Research shows the need to picture words.

Can you picture words? When you spell the word GIRAFFE, how many Rs and how many Fs. If this is simple for you, you are most likely to be good at literacy. Every Dyslexic I have ever met, and there have been 1000s, is not reliably visualising words. We know that those who are good at literacy can picture words, quite often outside of their conscious awareness, until you give them complicated words to spell, then it is more conscious.

Here is the research that supports this:

In the 1980s, Robert Dilts used NLP’s elicitation techniques to model proficient spellers and published the NLP Spelling Strategy.  Tom Malloy researched the strategy[i] at the University of Utah and F. Loiselle at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1985.  Both research projects showed a significant change in people’s ability to spell accurately after learning the NLP Spelling Strategy.  These studies support the NLP Spelling Strategy specifically and the NLP notion of Eye Accessing Cues and Sensory Representation System strategies in general. They are reported in Dilts, R. and Epstein, T., Dynamic Learning, Meta, Capitola, California,1995,[ii] and elsewhere in many NLP books.

In the early 2000s, neuroscience detected the areas of the brain involved with reading.     Two neuroscientists,  Stanislav Dehaene identified the Word Form Area (WFA), which he called the Barin’s Letter Box  [iii]  and Sally Shaywitz, published[iv] a perfect description, of how the Word Form Area responds to a skilled reader recognising words rather than analysing them.  She also noted how non-skilled readers overstress their Frontal Cortex without moving on to recognising words.

Then we had the so-called reading wars. Where auditory was pitched against visual reading. Someone had to win, and visual lost because it was poorly taught. But no one noticed the child’s world was changing to be much more visual with the advent of technology, so why ignore this strength? Just showing someone a lot of squiggles that represent a word isn’t the way to ensure that they enter the word correctly into their WFA.  It misses out on the vital role of teaching the skill in a way that works for highly visual people.  Then the government dictated that the schools must teach phonics ONLY; making matters worse, it is not one or the other; it is both.  Phonics is needed to decode new words and mental imagery from the WFA, once you have seen the word 2-3 times. In addition, the WFA is essential for showing you how to spell in English that is littered with homophones and rules, words that break the rules, silent letters, etc.

The Covid-19 pandemic made matters still worse, with children in many schools missing chunks of education and increased anxiety for them and their parents as they realise they are falling behind, and often they struggle to help their children with phonics.

We have 1000s of children worldwide who have failed with the phonics route and have not been taught in a way that matches their strengths.  That doesn’t mean only doing the things you are good at; it means using those strengths to help you with any challenges.  Children who have failed the current system are traumatised before they are 10 years old, and this can continue all their lives.

NASA conducted a famous study on the creative genius of humans to measure how creative we remain over the years of getting “educated” [v]. What is the role of “divergent thinking” in preserving and nourishing one of the most essential skills for life: “Creativity”? The test results were shocking: 98% of 5-year-old children fell into the “genius category of imagination”, this number dropped to 12% for 15-year-olds and to 2% for adults[i]. This is shocking because our internal mental imagery, which is vital to populating the WFA, is being lost along with creativity as we progress through school. And “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Many adults’ lack of mental imagery skills may account for why adults find it hard to grasp the concept that mental imagery is a vital part of teaching literacy. Those good at literacy are visualising words out of their conscious awareness and those not good a literacy think this is impossible.

It is a simple skill to learn; young children learn the quickest, in minutes, often saying, “oh, I can do that; I didn’t realise I needed to!” The reason is they just start adding words into their images. Older children or adults take a little longer.

Word recognition is fundamental for fluent reading in English.  You need words in your WFA to recognise them after you have seen them a couple of times. The bonus is you can then access them for spelling.  To spell in English with a deep autographic depth and is littered with homophones and silent letters, you need to visualise words from your WFA.

When you are born, you have no words in your WFA, and the challenge is how best to populate and use images of words. Good phonics teaching can populate the WFA by accident for some but not everyone.  Empowering Learning is unique in discovering how to populate your WFA directly in minutes, with the benefit of NLP, neuroscience and its founder Olive Hickmott. She would have been identified as Dyslexic and ADHD if born later. The missing element was whether there was another quick way to learn how to reliably populate the WFA with less repetition to enable faster progress. 

Others have developed programmes such as look, cover, write, but without knowledge of neuroscience, which explains why it is only sometimes successful and needs many repetitions, challenges remain. People with Dyslexia are usually creative with great mental imagery, and Empowering Learning just builds on these strengths. That is why children enjoy learning these simple processes to help them with literacy.  Mental imagery is a vital part of learning for nearly every subject but is never taught correctly unless you become an elite athlete. You may need to include topics such as grounding and nasal breathing to enable students to gain control over their mental images.

If you wish, you can learn in just 30 minutes the simple principles of teaching students to use their WFA, in parallel with decoding new words with phonics.  Topics will briefly cover:

  • Making friends with your mental images
  • Keeping them under control
  • Adding new words for spelling and reading.

These techniques are fast, fun and effective, putting the joy back into reading and writing.  You can teach any age person, from say 4-80 years old. The process is the same for spelling and reading. Empowering Learning practitioners typically coach the skills in 3 sessions, with time to practice between each session.  There is an online course to learn the skills to be a practitioner.

People already agree that these students are learning differently, but Empowering Learning is the only route that explains how differently. They will be using their Occipital Lobe to support their highly visual skills but not to visualise words because they have never been taught. Note I am not blaming teachers because although every school signs up for multisensory teaching and learning, teachers are not taught how a child learns visually.

[i] Malloy, Thomas E. Principles of teaching Cognitive Strategies, Dept of Psychology, University of Utah, 2007

[ii] The NLP University Press,, Spelling Strategy P1285-1290, Research P1109

[iii] Published in Reading in the Brain in 2009

[iv] Overcoming Dyslexia pages 78-83


My name is Olive Hickmott; I would be pleased to support you in any way I can.
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The Elephants in the Classroom: using every student’s natural power of mental Imagery to enhance learning: Neurodiversity through the lens of mental Imagery.
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About olivehickmott

I am a Forensic Learning coach, showing people how they can improve their own learning and change their health. Working with creative neurodivergent students is a joy, as they learn new skills to overcome many of their learning challenges.
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2 Responses to Research shows the need to picture words.

  1. Barry says:

    An interesting read. I’m not dyslexic but am unable to visualise words at all. In fact I can’t create a mental image of anything. Not even my wife of 50 years. If I passed her in the street I wouldn’t recognise her unless I was expecting to see her there. I recognise people by their voices, not their faces. I didn’t realise that I was in any way unusual in this respect until recently, thinking instead that everyone was was better than me in matching what they see in front of them with information stored in memory.

    I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many Fs or Rs are in Giraffe, or how many Ps are in appointment and rely on spell checkers to get it right. On the other hand I get really irritated when people inappropriately use two/too/to, their/there/they’re, your/you’re, then/than, week/weak, beer/bear/bare, fair/fare etc as I don’t instinctively realise they are homophones.

    I generally know when I see a word spelt incorrectly although I may not know how it should be spelt – bring on the spell checker. As best as I can figure I spell using a long list of rules such as “I before E except after C and in my middle name (Keith) and the name of my home town (Feilding)“. Some I learnt at school in the 1950s and 60s. Others I have evolved through experience. Unfortunately with English, there’s often more exceptions than there are words that follow the rules. It’s definitely not phonics that I use as I never hear the sounds of words when I read, and I don’t associate sounds with letter combinations – “ough” being a good reason why – though, bough, tough, thought, through, cough, thorough and hiccough. When I come across a new word, I don’t associate any sound to it until I actually hear it spoken.

    So I’m curious as to why as a child I was considered to have reading and comprehension skills of children 6 years my senior if I can’t visualise words. Could there be some other part of the brain that has compensated for my lack of visual imagery? Your suggestion to “make friends with your mental images” is impossible for me as I don’t have any mental images to make friends with. Does this mean that a NLP Spelling Strategy cannot help people such as myself who lack a visual imagination?

    • Thank you Barry for your extensive reply.
      Clearly we are not all the same, but my experience is that children have good mental images of pictures that they can use to superimpose letters on. This is especially useful in the English language that has so many rules, words that break the rules, homophones etc.
      As we grow up it does appear that we tend to lose some of our skills to create mental images – “if you don’t lose it, you may lose it”. A very few number of people are identified as having Aphantasia – without a visual memory. I started with the NLP Spelling strategy 22 years ago and have improved it. I find working with children this is never a problem. They have great mental images but they may be prone to moving around when stressed.
      I should also mention that of all the 1000s of Dyslexics I have met, non have been reliably visualising words. Hence it is a simple and very effective skill for life to learn in primary school. For the sake of all those children who struggle with literacy it is vital to encourage them to use their mental images.
      Thank you for your comment

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