I struggled with math throughout my childhood, constantly felt inadequate compared to my peers, and cried in the corner of my classroom often. I wholeheartedly relate to learners who reach their threshold of learning frustration, particularly as it pertains to mathematical conceptualization and automaticity. It was not until I found a method of cognition and technique (visualization) that I was truly able to find meaning and, thus, joy, in math. Learners who face similar struggles as I did, often give up, signaling a need for personalized instruction and, quite possibly, a formal diagnosis of Dyscalculia. Here, I will provide insight into the diagnostic definition, overt and covert symptoms, and effective strategies to help learners find their way towards mathematical confidence and, ultimately, feelings of success.

What is Dyscalculia?

Unfortunately, Dyscalculia is misunderstood and unknown to the general public which is one of the reasons that it goes undetected. So what exactly is Dyscalculia? According to understood.org, “Dyscalculia is a condition that makes it hard to do math and tasks that involve math. It’s not as well known or as understood as dyslexia. But some experts believe it’s just as common. That means an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people might have dyscalculia.”

It was not until I found a method of cognition and technique (visualization) that I was truly able to find meaning and, thus, joy, in math.

What are the symptoms?

As clearly stated on LDA America, “(Dyscalculia) Affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts. Individuals with this type of learning disability demonstrate impaired math calculation skills and difficulty understanding numbers and math facts. Dyscalculia is associated with weaknesses in fundamental number representation and processing, which results in difficulties with quantifying sets without counting, using nonverbal processes to complete simple numerical operations, and estimating relative magnitudes of sets. Because these math skills are necessary for higher-level math problem solving, quantitative reasoning is likely impaired for these individuals.”

Common symptoms of Dyscalculia include difficulties with:

  • Seeing how numbers fit together 
  • Counting
  • Calculating 
  • Recalling math facts, like 3 + 2 = 5
  • Using concepts like “less than” 
  • Using symbols like + and – 
  • Telling left from right 
  • Reading a clock 
  • Working with dollars and coins
  • Analyzing numerical data, graphs, charts

If you, as a caregiver and/or educator, would like to learn even more about the symptoms of dyscalculia, please visit either dyscalculia.org or childmind.org.

Unfortunately, Dyscalculia is misunderstood and unknown to the general public which is one of the reasons that it goes undetected.

How can you support learners with Dyscalculia?

There are many studies substantiating the efficacy of multisensory, evidence-based practices in strengthening the underlying foundation and application of mathematical skills thereof. Curriculums such as Making Math Real, Touch Math, and Mathematical Mindset Some of these explicit strategies include, but are not limited to:

  • Manipulatives such as blocks, number lines, and other tools to visualize how to solve math problems 
  • Explicitly develop working memory, concept imagery, growth mindset and self-regulation skills to bolster processing foundation 
  • Advocate for extra time for tests and other tasks that involve math 
  • Allow access to technology like calculators and math apps to help make math easier to navigate
  • Play card, board and virtual learning games to develop problem-solving skills and a positive association to thinking mathematically
  • Incorporate mental math organically into daily conversations when you are having dinner, driving in the car, and so forth

Some learners are unresponsive to the above or make slower progress than one would anticipate. This lack of receptivity is the feedback that you need to reach out to your pediatrician and/or psychologist to explore the possibility of a Dyscalculia diagnosis as well as recommendations for placing them on the path towards their potential. 

There are many layers of processing, executive functioning, and problem-solving skills that equally contribute to and, thus, are involved in one’s ability to reach a level of mathematical independence. We must establish a strong framework for learners to stand upon before expecting them to lean into discomfort and then rise above adversity. It is imperative to keep in mind that math may never be easy for learners like me, but it certainly can become less daunting and more enjoyable with the right strategies and an open mindset in place.

One of the most commonly unnoticed and, thus, undiagnosed diagnoses is Dysgraphia, a diagnosis involving the impairment (physically and cognitively) with written expression. Here we explore the definition of this diagnosis, the symptoms one can look out for, and how it is treated. 

So what exactly is Dysgraphia? 

A recent study conducted by The National Center for Biotechnology Information stated the prevalence of dysgraphia is, “between 10% and 30% of children experience difficulty in writing.”  According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, “Dysgraphia is a learning disability which involves impaired ability to produce legible and automatic letter writing and often numeral writing, the latter of which may interfere with math. Dysgraphia is rooted in difficulty with storing and automatically retrieving letters and numerals.” Like several other learning differences, dysgraphia can stand alone or can go hand in hand with one or more learning disabilities. Common morbidity presents itself in learners who are diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and executive dysfunction, just to name a few. 

What symptoms are paired with Dysgraphia? 

One of the first signs that a learner is struggling with writing is noticeable in their actions. They might refuse to write their name on a worksheet, crumple their papers up or even avoid writing tasks by creating excuses (frequent bathroom breaks, anyone?) In essence, learners with dysgraphia have unclear, irregular, or inconsistent handwriting, often with different slants, shapes, a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as a combination of cursive and print styles. They also tend to write or copy things slowly.

Caregivers or educators may notice symptoms when a child first begins writing assignments in school. Some key signs of dysgraphia to watch for include:

  • Cramped or improper grip, which may lead to a sore hand/fingers
  • Difficulty spacing things out on paper or within margins (poor spatial planning)
  • Varying shades of writing (i.e. darker letters or small tears in their paper due to tight grips/force when writing)
  • Frequent erasing and/or scratching out
  • Difficulty organizing their written work 
  • Inconsistency in letter and word formation and spacing
  • Poor spelling, including unfinished words or missing words or letters
  • Unusual wrist, body, or paper position while writing

What methods are used to treat Dysgraphia? 

“Writing is a skill, not a talent, and this difference is very important because a skill can be improved by practice.”

Robert Stacy McCain, American Journalist 

Oftentimes, a combination of personalized Occupational Therapy and Educational Therapy strategies are needed for learners to strengthen the underlying cognitive and motor skills that correlate closely to writing with independence. Occupational Therapists, for example, can address the fine and gross motor skills that are responsible for serving as a foundation for formation, spacing and endurance, while Educational Therapists can provide systematic support to the organization, planning, thought process and the like that goes into fluent written expression. In all honesty, writing and the layers of complexity that it involves may never be easy for dysgraphic learners, but, with the guidance and help of certain specialists, learners can apply differentiated techniques that work best for them so that they are not limited by their challenges. 

Understood has created a fantastic list of methods one can use in order to develop dysgraphic learners’ writing skills as well in their blog, 8 Expert Tips on Helping Your Child with Dysgraphia. Assistive technology is also one of the most widely accepted accommodations for learners who struggle with the symptoms of dysgraphia. Potential solutions include, but are not limited to: 

  • Utilize pencil grips and hand strengthening toys (such as stress balls) to encourage a healthy, proper grip. 
  • Provide extra time to take notes and copy material. 
  • Give the learner access to peer or teacher notes to remove the variable of notetaking altogether. 
  • Allow the learner to use an audio recorder or a laptop in class. 
  • Provide paper with larger spaced, different-colored or raised lines to help form letters in the right space. 
  • Allow the use of graph paper (or lined paper to be used sideways) to help line up math problems.
  • Encourage learners to type and utilize keyboarding when possible/appropriate. 

It is better to catch writing challenges early in order to alleviate unnecessary struggles.  If you notice your learner struggling with any of the aspects within the writing process, please do not hesitate to reach out to your support ecosystem (educators, Learnfully Specialists, OTs, other caregivers, etc.) because they very well could qualify for a dysgraphia diagnosis or at least get access to techniques that will make their writing lives easier. Silencing one’s voice by not allowing them to communicate in written form can be detrimental to their self-esteem and their ability to express themselves in general. So, please join our mission to empower neurodiversity and seek support if your learner is facing written expression hardships. 

All too often, we hear from caregivers that their learners are unable to “memorize” sight words and math facts. You have probably seen it yourself – time and time again, a learner is unable to recognize a word while they are reading, such as “the” whenever they encounter it in written form. This is because their visual working memory (i.e. their mind’s eye) is weak so they are unable to retain and retrieve information independently. So, let’s explore a technique that, when done correctly, can create a huge impact in one’s ability to see success!

Why Airwrite? 

Airwriting is arguably one of the most effective methods of strengthening one’s imprinting skills. By definition, airwriting is the act of writing letters and numbers in the air. Your mind’s eye is like the imaginary blackboard of your brain – it is responsible for imprinting static information such as letters and numbers so that you can retrieve information instantaneously. Thus, in order for a learner to tap into their working memory as a resource for literacy and mathematics, they must be aware of their ability to imprint, i.e. see, information in their mind’s eye. Sensory exercises such as airwriting can help develop this awareness and are relatively easy to incorporate in any learning plan. It is unfair to expect learners to automatically recognize vowel sounds, word patterns, spelling words and the like without a stable working memory foundation. Airwriting is the agent to creating this strong foundation for learners to stand upon when it comes time to activate their learning potential. 

How to Airwrite

Programs differ slightly on their approach to this invaluable technique. Some use only their pointer finger of their dominant hand, while others take more of a gross movement approach using their entire arm. Either way, it is imperative that educators and caregivers reinforce proper airwriting procedures in order for the learner to reap the full benefits. Make sure that learners are watching their finger and saying the names of each letter or number aloud simultaneously so that they can make the most of the process. If the concept of airwriting itself appears complex for the learner, sprinkle in a little color! Ask learners to pick a color to “write” with in order to increase engagement and to improve their ability to see the shadow effect airwriting leaves behind. You can also start by airwriting on a table, then working your way up to the air (eye level) in order to help learners relate to the meaning and purpose behind airwriting. 

Level Up!

Once your learner has stabilized the act of airwriting, you can incorporate a range of sensory exercises to take the benefits or airwriting to the next level. Sensory exercises is a general term for any exercise that involves at least one of your six senses. In this respect, they are utilized as a way to further spark cognizance of a learner’s ability to see symbols in their mind by asking pinpointed questions about the information they wrote in the air. Sensory exercises can take several forms such as:

  • Ask learners to label the placement of specific letters/numbers. “What letter did you see second? First? Last?
  • Omit or insert a new symbol. “What if we put an ‘e’ at the end of this word?”
  • Manipulate the current pattern. “What if we change the ‘a’ to an ‘o’?”  

Probing learners in this way creates a significant cognitive impression and helps cement the word / algorithm in the learner’s mind’s eye. 

Consistency is Key

Airwriting develops a sensory connection between a learner’s visual, auditory, and kinesthetic systems. There is a multiplicity of ways one can organically incorporate airwriting into their learners’ lives both in and out of the classroom. From weekly spelling lists to multiplication practice, airwriting is a fun way to bolster a learner’s underlying skills and self-confidence at the same time. Regardless of the task itself, framing airwriting as a game does wonders for buy-in and success. Challenge yourself while encouraging learners to airwrite at home, in the car, at school, etc. in order to normalize the act. However you choose to swing it, consistently and repeatedly employing this technique into a learner’s daily lives rewires their brain (thanks, neuroplasticity!) to perceive and anchor information in a profoundly beneficial way. Give it a try and you, too, will see to believe! 

Making math enjoyable is ideal for driving learner engagement. I had a chance to speak with Federico Chialvo, who shares this passion and is on a mission to spark joy in mathematicians of all ages.

Briefly tell us about your career/experience in education. 

I knew I wanted to become a teacher by the time I finished high school, because as a Latinx immigrant, “English Language Learner” with ADHD and Dyslexia I had first hand experience about how hard it could be to navigate the school system, and I could point to a handful of teachers that made all the difference in me making it through my K-12 experience. I wanted to dedicate my life to making education work for those who, like me, weren’t being served equitably.

Over the past 20 years I have worked as an educator in a wide variety of environments, as a teacher in all grades K-12 and in public, private and international schools. Most recently, I served as the Director of Mathematics at Synapse School, a project-based K-8 independent school that integrates SEL throughout the curriculum, where I had the opportunity to build a math program focused on providing all kids with a rich and joyful experience of mathematics. 

I took the 2019-2020 school year off to be a “stay at home dad,” and found Joyful Mathematics in hopes of sharing math games and toys that spark joyful math moments. During that year, I also worked as a curriculum writer for Illustrative Mathematics. When the pandemic hit, I had to extend my time away from the classroom to tend to our children. However, last month I started a new job working as a Curriculum Designer at Dreambox Learning, which is an online platform that seeks to ”change the way the world learns by inspiring all students to think differently about math–and love it.”

How did you decide to dedicate your efforts to math? 

It’s hard to pinpoint how I decided to dedicate my efforts to math, because it feels like my whole life pointed to that choice. 

I had a tumultuous relationship with mathematics growing up. One minute I thought I was good at math and enjoyed it, and then I’d hit a wall and feel completely lost. My mathematical abilities were probably hidden or misunderstood in part due to being 2 grade levels below in reading and coping with ADHD. One year I’d be in remedial math classes, then in GATE, then back in regular math class, only to be put back into the accelerated track. I failed a semester of math in high school, only to take two courses the following year to make up for it. Meanwhile, my father, the biophysicist, would blow my mind at home or in his lab with conversations about fractals and chaos theory.

Despite all my struggles with math in school, I made it through to college with a hint of the beautiful structure that lay behind the cold and rigid way mathematics was taught.

I was lucky enough to take a few math classes in college that reaffirmed the joy and wonder inherent to mathematics. It was in diving into the deep well of pure mathematics that I discovered the profound beauty, creativity, and wonder mathematics had to offer. I was awarded an NSF undergraduate research grant for my research into a simple proof of the four-color theorem, and for a brief moment, I even considered becoming a research mathematician. 

Just as I was entering my senior year, I was offered the opportunity to design and teach a project-based seminar class at City High School. From the moment I saw a student’s mathematical identity flip from negative to positive, I was hooked. I felt like I could make an impact, by helping students foster a positive relationship with math. That’s been my main focus ever since!

Why is it important to learn math throughout education? 

On the one hand, mathematics is extremely useful because mathematical thinking helps us communicate, remix, and debate ideas. It also can be helpful in some lines of work or in general life. 

Math can enrich conversations about our world, whether you’re exploring science, social justice, or public policy. Also, math plays an important role in being an informed citizen that can think critically about data and information and act accordingly. 

My favorite reason, however, is merely because it is one of humanity’s most ancient art forms, and when we learn about the beautiful world of mathematics our lives are enhanced.

What is the most common misconception about math? 

There is a common misconception that mathematics is only about numbers, doing quick calculations, and there’s only one way to do it. 

On the contrary, mathematics has a beautiful web of ideas that are interrelated, it’s creative, and there are many different ways to do mathematics and shine through mathematics. Some of the most brilliant mathematicians are “slow” thinkers, visual thinkers, and divergent thinkers.

How do teachers create a joyful environment for math? 

Open up mathematics! Curate experiences that give students agency, let them tinker, make mistakes, fail and try again. 

Find ways to have your students be surprised by mathematics, to notice patterns and wonder how and why things work. 

Center student thinking by giving them the time to work through their thoughts, and creating a safe space to share ideas in their raw and sometimes incomplete forms. 

Expand the notion of what is considered mathematics. Puzzles and games can be a great way to spark joyful math moments, but so can learning a little bit of graph theory, topology, coding, etc.

What are some tools you use/have developed to engage learners in the math process? 

I love to curate a tool rich environment for students, anything that helps students play, tinker or create with mathematics.

Physical manipulatives have the power to disarm even the most math-averse students, and give them time to sit with concepts. For example, classic pattern blocks, which are actually surprisingly versatile, I’ve used them to explore mathematical concepts ranging from preK-12th grade. Omnifix cubes are such a treat, it’s like Minecraft you can hold in your hands. For learning place value, base-10 blocks, as well as alternate base blocks like base-2 and base 5. For those learning algebra, Lab Gear or Algebra Tiles are fantastic. 

My favorite digital tools are ones that increase student’s access to mathematical wonders. Some of my favorites include Desmos, Geogebra, Mathigon’s Polypad, Scratch, and of course Dreambox.

I’m also a big fan of the 3-Act Math lesson structure, and building in math talk routines into a daily practice, because they center students’ voices and thinking.

Finally, I believe game-based learning can play a big role in our learning experiences. I’ve used games like Catan and Set in my math classroom, and have even created dozens of games over the years to teach a variety of concepts. Recently I published a board game called MULTI, which helps students learn their multiplication facts as well as the structure of multiples and factors. MULTI was the culmination of a decade of playtesting with kids.

Is there anything else that you would like our audience to know about math (perspective, tips, tools, etc.)?

I’m on a mission to rebrand mathematics, in hopes of sparking joyful math moments and expanding the notion of who and what is mathematical. I believe mathematics has something for everyone to enjoy, and mathematics can gain something from everyone who engages with its beauty!

To learn more, visit our website joyfulmathematics.com or follow @joyfulmathematics on instagram. 

About Federico:

Federico Chialvo is a curriculum designer for Dreambox Learning and the founder of Joyful Mathematics. He holds a BS in Mathematics and a Masters in Education from the University of Arizona and has been an educator for 20 years as a teacher, administrator, coach, and curriculum designer. Federico specializes in designing authentic experiences of mathematics through project-based and problem-based curriculum and has a passion for developing games and toys that spark joyful math moments.

Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.

Dr. Temple Grandin

Have you ever read a book, then watched the movie after much anticipation, only to face disappointment with the movie itself? Our brain is a picturing machine. The reason why we struggle to love the movie versions of our favorite books is because we are creating colorful images in our minds as we read and the movies cannot compare to our visual interpretation. Oftentimes, our learners rely heavily on memorization and short-term recall to trudge through each school year.  Once this act of visualization is brought to a cognizant level, they are better able to tap into their imagery as a resource for processing and retaining verbal and nonverbal information. The moment that learners realize that they, too, can ignite learning and inspire brain power through imagery is priceless and can place them on a positive slope towards reaching their full potential. Let’s dive a little deeper through the lens of two change makers in this field, Dr. Temple Grandin and Dr. Allan Paivio.

Thinking in Pictures

Dr. Temple Grandin’s life mission is to increase awareness about how learners on the Autism Spectrum see the world and think by way of imagery. She has written two books on the matter- one for adults and the other for children- in order to fully reinforce the importance of picturing as a tool to reach a level of mental clarity about the communicative world.  Grandin quotes, “I am a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My brain is like Google Images.” There is strength and beauty behind visualization as a strategy for processing information. Seeing in pictures (symbols and meaning) provides a secure base for learners to stand upon throughout their daily lives. Most individuals think in pictures, but are not aware of their ability to do so and cannot, thus, apply their underlying strengths to learning opportunities. Grandin, along with many others, advocates that we need to use mental representations as a method to store and recall information, then pair verbal expression to these images to solidify one’s communication skills.

Dual Code Theory

Dr. Allan Paivio is another huge proponent for utilizing pictures to guide one’s thinking. In 1986, he proposed the dual coding theory which attempts to give equal weight to verbal and non-verbal processing. Paivio states: “Human cognition is unique in that it has become specialized for dealing simultaneously with language and with nonverbal objects and events. Moreover, the language system is peculiar in that it deals directly with linguistic input and output (in the form of speech or writing) while at the same time serving a symbolic function with respect to nonverbal objects, events, and behaviors. Any representational theory must accommodate this dual functionality.”

Dual Code Theory claims that we process information in two simultaneous ways- statically and dynamically. Whether we take information in visually or auditorily, our brains then translate said input by creating two different types of representational units- “imagens” for mental images and “logogens” for verbal entities. The blackboard in our brain, thus, generates images to correspond with either the symbols (static, logogens) or the vivid imagery (dynamic, imagens) that support activation of prior knowledge, information retrieval, language processing and critical thinking skills thereof. The static images connect directly to words, patterns and numbers while the dynamic images connect to vocabulary, comprehension, processing abilities and higher order thinking skills. Our experiences shape the way that we imagine specific concepts and word patterns, but we all have the capability to picture information and, therefore, utilize the imagery to learn, regardless of the differences that lie between us.

The great Albert Einstein once claimed, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” Conjuring images and pairing pictures to language is not new. We have seen quite a high level of success when learners generalize this underlying, sometimes inherent, skill to strengthen pathways in their brain. The imagery-language connection is a proven, systematic approach to processing information that can be developed from the ground level with the right methodologies. Sprinkling in sensory-based language in everyday conversations and establishing the association between words and pictures can have a long lasting impact on one’s cognition well beyond the classroom. So, picture it!

Think back (way back for some of us) when you, yourself, were a learner sitting in front of a blank paper in class because your mind went blank. Most of us can relate to the feeling of high level of frustration that writer’s block presents. Well, some learners face that in the classroom environment on a daily basis. Writing is one of the most challenging aspects of learning today. To relieve the pressure, we will explore the elements of prewriting and all that it has to offer.


Brainstorming is the informal method at which a learner can write any and all ideas they have in the mind on the page. Creating lists or stop & jots can serve as a structured method by which learners can capture their ideas without the pressure of writing down their thoughts in an organized manner. Delineating lists in and of themselves is a great practice to start young as the practice strengthens one’s Executive Functioning skills and releases a bit of tension all at once! Additionally, some educators and parents find success with having a verbal discussion with their learners as a precursor to writing as it allows them to filter their thought process before feeling the finality of putting pencil (or keyboard!) to paper. The learner or the educator can take notes throughout the discussion as a brainstorm too. Lastly, as most would agree, Stop & Jots are a brilliant way for learners to write down a quick thought, connection, question, or otherwise on a post-it that can evolve and move based on where it is most useful. Many teachers find immense value in the use of stop & jots when working on literature study as well as when brainstorming, so give it a try!



Another method to reduce unnecessary stress in the beginning stages of writing is to provide learners with sentence starters or prompts to get their creative juices flowing. Sentence starters are transitional phrases (“In this article,…”) or segments of sentences (“then, in turn,…”) that serve as a springboard for learners to dive into initiating their thoughts in written form by providing a frame of reference for them to stand upon. Prompts can be rather engaging, especially when you incorporate exciting ideas for learners to ponder such as their ideal vacation spot, favorite pastime or perfect birthday treat. As an educator myself, I absolutely love to ask my learners (and children) Would you Rather questions at the dinner table because not only do they provide options for the learners to choose from, but they also improve critical thinking skills and allow them to utilize their imagination to respond. Check out conversationstarters.com’s list for ideas, your learners will not be disappointed!

Graphic Organizers

This is probably the most frequently used tool during the prewriting stage of written expression. There are so many outlines to choose from that it is a wonder as to why some learners avoid them at all costs! Even well into adulthood, writers continue to resource graphic organizers as a method to organize their thinking is a low-pressure way. Common outline strategies include concept maps, Venn diagrams, bubble/spider webs, timemap diagrams, hamburger charts…the list seems nearly endless. Acknowledging that various outlines can be used for differing purposes and, therefore, finding what works best for you is key. That way, learners can feel ownership of their prewriting process and lean on what they find effective based on their personal learning style. 

Venn Diagram
Concept Map
Bubble Chart

In sum, jumping directly into writing a paragraph or an essay can certainly feel daunting for most people. We completely understand the value prewriting can bring to a learner’s final written product and support the use of these tools (and more!) not simply because they organize our thoughts, but mainly because they can drastically reduce unnecessary anxiety and relieve the stress fog that can block beautiful ideas from being expressed in the first place.  Brainspill away, learners!

Critical Thinking

The final step in the reading ladder takes content beyond the text. Developing critical thinking skills applies not solely to the reading process, but to life as a whole. Learners are constantly challenged to think independently and, thus, critically in and out of the classroom. The good news is that critical thinking is a teachable skill, so let’s explore a few steps that we can take to teach our learners how to exercise their ability to think critically!

By Definition

First and foremost, what are critical thinking skills? According to The Foundation for Critical Thinking, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” When it comes to reading between the lines, learners require and deserve explicit instruction in how to apply these levels of cognition. As you can see, the list of higher-order thinking skills can seem overwhelming! Let’s start by definition the key elements of critical thinking skills:

Analyze – the gathering, interpretation and analysis of information.

Infer – drawing conclusions based on the activation of prior experience/knowledge as well as current data.

Evaluate – the ability to observe/notice and predict opportunities, problems and solutions.

Interpret – to explain the meaning of information.

Generate – to produce or create something based on higher-order processes.

Reason – to think, understand and judge based on a process of logic.

Use Your Resources

Although we recognize that everyone learns these processes differently than another, there are a couple of key strategies that can be generalized to reach most, if not all, learners: using mental imagery and learning how to question.

Each of the aforementioned higher order thinking skills depends on a secure foundation of how to learn, process, recall and retrieve information through visual and auditory channels. The basis of this ability to comprehend language is the awareness of your thinking patterns which typically take the form of mental imagery. Tapping into the brain’s ability to conjure images allows learners to connect high level thinking abilities to a grounded foundation of mental representations. Sprinkling in sensory based language at home and in the classroom directs learners to use their imagery as a springboard for thinking critically. For example, asking questions such as, “What do you picture might happen next in the story?” “How do you picture the main character might (feel, solve the problem, etc.)” and so forth, truly helps teach critical thinking in a relatable way.

Has your learner ever asked you “Why?” repeatedly? Well, guess what? That seemingly irksome habit is actually exactly what they need to do to develop their critical thinking skills! Teaching learners to ask questions and seek support when they are unsure is important, especially when guiding learners to also questioning others’ way of thinking. Questioning assumptions helps learners to take perspective and to discover the depths of the questioning process. In addition to helping learners refine their ability to question, we must also help them evaluate, reason, connect and analyze information using logic and prior knowledge. If something does not make sense to learners, they must first question themselves, then use logic to reframe their thinking. Inquiring about others’ thought processes diversifies a learner’s ability to broaden their thinking scope, opening up a world of higher-order thinking possibilities.

Sprinkle Away

As is true when learning new things, it is easiest to break down the critical thinking umbrella into smaller, more manageable chunks so that you, as educators and parents, are able to organically sprinkle in the strengthening of these skills throughout your daily activities. Comparing similar and/or contrasting items, analyzing analogies, exploring possible outcomes/solutions (Would You Rather is a great way to have fun doing so!) and discussing angles of a conversation are all effective ways to make critical thinking part of your learner’s everyday life. By helping your learner connect their thinking to mental pictures and ask questions often, they will feel more equipped to rise to the challenge of using their higher order thinking skills across all environments!

Reading Comprehension

The ultimate goal of reading is to understand what you read and to think critically beyond the text. Quite often, parents contact us with concerns about their child’s inability to remember a story that they have read. These same children also tend to struggle with recalling experiences, working through a math word problem, reading between the lines, making connections, taking perspective- the list goes on and on. If this sounds familiar to you, you are certainly not alone! Read on to learn why this occurs and how you can help provide your child with strategies to move beyond the memorization phase!

Explicit Instruction is Top Priority!

Learners, struggling or not, need to receive direct instruction in reading comprehension strategies. Without this explicit piece, learners will commonly resort to memorization which then, thus, becomes a compensatory measure as they age.

Create Images

Concept imagery, the ability to create mental movies as one reads or listens, allows learners to see the meaning behind what they are reading and connect this imagery to recall and critical thinking skills thereafter. A key strategy to heightening cognizance around the imagery language connection is to teach learners how to filter their thoughts by verbalizing what they see in their minds’ eyes. Prompting them to use sensory-based language like, “I see…” or “I picture…” will solidify their realization that words create pictures and vice versa!

If a learner struggles with telling you what they see in his/her mind, an evidence-based strategy for bringing these pictures to a conscious level is by asking direct questions to develop visualization skills such as “What colors do you see in the background? What size and shape is the (insert main subject)?” and so forth. Once a learner has mastered the ability to connect imagery to text, then you can sprinkle this language into your daily routines such as, “What do you picture you would like to do this weekend?” “What do you picture happening next in the story?” The possibilities of sprinkling sensory-based language organically at home and in the classroom are endless!


Learners must have a solid vocabulary foundation in order to apply imagery to what they hear or read. Research suggests that most learners establish a strong vocabulary base by reading volumes, therefore contextualizing unknown words for later reference.

If you wish to work on specific terms that are not as easy to understand based on the context, a tried and true method is the Frayer Model (image above). This method allows learners to dive deeper into the word itself. Regardless of the written strategy you use to develop a learner’s vocabulary, it is imperative to always keep in mind that if you can’t picture it, you can’t remember it!

Chunk it Out!

Most of us do best when we break information into parts, so that we can best understand the whole. With that, you can develop learners’ reading comprehension skills by breaking information into pieces, then building complexity and density as they show more independence. This can be done by isolating one word, a phrase, a sentence, multiple sentences, a simple paragraph, multiple paragraphs, a page, a chapter and so on. Please continue to keep in mind that you are strengthening your learners’ ability to create mental representations for each piece of information. This should be practiced when a learner both reads expressively (aloud and silent) and listens receptively to information so that they are best able to remember information orally and silently.

Once a learner is ready to apply written techniques to this chunking method, you can start to incorporate Stop and Jots! By definition, stop and jots utilize sticky notes and can include a few key words, a question, a connection, a main idea, and just about anything noteworthy that a learner wants to capture. The note then is placed on the specific correlated page and can either remain there as a study technique or removed to practice recall/retrieval.

What’s Next

Albert Einstein once said, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” Utilizing imagery and the like as a core reading comprehension strategy will allow your learners to take concrete information to an abstract level, remember what they heard and read, and feel much more confident processing dense texts (as well as their own dreams and personal experiences!). As you might have noticed, reading comprehension is not the final step of the reading process. You guessed it- applying these strategies to critical thinking skills and written expression are the last tiers in the reading ladders which we will explore in an upcoming blog!

One Step at a Time

Reading is one of the most rewarding, yet can be one of the most challenging skills to develop, strengthen and apply as a learner. The ability to access written language opens so many doors, and has proven to be one of the key basic human rights throughout history. Here we discuss the first four steps in the reading ladder, in order, that must be in place in order for a reader to feel and see success as they progress. Each component sub-skill builds on the other in order for learners to discover the world of reading possibilities!


Solidify Underlying Sensory-Cognitive Foundations

Reading requires foundational principles such as phonemic awareness, sound/symbol correlations and symbol imagery are in place. By definition, phonemic awareness is the brain’s ability to identify the number, order and type of sounds within a word, while symbol imagery is your brain’s ability to create a picture of the letters/patterns that correspond. A learner might be able to tell you that “cat” has three sounds, but yet struggles to picture the letters to match those sounds in their mind. Weaknesses in either of these areas can dramatically impact a reader’s ability to sound out new words and recognize sight words in isolation as well as in context.

Quick Tips and Tricks:

  • Ask your learner how many sounds a word has and tap out the sounds
  • Gauge if your child can “picture the letters for (insert word)” and then ask he/she to airwrite the letters with their finger, watching their finger write and saying the letter names as they do so.
  • Use tactile materials like shaving cream, sand or sandpaper to add an element of fun and to strengthen sensory integration.

Apply Underlying Skills to Decoding, Sight Word Recognition, and Encoding


The next step in the reading ladder involves sight words and spelling patterns. Depending on the age and grade, oftentimes, sight words are not phonetic and, thus, cannot be sounded out. Therefore, a learner must be able to use the blackboard of their brain to picture, then recall the sight words with automaticity. After seeing the word enough times in isolation, learners are then ready to apply this recognition into reading the words in paragraphs and retrieving the patterns for spelling purposes.

Quick Tips and Tricks:

  • You can easily practice sight words with games- tic tac to, I spy, sight word memory- to name a few. For more ideas, feel free to explore sightwords.com!
  • Spelling requires repetition and can be daunting. As a parent myself, I tend to practice them first by asking my kiddos to airwrite them, then by letting them write their words on a mirror or a window with whiteboard markers. Of course, we still want to use sensory language (“What letters do you see for…?”) and materials (chalk, sand, etc.) to reinforce their imagery for each spelling word!

Strengthen Paragraph Reading to Build Stamina, Prosody, and Fluency

At first, reading can be choppy and belaboring. Emerging readers work best when we introduce them to phrases, sentences and then short paragraphs so that they can feel success each step of the way and build stamina as they go. It is helpful to encourage readers to use their finger or a notecard as a tracking device as well to help focus their attention on the line at hand to isolate any potential errors. When an error occurs, wait until the reader has completed the sentence, then read the sentence or a phrase with the error within so that the learner can discover his/her mistake. This takes the pressure off and allows for more receptivity to feedback.

Quick Tips and Tricks:

  • Use Leveled Reading passages (without naming the level, color-coding works well) and increase the density and the complexity when they appear ready to take on a new challenge.
  • Scan the paragraph beforehand to decode unknown or tricky words.
  • Cover the bulk of a passage if density is intimidating or create a window card to highlight a single word or phrase.

Practice, Practice, Practice!


The practice effect is imperative for learners to be able to reach a level of independence while reading. Please keep in mind that just because a learner can access reading materials, it does not mean that they can understand what they are reading and make connections thereafter. We will address the fifth step in the reading ladder – reading comprehension, language processing and critical thinking skills – in a future blog, so that learners can not only learn to read, but read to learn. Stay tuned!

Quick Tips and Tricks:

  • It is just as important that readers practice using their newly acquired skills with materials that are at or even below their current reading level. This way, they can feel more confident and continue to progress efficiently!
  • Take turns reading to model prosody, rate and comprehension strategies.
  • Practice when your learner is most comfortable and engaged to increase positive associations and build confidence.