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!