by Olive Hickmott and Andrew Bendefy

Improving your visualisation skills

If a person struggles with words and numbers, they will have one or more of the following difficulties:

  • They don’t visualise well
  • They don’t use their visual skills for words and/or numbers
  • They visualise them so fast they can’t keep a steady picture
  • They turn words around in their visual memory to try to make sense of them.

For some ideas on why this can happen, see The vital role of visualisation. This explains that we are talking about the skill to visualise static pictures as opposed to movies or a collage of pictures.

As this type of visualisation is such a valuable skill, it seems strange that it is not taught in school, but seemingly the majority of the population pick it up on their own. It is something that those who do it well take for granted, so they find it difficult or impossible to comprehend how someone can not have this skill. In our experience, poor readers or spellers never realise that they can visualise static pictures, and that they need to.

Key point

So, get good at visualisation! Learn to see ‘stills’.

First let us assure you that you don’t need to be a trained expert to help yourself or someone else through these simple steps. Also, we should point out that these steps will be of use to anyone, whether you have dyslexic symptoms or not. In fact, if you want to help someone else with their dyslexia, it would be very helpful for you to know that you can do these steps yourself, and realise how simple and easy they can be.

Do you visualise?

Some people know that they visualise – they ‘see’ pictures in their mind easily. Some people are not sure and others think that they don’t use mental pictures at all.

Actually, the power to visualise is an essential tool for survival, and the great news is that every one of us has it. Survival required that our ancestors could recognise fruit that was safe to eat and also threats – imagine if they had not been able to recognise a sabre-toothed tiger!

Would you recognise your parents, friends or colleagues if they walked into the room? And how do you do that?

Somewhere in your memory, you have stored a set of images – a visual picture of each of these people – and when you see an individual you are able to match up what you see with the correct internal image and recognise the person. If someone new joins your team, you are immediately able to distinguish them from the others.

Exercise 1

Just imagine, for a moment, there is a really noisy car speeding up the road towards you, its engine roaring as it races by.

  • What colour was it?
Exercise 2

Imagine that you are in front of your own fridge – open the door and what do you see?

  • How do you know that it is your fridge?
  • Is it clean?
  • How do you know?
Exercise 3

Imagine that you are in front of a McDonald’s burger store.

  • What are you seeing?
  • Would you recognise their logo?
  • Sketch the McDonald’s logo on a piece of paper.
  • What must have happened in your mind in order for you to be able to do that?
  • Ask a friend to check that your sketch of the logo is accurate. What must they be able to do in their mind in order to compare your sketch with the real double arches?
Exercise 4

Describe to a friend the way from work to your house so they can make the journey.

  • How do you do it?
  • Do you reference landmarks?
  • Do you describe what they will see (‘take the next turn after the high wooden fence’)?

If, after practising, you still do not find it easy to visualise consciously, you may have stumbled across the reason why you gave up on the idea earlier in life. Since you now know it serves a very useful purpose, and that you must already be doing it at some level in your mind, persevere a little longer and see what you can achieve.

Playing with your pictures

Now you’ve found your internal pictures, even if they are not that clear yet, you can start noticing what they are like, and how you can play with them and change them.


Just think about a cat. (If that doesn’t appeal to you, think of something else, such as a car.)

  • What type of cat comes to mind?
  • What colour is it?
  • Which way is the cat facing?
  • What is it doing?
  • Is it moving or is it still?
  • Where is it?
  • How big or close to you is it?
  • Is the picture sharp or slightly out of focus?
  • How long does the image stay there?

The key here is just to be aware of what you notice about your picture, and also know that it will be different to everyone else’s picture of a cat.

Don’t expect your pictures to be stable for more than a few seconds. As we think about our pictures, they change for most of us, and our internal pictures can be quite fleeting.

Notice also that any picture will have some kind of location. It may seem to be off to your left or right, up or down, and close by or far away. It may seem to be right inside your head or ‘over there’. You can even move your ‘imagined’ picture about. As you think of the cat, imagine it on the floor, now on the table, and now up high on a shelf.


Try this.

  • Hang your picture on the wall in front of you.
  • Give it a frame so it looks like a real picture.
  • Make it the size of a real picture.

Now try this.

  • Float your picture ‘in space’ in front of you, slightly up and at a comfortable distance.

How does this compare with having it on the wall? Which ‘feels’ better or easier?

You may find it easier to do these exercises with your eyes either shut or open. It doesn’t matter which you prefer, since you are not really using your eyes to see these pictures.

You can practise this anywhere: perhaps on the bus, in the bath, or waiting in a queue. Just think of an object and visualise it – take a photo of it in your mind’s eye. You can then try playing with your image: adjust the size and distance; change the colours; make it brighter and so on.


Jason, who is 14 years old, picked up ‘visualisation’ in just 15 minutes. On the front of his school file was a colour picture of his favourite Arsenal club football player. When we asked him to describe the picture, we clearly saw him staring out of the window into the distance (about two football pitches away) and squinting slightly.

When asked what was out there, he answered that he had no idea. But when prompted to bring it slowly nearer, he managed to put it on the window frame and could now see and describe it.

Next, we showed him a different picture and then hid it; he immediately recalled the picture, having easily positioned it on the window frame. His reaction was ‘Wow, this is cool.’

Visualisation and memory

To see how well you can visualise, let’s think of a series of objects. This particular way of making pictures develops more than our visual capabilities: it also increases our memory and ability to remember a number of different items, such as list. In fact, it is the method used by great memorisers to recall long streams of facts and figures.

Just to warm up, take four words at random – cat, grass, fence, yellow.

  • Can you picture a cat? (Is it black, tabby or some other colour?)
  • And your cat is sitting on the grass.
  • And around the grass is a fence, painted bright yellow.

See how easy it is to remember four items when you have connected or linked them together in a sequence? Now run the sequence a few times to make sure you can see all of the items/words, keeping them in the same order.

Now try moving on to a longer list, again recalling objects in the correct order. Read it once, covering each word over as you make your sequence – and then see if you can repeat the series of items. You only have to connect one word to the next; you don’t need to have them all in the picture together.


Make up a sequence of pictures for the following so that you can remember the list of words.

Dog, grass, wardrobe, cricket bat, hat, jelly, bucket, spear, string, shoes, watch, glass, lemonade, green

Run through this a few times, and – yes!

...It further develops your ability to visualise and proves to you that you can trust and believe in your ability to make pictures in your mind’s eye.

There is more on this and other memory techniques in to topic on Memory.