Struggles with Math and Comprehension? Visual-Spatial Skills Could Be the Reason.

Michele Heimbauer
Associate Director of Winston Innovation Lab

Does your child often confuse their left from right? Do they struggle when asked to copy information from the board or a book? Do they have a hard time arranging their materials in their desk, locker, or room? Do they get lost easily, especially in a new place? Do they have trouble reading a map or chart? Do they bump into people or have difficulty estimating distance between themselves and others? Do they struggle to recreate a Lego construction based on a picture?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, weak visual spatial skills might be the reason.

What Are Visual-Spatial Skills?

A Winston Prep LD Experts Break It Down The term "visual-spatial skills" refers to an individual’s ability to process what they see in order to understand spatial relationships between objects and to visualize different scenarios or images. Visual-spatial skills include the ability to analyze and assess visual information and details, recognize part-whole relationships, and apply this knowledge to construction and manipulating visual information.

Why are visual-spatial skills important?

Visual-spatial skills help individuals find their orientation in space through taking in information from the world around them and organizing that visual information to create an understanding of meaningful patterns.

Visual-spatial skills allow us to perceive the visual information in the environment, to represent it internally, and integrate it with past experiences, to derive meaning and understanding, and to perform manipulations and transformations on those perceptions. Deficits in visual-spatial skills can have a pervasive impact on a student’s abilities. These skills are important in helping us think abstractly, visualize verbal information, and recognize how details are related to big picture ideas. Weaknesses in this area can impact basic skills such as letter formation, note taking, and simple math computation as well as more complex skill areas such as reading comprehension, math (e.g., estimation, geometry, trigonometry, calculus), and social skills.

What can you do at home to bolster these skills?

Playing (with or without explicit training) games like Tetris or action role playing video games (e.g., Legend of Zelda), and practicing the art of origami, lead to significant lasting improvements in not only mental rotation skills but effects generalized to other spatial tasks such as construction.

Model Spatial Language: Use words such as next to, under, far, near, between, closer, further, to the left, in front of, adjacent, and parallel to describe distance and direction of people and objects and the relationships between them. The more spatial language is used, including spatial metaphors, the more growth is seen. Additionally, pair your spatial language with gestures. Using gestures enhances visual-spatial thinking and learning. “In English, it is nearly impossible to talk about domains like time without using words that can also express spatial ideas: Vacations can be long or short, meetings can be moved forward or pushed back, deadlines can lie ahead of us or behind us.”

Practice Using Maps: Have scavenger hunts using simple maps that you’ve created or create a map of familiar places like your house, your, backyard, or their bedroom. You can then use the maps to play hide and seek with objects. Before you get in the car, highlight your route on a map and talk about which direction you will be travelling. Malls are wonderful places to practice visual-spatial navigating! Use the mall map to figure out where you are and the best path to take to where you want to go. Be sure to talk about what you pass and what is coming up using those spatial words listed above!

1. Broaders, Sara C., Wagner Cook, Susan, Mitchell, Zachary, & Goldin-Meadow, Susan “Making Children Gesture brings out implicit Knowledge and leads to learning,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 136, no. 4 (2007): 539–550.
2. Casasanto, Daniel, et al. “Space and Time in the Child’s Mind: Evidence for a Cross-Dimensional Asymmetry.” Cognitive Science, vol. 34, no. 3, 2010, pp. 387–405., doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01094.x.
3. Newcombe, Nora. (2010). Picture this: Increasing math and science learning by improving spatial thinking. American Educator. 34. 29-43.
4. Singer, Melissa & Goldin-Meadow, Susan, “Children learn When their teacher’s Gestures and speech Differ,” Psychological Science 16, no. 2 (2005): 85–89.
5. Uttal, David & Meadow, Nathaniel & Tipton, Elizabeth & Hand, Linda Liu & Alden, Alison & Warren, Christopher & Newcombe, Nora. (2012). The Malleability of Spatial Skills: A Meta-Analysis of Training Studies. Psychological bulletin. 139. 10.1037/a0028446.
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