Visual thinking, learning and teaching are near and dear to me heart – as well as being important to my professional practice. I have been working with teachers and students, teaching graduate courses, and providing professional development on how to incorporate visual learning across grade levels and subject areas for the past 25 years. Recently, I wrote Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K-8, published by Free Spirit Publishing, to provide educators with the materials they need to meaningfully engage students in visual literacy, visual language, and visual communication. By introducing meaningful visual elements to the curriculum, educators can help students more completely engage the multitude of visual messages they receive daily. And becoming fluent in visual communication can help students build the skills necessary to succeed in almost all areas of their lives. The teachers that I have worked with, who use visual methods with their students, consistently report better student scores on quizzes and tests as well as stronger essays projects, and papers.


People have innate tendencies to express themselves visually, and visuals play a big part in how we process information. From prehistoric images to the printing press, humans have sought to communicate. Primitive cave drawings show a primal desire to use pictures in an effort to convey thought, feeling, and meaning. Even today, most toddlers seek to make meaningful marks, drawing rudimentary pictures to show what’s going on in their heads.

Despite the early inclination to express ourselves visually, however, our classrooms often default to verbally dominated instruction. For centuries, many educators have relied on lecturing, storytelling, and the written word to convey information. Standardized tests, in written form, emphasize verbal learning. But in a world filled with laptops, smartphones, tablets, and virtual reality machines – all tools with graphic-centric interfaces – it becomes paramount to proactively teach students to “read” and create visual texts and to embrace this instinct more fully or to risk falling behind. As such, many teachers find themselves without the resources needed to give 21st century students the skills they’ll need to thrive in an increasingly visual world.

The Benefits of Visual Learning and Teaching

Introducing a consistent visual component to the curriculum can:

  • help students better engage with the materials
  • increase retention by 29-42%
  • develop higher-order thinking skills
  • hone fundamental abilities that enable students to see and conceptualize visuals clearly
  • enhance tactile hand-eye-mind connections that improve the ability to recall facts and retain learning
  • serve the unique needs of learners who process information primarily through visuals, as well as increase learning for all students
  • provide new opportunities to some students with learning differences and challenge students who are gifted or twice exceptional
  • be an integral part of best-practice intervention methods with individuals on the autism spectrum

Defining Visual Terms

To fully understand visual learning and teaching, we need to discuss visual literacy, visual language, and visual communication.

Visual literacy has been defined many ways. As applied to classroom learning, I have developed the Visual Triad Model that describes visual literacy as the ability to do three things:

Decode – to understand and translate communications made with visual imagery
Imagine – to create, interpret, and manipulate mental models of imagery
Encode – external images that we create

In addition, visual literacy includes the ability to be an informed critic of visual information, able to ethically judge accuracy, validity, and worth. For example, when visually literate students encounter graphs and charts in their text, they often have the ability to read and analyze the visual and verbal message, comprehend meaning, question irrelevant or misleading data, and create a visual/verbal response to it.

Visual language is a form of communication that isn’t aural, written, or gestural. By excluding the spoken word and signed words, visual language relies on marks, forms, design, color, and shapes to convey messages. Pictograms, hieroglyphs, and ideograms are simple forms of visual language. Signs and symbols for trains, planes, busses, restrooms, restaurants, and more are readily understood visual communications that don’t rely on language to comprehend. Basic depicting and doodling are simple forms of visual language; visual language in the classroom can expand to more advanced graphic forms, including: mind maps, one pagers, presentations, picture books, and more. Recent research indicates that doodling can be an important part of visual learning and teaching (Andrade, ****). Once thought to mean simply dallying, doing nothing, or scribbling absentmindedly, doodling has more recently been defined by Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution, as making marks to help yourself think. Infodoodling integrates words and images that are designed to record and communicate concepts and processes. Depicting refers to a broader range of ways to show or to illustrate that includes detailed sketches, illustrations, designs, diagrams, photography, digital content, videos, and more. Doodling and depicting will take center stage throughout this book as important tools on the path to visual literacy. Visual Learning and Teaching presents skills and activities to build upon students’ innate abilities to doodle and depict.

Visual communication is something we take part in everyday, both actively and inactively. We actively rely on visual communication to perform day-to-day tasks (for example, driving to work, we follow directions on road signs). But sometimes, we are unaware of our participation in the visual conversation because we receive messages via visual communication constantly: images in advertising, photos in magazines, icons within emails, or colors in the background of product packaging. Visual Learning and Teaching introduces skills to help you and your students become active visual communicators.

The Path to Visual Learning

With this in mind, we can begin to understand the roots of visual learning. Simply put, visual learning is a way of learning in which information is associated with reading, analyzing, interpreting, and creating images, symbols, icons, and other forms of visual input. It’s sometimes referred to as spatial learning, or visual-spatial learning when applied to 3-dimensional objects and space. On their own, verbal instructions on the whiteboard are not an example of visual language or communication. Visual learning begins when simple yet meaningful doodles or depictions are added alongside the verbal instructions. It continues when text and visual elements appear together in the form of a graph or other diagram or an illustrated text such as a picture book or graphic novel.

It’s important to note that visual literacy is not new. As infants, we take in a tremendous amount of information visually and quickly begin learning through the visual mode. For young children, visuals are an important part of how they interact with the rest of the world. Invite a child to share—“Please tell me about your picture”—and a whole story will unfold. In fact, until we become proficient at written and spoken language, most of us rely on depictions to communicate our ideas and wants.

Over time, however, our visual skills – observing, looking closely, analyzing images, imagining, doodling, and otherwise depicting – can sometimes diminish as our focus turns to other forms of communication (verbal and written). But, as noted, the demands of the new century and the rise of technology suggest we need to integrate opportunities to learn, teach, and interact visually within education contexts. This book will help educators re-energize and build upon these innate abilities in both themselves and their students.

Visual Learners and Visual Learning

When educators introduce any new technique of teaching and learning, the goal is to help students better understand the material in an assigned curriculum. Visual teaching and learning are unique methods in that they can simultaneously address the needs of an underserved learner population (those who excel at processing information visually) as well as potentially assist all students increase their learning. Let’s look first at how visual techniques can help students whose learning style is more visual-centric.

In her book, Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, Linda Silverman identifies two types of learners—auditory-sequential learners and visual-spatial learners—and discusses the different learning preferences and characteristics of each. Silverman states that auditory-sequential learners work well with words, linear organization, and order. Visual-spatial learners work well with images, big-picture thinking, and possibilities. For our purposes, we’ll look at students with an auditory-sequential or a visual-spatial preference, as most students work with both modalities but have a preference for one or the other.

Consider this comparison of auditory-sequential and visual-spatial strengths below.

Learners with Auditory-Sequential Strengths:

  • Think mostly in words
  • Have auditory strengths
  • Are step-by-step learner
  • Attend well to details
  • Follow oral directions well
  • Do well at arithmetic
  • Learn phonics easily
  • Can sound out spelling words
  • Learn well from instructions
  • Are comfortable with one right answer
  • Tend to be academically oriented
  • Can memorize math facts quickly
  • Have good auditory short-term memory
  • Are well organized

Learners with Visual-Spatial Strengths:

  • Think mostly in pictures
  • Have visual strengths
  • Are a whole-part learner
  • See the big picture
  • Decode visual depictions well
  • Prefer geometry
  • Learn whole words easily
  • Can spell well by visualizing
  • Arrive at correct solutions intuitively
  • Like problems with many possible answers
  • Often, are creatively, technologically, or mechanically talented
  • Can tackle higher level math successfully often before mastering basic facts
  • Have good long-term visual memory
  • Create unique methods of organization Needs to “see” materials

Adapted from Silverman, L.K. (2002) Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner. Used with permission.

Because many modern classrooms rely on lecture, reading, and writing to impart information, they are set up to convey information in a manner that best suits learners with an auditory-sequential learners preference. But Silverman (Silverman, L., 2002) conducted a study of 750 students in two schools and found that 33% of the students were strongly visual-spatial and another 30% were moderately visual-spatial. At 63% of students surveyed, the results clearly showed that the majority of students are are have a engaged with visual-spatial learning preference modes learners. At 63% of students surveyed, the results clearly showed that the majority of students in this sample are visual-spatial learners. And the research suggests that many of our students with a visual-spatial this thinkers preference are going undetected and undernourished. In adopting a visual learning and teaching approach, educators can better meet the needs of all students.

But what about the learners with an auditory-sequential preference? The good news is that these students can also benefit by adding visual elements to curriculum. Research by educational psychologist Richard Mayer found that using images to convey information improves a person’s ability to recall facts or key steps by an average of 23%. When text and graphics are combined, retention increases to 42% (Mayer, R.E., 2009). So, whether a student is inclined toward auditory-sequential or visual-spatial learning, they can still benefit in terms of recall when visual elements are incorporated.

This is not to say that traditional teaching methods rooted in lecture and reading should be jettisoned wholly. Even though visual communication is becoming increasingly important, verbal and written communication are still ubiquitous and essential. Employer surveys frequently cite verbal communication skills as some of the most highly sought-after in potential employees. So, it’s important to learn visual skills but not at the expense of other skills. This can be accomplished by introducing visual elements in tandem with existing verbal techniques.

Dual Coding: Bringing Visual and Verbal Together

Dr. Jerre Levy (Levy, J., 1974), a neuroscientist from the University of Chicago, researched the specialized functions of each hemisphere of the brain, leading to a stronger understanding of how the two hemispheres collaborate to process visual stimuli. Her work moved us past the old concept of right-brained and left-brained learners. The traditional, and dichotomous, view of right-brained and left-brained learners is false. We are whole-brained learners with hemispheres and regions of the brain that both specialize and that work simultaneously and synergistically – depending on the task and the strengths and learning preferences of the learner. Dr. Howard Gardner (Gardner, H., 1983), of Harvard University, who researched and developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences, showed how visual-spatial intelligence is naturally advanced in some children and adults, but that—barring physical or cognitive impairment—everyone can develop the abilities associated with each intelligence at least to a proficient level.

Professor of Psychology Alan Paivio’s dual-coding theory, an overall theory of cognition and literacy development, is of special importance. Paivio asserts that we perceive, discriminate, analyze, synthesize, interpret, anticipate, comprehend, compose, imagine, remember, and express ourselves without text as well as with text. Further, dual-coding theory suggests that the integration of visual and verbal modes of expression in a learning context increases engagement, understanding, and retention. Look for next month’s piece on strategies and activities for integrating these two modes, “Dual Coding Strategies to Boost Learning in K-8 Classrooms.”

Please note: The contents of this article are from an adapted excerpt of the book Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K-8. Susan Daniels is the author, and Free Spirit Publishing released the book in 2018.

Related Resources:

  • Andrade, J. (2009). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (1), pp. 100-106.
  • Gardner, H. (2004). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, New York: Basic Books.
  • Levy, J. (1969). Possible basis for the evolution of lateral specialization of the human brain. Nature. 224, pp. 614-615.
  • Meyer, R. E. (2009) Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paivio, A. (2007). Mind and Its Evolution: A Dual Coding Theoretical Approach, New York, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Silverman, L. (2002). Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, Denver, CO: DeLeon Publishing.

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