understand what form constancy is. Remember the sandbox picture I showed you earlier in this post? I asked you to identify the starfish toy. Find it again in the photograph below:
Now, I want you to find the starfish in the new photograph below:
Did you find it? In this photograph, the starfish toy is green. In the other photographs, you were used to seeing it as a yellow toy. This is form constancy. You were able to recognize and understand that the starfish toy in the first picture is still a starfish toy in the second picture. What changed? The color and the orientation changed. However, it’s still a starfish toy!
Easy, right? Now, let’s think about and relate this skill to our students who are beginning readers. This time, I want you to think about the student who just read and identified the word “was” on your flashcards and in a passage. Flash forward to the next day, and now your student cannot identify and read the word “was” in the book he just pulled off of the library shelf. What changed? The font. Perhaps the student has been used to seeing the words in an ABC print font, and can’t transfer his or her understanding that the word is the same word with a Times New Roman font. This is a child who would benefit from some exercises and attention to form constancy. Students with weak form constancy may have increased difficulty learning how to read. What can we do as teachers (and as parents) to strengthen this skill?
- Provide your students with experiences in turning shapes different ways and seeing them in different colors. Show and explain to the student that a rectangle is still a rectangle if it is blue or green, big or small, vertical or horizontal, wooden or plastic. Have students match similar shapes that have different attributes.
- Reinforce Letter Constancy. My No Prep Intervention Binder for Beginning Readers has an entire section that not only helps with letter identification but builds form constancy through one-to-one assistance or small group intervention practice. The students use a dry erase marker to identify the focus letter on each page. He or she will circle all of the letters that match the focus letter. Pictured below are a couple of example pages from the binder. As you can see, the letter a and g can really be tough for a student who may be weak in form constancy. Practice and attention to this skill can really make a difference to struggling readers. (You can find my No Prep Intervention Binder for Beginning Readers by clicking HERE. It’s packed with tons of no-prep reading material that is engaging, easy to use, and a true lifesaver for reading teachers everywhere!)
- Play “I Spy” with a variety of themes. For example, pick a focus letter or number. Have your students find that letter or number on various cereal boxes, soup cans, and snack bags during a game of “I Spy Grocery Edition.” Find a focus letter or number in the library during “I Spy Library Edition.” Repeat the letter or number game by searching for it on various board games and puzzles during “I Spy Indoor Recess Edition.” There are lots of possibilities!
- Expose students to books and passages that they will independently read in a variety of fonts. Sometimes as primary teachers, we think we are doing our students a favor by using our cute, child-friendly “ABC print” fonts on our flashcards and in the passages we provide students with. However, the majority of books and online text are printed in default fonts such as Times New Roman or Arial. For students who have weak form constancy, they need intentional exposure to learning how to read with these fonts. My Sight Word Fluency Passages and my Sight Word Fluency Passages Edition 2 resources were created specifically for this reason. I noticed some of my struggling readers could read their sight words in the simple “ABC print” font that I was using to teach, but then struggled when they saw the sight words within the context of their classroom books and library books. Each of the passages in these resources come in two fonts so that you are providing practice in both fonts.
The passage below uses a Times New Roman font. Notice how different the letters look from the “teacher friendly” font when they are represented this way. The letters a, g, y, and the capital i look especially different! Imagine how confusing this could be to a struggling reader who has weak form constancy with letters. It could certainly affect his or her reading fluency if we do not draw attention to this difference!
If you’d like to try these Sight Word Fluency Passages out with your students, you can click HERE to snag the bundle pack. You can also download the FREE Preview File and get THREE free sight word fluency passages to preview and use at the small group table!
Visual closure is the ability to recognize a symbol, form, or object even when it is only partially visible. In other words, having visual closure skills means that even if you can only see part of something, your brain can fill in the rest. Let me show you exactly what I mean. Complete the following exercise in the photograph below by reading the sentence on the right aloud to yourself:
Could you read it? That’s because your brain mentally completes the visual information that is missing, or doesn’t appear “complete.” When we have visual closure abilities, our brains see the whole word – not every single individual letter. This skill is especially critical to reading fluency. It helps us to read with improved speed and pacing. It is a skill that helps us to read sight words and decode unknown words quickly. This is SO important to fluent readers! A weakness in visual closure abilities can cause slow, labored reading and feelings of frustration. So, what can we do to strengthen these skills?
- Puzzles! Puzzles are an excellent way to help students practice mentally completing a picture before they can see it in its entirety. How can puzzles fit into your school day? Throw them into a learning center, morning tubs, or stock up on them for indoor recess days. You can grab great puzzles for kids at the dollar store, garage sales, or even by asking your parents and families to donate them!
- Completing Dot to Dot pictures
- Use letter boxes to display your sight words. (See photograph below.) You’ve probably seen sight words displayed in shape boxes before, but did you know why? Now, you do! Using letter boxes to give the word a shape helps the brain to see the word as a whole instead of seeing a string of individual letters. I recommend displaying your word wall words in this way. This can also help struggling spellers, too!
Before we talk about our final visual perceptual skill, take a second look at the picture above. Can you spot the difference in the picture? If you used your visual discrimination skills, you noticed that the woman on the right is wearing an orange necklace and the woman on the left is wearing a yellow necklace. Your visual discrimination skills allowed you to notice the subtle difference in the pictures. Visual discrimination is the ability to see differences and similarities between objects and forms. Students who have difficulty with visual discrimination may have a hard time seeing the differences between similar letters and numbers. For example, the child may have a hard time deciphering between the letter s and the number 5. They may also have a hard time seeing the differences between the word won’t and the word want. Finding differences and matching things up can help students practice paying attention to details, which will help them to correctly recognize letters, numbers, and words that have only a small difference between them. It can also help them to increase their reading speed when learning new words. Games like memory or “spot the difference” games will also help visual discrimination skills.
What can I do to strengthen students’ visual discrimination skills?
I am super excited to introduce BRAINAMIN phonics games to you – and I’d love to give you a FREE game to try out with your students at the end of this post! Brainamin phonics games will work on visual discrimination skills and overall visual perceptual skills, BUT that’s not all. They will also help your students focus on and work on decoding skills, phonics, and fluency skills! It’s fast-paced, super fun, and allows every student the opportunity to participate the entire time – no more waiting for a turn! I currently have a short vowel edition, CVC-e/sneaky e-edition, and a vowel team edition in my store. (Additional Brainamin phonics and math games will be released in the future!)
Playing Brainamin is Easy! Let’s Play Together!
Let’s use a Short Vowel Edition as our first example. First, place the word cards and the picture cards face down:
Flip over a word card and a picture card from each pile. Look at the cards carefully and quickly. Find the matching word and picture before anyone else does! Ready….go!
Did you find the match?
RAT is the match on the cards above! The word rat has a matching picture of a rat. The player who found and called out the match would collect both playing cards. Then, repeat!
Let’s try it again using a Long Vowel CVC-E / Sneaky E Brainamin game:
Students will need to scan the cards and quickly decode in order to find the match before their friends. This really helps build word recognition and recall skills. It also helps work on reading speed.
Great job! The matching word and picture is GAME! As shown below, students continue to work hard to find matches and add the cards to their piles. Then, they can shuffle each deck of cards and repeat to play again!
Let’s play ONE MORE TIME! This time, let’s look at a Brainamin Vowel Teams Edition game:
And….GO! Find the matching word and picture as quickly as you can!
Did you do it? The matching word and picture is TEA!
When can I use Brainamin phonics games in the classroom?
Brainamin is easy to integrate into your classroom routine:
- Place it in a literacy center
- Play it during small reading groups
- Use it in an intervention group
- Place it within a morning tub
- Use it as a fast finisher activity
- Perfect for partners and small groups. Students can even play against themselves!
That Was Fun! I Want To Try It In My Classroom!
Click the links below to check out the various versions of Brainamin that I have so far. Then, scroll down for your FREEBIE!
- Brainamin Short Vowel Bundle
- Brainamin Long Vowel CVC-E / Sneaky E-Bundle
- Brainamin Vowel Teams Bundle
Do You Want To Try a Brainamin Phonics Game for FREE?!
If you’re reading this, you’ve stayed with me during this long but hopefully, super informative blog post! Which means, you deserve an awesome FREEBIE to celebrate all of the new things you learned about the importance of visual perceptual skills in the classroom! By clicking on the freebie picture below, you can sign up for my e-mail list and get the Short A Brainamin Phonics Game delivered straight to your inbox absolutely FREE!
As you can see, visual perceptual skills are essential components to learning that directly relate to fluency and comprehension skills for our little readers. I hope you enjoyed this blog post and can take away some valuable information, activities, ideas, and exercises in order to build and strengthen your students’ visual perceptual skills in the classroom. Thanks so much for joining me today and I hope you’ll visit again soon!
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Wow, you have really brought up some major reasons kids with dyslexia struggle with and the tips that you provide in here are so useful for any homeschooling parent or classroom teacher. I love that you have created resources and tools that meet this need and share them with the world. You Rock!
Thank you so much, Joanne! I appreciate your kind words!
This was fabulous ! What great learning I had today . Thank you so much and god bless for sharing .
Thank you so much! 🙂
Thank you, you really simplified the steps on how to go about it. I now find easier to plan activities for students with visual perceptual issues.