Spelling Inside Out: Developing Visual Memory

Aug 31, 2018

Kids are bombarded with visual images provided by constant access to devices that display games, movies, YouTube videos, DIY videos and more. 

child watching tv

Our current generation of students is incredibly plugged in, and some students spend several hours a day on a device. This ever-increasing amount of screen-time definitely has an adverse impact on students’ lives, not only in areas such as oral language development, kinesthetic development, real-life problem solving skills, and physical experiences with real-life objects, but it is also quite damaging to their development of visual memory.  When you ask a child on Monday what they did over the weekend, many kids’ answers will be center around things that are visually created, like movies they watched, games they played. But when you ask a child what they had for dinner last night, or what were you wearing yesterday, they can’t give you an answer.

child's roomTry asking kids for details about their bedrooms. Most will tell you there’s a bed, but kids don’t have a whole lot of descriptive language for their rooms. We don’t get to hear about the detailed things like the pictures hanging on their walls, the pattern or print on their comforters, the color of their curtains, what is on various surfaces around their room.

Even though they spend lots of time in their rooms, most students struggle to retrieve their visual memory of that place. They haven’t trained their brains to create the picture in their heads because they are constantly provided with images they can adopt instead, which is much easier.

Visual Memory and Spelling

As long as there have been written words to spell, kids have had a hard time with spelling. Most students can ear spelling, sounding out unfamiliar words, but common words like sight words should be spelled by sight or memory. This skill isn’t often solidified in a student’s brain and they default to ear spelling, which they should really be transferring away from in favor of learning how to write them.

When it comes to visual memory, Kindergarten students typically struggle with visual memory with letter identification, colors, shapes, even number recognition. By the time a child gets into 1st grade, they really struggle with the visual memory of sight words, such as said, because, or was. Even though they see those words a lot, both in isolation and even in context, they have a hard time recalling them. In 2nd grade, we have a large number of kids that struggle with spelling, which this blog will really focus on.

student daydreamingBy the time students go to 3rd grade, the struggle with visual memory begins to affect comprehension. Ever done this? You read a paragraph, get to the end and realize you have a page-long grocery list in your head, but you don’t remember anything about what you actually read, even though you read each of the words. Most students become proficient readers, physically accomplishing the act of reading, but not comprehending anything. Being able to play that movie in their head, visualizing the characters, the setting, the action taking place, as they read is really when a child falls in love with reading.

Because visual memory has a profound effect on student development, we really want to do activities with visual memory in the kindergarten and 1st grade, so that by the time students are in 2nd grade, visual memory is strong as we start to look at spelling.

What’s Wrong with Traditional Spelling Tests?

Pause for a moment. Ask yourself: What is your practice with spelling in your building? Do you do weekly spelling tests? Where do those tests come from? Do they come from one of the books that you use that goes with one of the stories you read? Or do those words come from a phonetic base of some sort? Do you use Words Their Way? What does spelling look like in your school?

spelling testMany of our project schools still have that Friday spelling test where students number their page 1-10, the teacher reads the words and puts them in a sentence, and the child writes the word down in isolation. However, there actually isn’t much research to support giving a spelling test in that traditional way.

Every week, kids in my own classroom would study for the spelling test, sometimes getting their parents to drill and kill their spelling words at home because they knew would happen on Friday. Guess what? They all ended up getting 100% on the test! As a teacher, I felt like my students were doing really well! But then, on Monday, we were writing and I would look down in their journal and see the word “said” (that they spelled correctly on the test the previous Friday) was spelled “s-e-d” or some similar phonetic variation. Because the word was only stored in their auditory memory, it was gone and the kids went back to ear spelling.

I started to think – why did I give them this Friday spelling test? It appeared that they were starting to understand spelling patterns, when in fact maybe they weren’t.

Spelling Inside Out

Spelling, especially Spelling Inside Out, is a great way to help kids flex their visual memory muscle while they deepen their understanding of spelling!  This strategy helps the child take the word apart, study the components (the letters) and learn how it goes back together.

Let’s take the word ready. I’ll ask my students – “Can you picture this word?” Yes, they say, they can picture it. Then I ask, “What color is it?” I usually have lots of different answers. In our professional development session yesterday, one teacher said hers was black, one said red, one was green, one said purple. The teachers had all visualized the word ready in different colors, just like students will.

Next, I asked my group if the word ready was in upper or lower case. Many of them said lower case, one teacher said she had a capital R and a lowercase eady because she was thinking of “Ready, set, go!” I asked if the word was typed, printed, or in cursive. Half of the teachers said it was typed, a couple answered that it was in cursive, and a few said it was printed.

ready inside outFrom here, I told the teachers to leave the word in whatever font and color they had and to put it all in lowercase and think of it in nice, elementary writing – ready.  Answer the following questions:

  • What are the first two letters? re
  • What are the last two letters? dy
  • What are the middle three letters? ead
  • What are the last three letters? ady
  • Spell the word ready backwards. ydaer
  • Spell the word ready inside out, from left to right, starting with the a. I really have to picture this one in my mind. I start at the a and go to the left to go inside to the e, go back to the right to go outside to the d, go back to the inside to the left to the r, then finally back to the right to the outside to the y. Spelling the word inside out looks like aedry.

We want kids to start off first with 3-letter words, then build up to 4-letter words, then 5-letter words, to help them be able to play with that word within their visual memory. Try doing because inside out, or backwards to see if you can really visualize it. It’s hard!

Practice, Practice, Practice!

You or parents could work with the kids on spelling words inside-out in order to truly create visual memory.  Most kids have a hard time picturing that word ready, so it’s really important to activate their visual memory by providing the word on a white 3×5 or 5×7 card, in lowercase, in a black sharpie marker.

The person helping the student holds the 3×5 or 5×7 card with the word written on it. If a child is right-handed, the person standing across from them is going to hold the card over their left shoulder so the card is in their left visual field. If the child is left-handed, hold the card over your right shoulder so the word is in the child’s right visual field.

webinar visual memory

The idea is to give kids lots of practice!

Check out this free 30-minute archived webinar for tons of ideas on the development of visual memory!

Which Words?

This strategy is perfect for students in 2nd grade and up. Many spelling patterns, like in a Words Their Way program, have a more phonetic pattern, which we definitely want kids to be able to understand. The differentiated spelling lists included in Words Their Way are fabulous, but sometimes they include oddballs and sight words that don’t follow the pattern. For those, you really just have to memorize them, which is tough for students with weak visual memory.

While a student might not practice their whole list this way, you can choose certain words from their spelling list that you want solidified through the spelling inside out strategy. Sight words are a great choice! Maybe take a child’s journal and pick out 3-5 sight-based words that they continually spell incorrectly and assign those words to that child to work to get better at.

Try it!

Maybe you’re not ready to give up your Friday spelling test just yet, but instead of forcing students store their spelling words in their short term, auditory memory, see if Spelling Inside Out can help them store their words in their visual memory.

Try this in your class this year! See how well your kids really do. If you can spell a word inside out, it will be firmly in your visual memory to where you can see it, and when it comes time to write it in your journal, you will have a much better chance to write it correctly.

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