by Olive Hickmott and Andrew Bendefy

Reading and spelling

Before you go through this page, it is best if you have already done the exercises in Improving your visualisation skills. This helps with visualising static images, which is the way you need to visualise when reading.

Also, before we start, there is one thing we should point out, especially if this is new to you. We have found that it is easiest for people to learn these skills if they are ‘grounded’. This is a bit like the way martial arts people find their centre. Close your eyes, put both feet flat on the floor and imagine you are anchored to the earth, with strong roots going down, connecting you. Breathe deeply. Notice that as you do this you get a sense of calm and stability.

If you have any anxiety about doing these exercises, have a look at The role of state, and follow the suggestions and links there.

So, in order to read, you need to use static visualisation for the words. The best way to learn this is to practice a simple visual spelling strategy. This will help you read more easily, and the bonus is that you get to be a better speller as well!

Spelling strategy

A strategy can simply be thought of as a way of doing something. Some research was done in the late 1970s into how people who spell well actually do it, and it was found that they almost always use a visually-based strategy. Often, they did not know that they were doing it because they did it so fast, and in their unconscious mind, that they were simply not aware of the mechanics of what they were doing. Do you think through the mechanics of walking in order to walk?

Consistently good spellers are found to look up to access their visual imagery or ‘mind’s eye’. Those who have more difficulty are frequently observed looking down, perhaps trying to think of the word, but also having an emotional response, perhaps under pressure, thinking how awful they are at spelling. Others look to the side, probably listening to how a word sounds, or recalling a well-practised rhyme. For more on how eye movements indicate the way in which someone is thinking, see NLP – What the eyes can tell you.

Good spellers are mostly unaware of these eye movements as they are so quick and barely visible. The researchers discovered that good spellers look up at a picture of a word in their mind’s eye, and simply copy it from the visual image.

There is none of this trying to sound it out syllable by syllable – none of these little memory tricks to remember how to spell difficult words.

You are now going to learn how to paint words onto pictures and hence learn ‘visual spelling.’

Visual spelling

You will learn the process with very simple words first; when you have developed the skill for simple words, longer words will follow easily. You will also learn to link this image to what the word sounds like and whether it feels as though it is spelled correctly.

By the way, don’t let your pride get in the way here: practise really easy words first (three letters), until you have become confident of this new skill of ‘visual spelling’. It is very important to do this process one step at a time.


Take another look at your cat.

Make sure you have the picture in a ‘location’ that is comfortable for you. For many people, this is a bit above the normal line of sight, and a bit to the left.

While holding this picture of your cat in your mind’s eye, write ‘cat’ on the side of its body. If you have a black cat, you may like to use white letters.

To check your visual memory, think of something else – for instance, cleaning your teeth. And now go back to the cat again, checking that the word ‘cat’ is still there.

Is the side of the cat the best place for you to see the word?

If it’s more comfortable for you and easier to read on another part of the cat’s body, go ahead and move it. It is really important you make it the most comfortable place for you.

Practise a few times and you will find this becoming easier. You are simply practising to remember a new picture of your cat. This can take a few tries – after all, you have had your old picture of your cat for a very long time, and this is a new one, with letters.

Bring your cat into your mind’s eye and then spell the word ‘cat’ in reverse order by reading the letters from right to left off your mental image.

Once you can spell it in reverse order (and only then), sound the whole word out while looking at your internal image of the world, and feeling it is right. This hooks the sound and feel of the word to your picture. Spell it correctly from left to right by reading it from your internal image.

Now try other images that work with words of three letters: for example, car, dog, boy, pot.

Here are a few pointers that can help with the above exercise, if you do not find it so easy at first.

  • Get a friend to help by facilitating the exercise so you can concentrate on what you are doing. It also makes it more fun, which is always helpful. Have them do it too, so you can pool your experiences.
  • If the letters jump around at all, just use some imaginary spray glue to hold them down. (It won’t hurt the cat – honest!). If glue doesn’t work, try something like imaginary nails, whatever metaphor works for you!
  • Keep playing with various aspects of the picture, such as distance and brightness, so the image is as crisp and clear as possible.
  • Try capital letters, to see if they are easier for you.
  • Adjust the lettering until it is as clear as it can be, altering the colour, the texture the position and so on.
  • If a particular letter causes a problem, maybe you could make it stand out in a different colour.
  • You can use a flash card to ‘seed’ the image into your mind. This involves drawing a simple picture and the word on a (real, not mental!) 3 x 5 inch card and then holding it up in front of you where you want the image to be. Kind of take a snapshot of it with your mind, and then remove the card while holding the image in place. It is easier to get a friend to help with this.

Remember you are learning a new skill and all skills need practice, especially if you have been doing something completely different for a long time.

If you are wondering why we insist that you spell out the word in reverse order, this is to check that you are actually visualising. Without visualising, reading in reverse order can be difficult, especially with longer words.

When you are reading out a word in reverse order and your visual images are weak, you may find yourself having to trust the letter that first comes to you. This is often the right answer and once you can come to trust yourself, you will be surprised at how this can help your images to become clear.

Bigger words

Now take four-letter words and repeat this process in exactly the same way, making sure that you spell your words in reverse order as well as forwards, from your visual image. The more you practise, the easier, quicker and more confident you will become.

It is useful to have a number of three-, four- and five-letter words already printed on plain paper, one per page, so that you can take a snapshot of them in your ‘mind’s eye’ and add the word to your own picture.

When you are visualising the picture and the word together, try adding your own colours to personalise your image. It is best to use words that describe objects to start with, so they make objects in your mind.

  • Three letters – boy, car, pot
  • Four letters – bird, star, drum, coat
  • Five letters – witch, Santa, clown.

As your confidence grows, you will be able to move on to six-, seven- or eight-letter words, with more syllables, and ones without pictures associated with them.

If there is no picture associated with a word, then the word itself becomes the picture. In fact, once you can do the simple words easily, try just using the picture of the word without the object it represents. It is exactly the same process.

In this way, you start to build up a database of word pictures. You don’t have to learn every word like this, as you will start to store them automatically. You may also find that you already have a store of word pictures which you have been using for reading. When the mind realises that these can also be used for spelling, it is as though your reading and writing dictionaries suddenly get connected. We have seen many students whose reading was good yet completely unaligned with their writing skills. ‘Visual spelling’ brings these two skills together.


Remember Jason, the 14 year old?

Once Jason realised he could visualise pictures, he then visualised a few simple words in the same place on the window frame and could read the letters.

He had a very clear image, so clear in fact that when we asked him to read them in reverse order, it was easy.

We checked their size and colour, and the background colour. He was able to change these and improve his picture to make it even clearer.

Jason’s comment was immediate: ‘This is incredible!’ Within days, his teachers had noticed his reading was improving; and not just the few words we had taught him, he had somehow generated pictures of other words too.

It seemed that at the unconscious level he had ‘switched on a light bulb’ which now integrated new words, and his spelling and reading abilities continued to improve.

His brain had just learnt the essential ‘how to’.


Practice is the name of the game here. You are installing a new way of doing things, so practise whenever and wherever you want, keeping to the same sequence.

  1. First look at a few things around you, to get into visualising mode.
  2. Now start with simple words. Write one word on a flash card, look at it and remember what it looks like – take a picture of the word in your mind’s eye. Look up, and then put it with all those pictures you have of memories or other words.
  3. Now recall it, seeing the word in your convenient place. If the word is long, you may prefer to have a separate picture of the letters of each syllable, and then put all the pictures together.
  4. Now, from your internal image, see the word and spell it in reverse order (from right to left) out loud, knowing that you are deliberately reading it in reverse order. Do this several times. The only reason you are spelling it in reverse order is to ensure that you are reading it, not listening to the word or feeling it.


The above visual spelling skills will help with reading, since you are using the very same static visualisation skills to read. Once your mind understands that this is the best way to do it, you will find reading getting easier and easier.

You will also probably improve your comprehension and memory of what you are reading. This is simply because you will start making more vivid pictures in your mind about what you are reading, and these will stick in your memory better. Some books are written with very visually stimulating text – for example, the Harry Potter books – and it may help if start with this type of book.

Jumping words

One of the main things that people with dyslexia say about reading is that the letters or words jump around the page, or rotate or won’t stay still. There is actually quite a simple remedy for this. Use spray glue. Not the real stuff, but the even stronger imaginary glue. In your mind’s eye, spray the glue onto the page and the letters and words will stay stuck where they should be.