by Olive Hickmott and Andrew Bendefy

The vital role of visualisation

In our experience, probably the most accurate description of dyslexia is that a person has learned to use their brain differently, compared to others who find words and numbers easy. And this difference appears to be primarily in the methods people use to visualise.


To understand how this might happen, let’s look at one way people learn to solve problems. Do you remember the teaching toy most of us had as little children – the goal was to put the star-shaped block in the star-shaped hole and so on? We had to turn the block around on each hole until it fitted and fell through the right hole.

One way to solve a problem is to think about it from several different perspectives, turning it around at several different angles or even combinations of angles. This can become a strategy for solving anything life throws at you, and you can perfect this technique of ‘trying another perspective’ long before you encounter words.

If so, when you are confronted with your first words and are naturally feeling confused, your subconscious may come up with ‘I’ve got a way to tackle this problem for you.’ Working completely on autopilot, it tries different perspectives, using this trusted problem-solving method. So first you flip the image one way, then the other, looking at the back, the side, the top, the bottom and so on.

Unfortunately, with written words, trying out other perspectives just does not work. However, children between three and six years old who stumble with words don’t realise that trying new perspectives by flipping them around isn’t going to help. In fact, it will make matters worse.

When reading, the strategy of ‘taking different perspectives’ can account for how individuals swap pairs of letters and find smaller words more difficult, as they tend to spin around; larger words have more stability, and it is normally the syllables or vowels (for example ae, ea, ie) that spin around. It also accounts for words and even lines ‘jumping around’ the page.

Those who find words difficult may simply have never developed a stable visual skill.

Key point

To read well, we need to be able to use still pictures or slow a movie down to individual frames.

Having said that, typically dyslexics are very visual, which is an invaluable talent in general. They appear to run internal movies easily and can picture all sorts of scenarios. Dyslexics are excellent visualisers who can move 3D images at great speed; and this skill when inappropriately used on 2D words is very confusing. In fact, they may be so fast that they find it very difficult to hold pictures still, in their inner eye, long enough to explain them or to use them for seeing words.


Just for a moment, imagine what it would be like for someone who uses ‘trying different perspectives’ as their default response for solving any problem they face.

In many cases this will make them incredibly creative when solving all sorts of problems, yet when it comes to printed words, it will actually cause difficulties; the person then tries to overcome word confusion by trying out more perspectives, even faster. If the person is trying to read, this will only exacerbate the problem, which in turn leads to frustration because they are not achieving what they want and yet they keep trying the same inappropriate and largely unconscious strategy.

Think of it as interference to learning, understandably built up after repeatedly trying hard to succeed with a method that definitely worked for early problems, but now leads to frustration or ‘bewildering’ when facing the problem of reading.

Look at Typical symptoms for some of the challenges dyslexic people experience; you will see that these start to make sense when you take into account the role visualisation has to play.


When David was asked to imagine a cat in his mind’s eye, he immediately had a clear picture of a cat from the front, back, bottom, side and so on. He may have been running the movie of the cat to look at it from the other side or simply flipping the picture around, getting a cat facing one way and then another. It isn’t surprising that when he used either strategy for reading, the letters would tend to jump around the paper.

Philip’s experience was very different, he had dozens of cats in his mind’s eye, which was very bewildering – he needed to agree with himself to just focus on one.

Some research carried out in 1970 to model good spellers found they could ‘see’ or visualise or imagine words; poor spellers have no concept of doing this. Interestingly, this ability of good spellers to visualise a word requires the person to ‘see’ a static picture from a single perspective. It is this static picture skill that appears to be underdeveloped or even absent in people with dyslexia – 100 per cent of the dyslexic people we have met don’t visualise static words.

This skill is rarely taught explicitly and some individuals just don’t pick it up naturally on their own. You can teach poor spellers and readers this skill and their whole relationship with words will change. It is a capability that was never taught in school – it’s a ‘how to’.

The origins of basic skills difficulties lie in a range of factors... The first signs of the difficulty can be seen, however, in developmental tasks that are poorly mastered even before school is entered. Failure to acquire visual motor skills, as revealed by a copying-designs test, turns up as a strong predictor of adult literacy and numeracy difficulties, the effects of which are evident even when qualifications are taken into account.

Bynner and Steedman, 1995, Parsons and Bynner, 1998

The magical ‘how-to’

Many children and adults have achieved stunning results very quickly as they discover their missing visualisation ‘how to’. It is not unusual to acquire this new skill in a very short period of time and, with expert coaching, some have even achieved it in less than an hour. It appears that once the mind gets hold of an easier way with words, it is so pleased that it rushes headlong into this new world, eagerly improving abilities to spell and read.


You may be interested in some of the facts we have learned regarding visualisation as it relates to reading and spelling:

  • The best spellers and readers visualise words – FACT
  • Most dyslexics don’t visualise words at all or not well enough to hold them still – FACT
  • On the other hand, if they visualise objects well, teaching them to visualise words is an easily taught skill – FACT
  • You can learn to improve your visual skills in less than an hour – FACT
  • Developing visual memory is not taught in mainstream education – FACT, so you need not feel stupid if you have never got it
  • If people with poor spelling learn to visualise words, they will be able to spell better – FACT
  • Everyone can visualise, but some do it much better than others – FACT
  • Visualising is a key component of having a good memory – FACT
  • If you want to remember what you have read, try to create a picture or a visual image; it lasts longer and is easier to recall, but this skill is not even mentioned to children – FACT
  • If letters move on the page while you are trying to read, this normally indicates a learned behaviour; you can teach your brain to hold them still in a few minutes, even with imaginary spray glue – FACT
  • Until you visualise numbers, mental arithmetic will be very difficult if not impossible – FACT
  • If you don’t visualise you will have a poor memory – FACT
  • Musicians visualise music staves – FACT

To see someone change their experience with words and grin from ear to ear is so rewarding – and an everyday experience with the seeing spells achieving method.