The Role of Visual Perception in Word Learning

“He can’t remember any of the words that I have taught him!”

This is a common concern that I hear about struggling readers. We understand the importance of a child having an increasing bank of known words.  A teacher should be concerned about a child who is struggling with word learning.

What we might want to ponder is whether the child is truly having trouble remembering words or whether the problem is actually with the student’s visual perception.

To remember information is to bring to your mind something that you have seen or experienced at some point. Our students often can recall pieces of the information but the problem often lies with their visual disorganization of the information. They might recall only certain memorable features of a word -whatever caught their visual attention. The student’s scanning of the word might be haphazard neglecting top to bottom and left to right rules. It is extremely important, that from the very beginning teachers help students sort out how to look at print because “when visual perception is poorly organized the child’s classroom learning is massively muddled” (Clay, 2001, p. 145).
Beyond remembering words when early readers are first learning letter and word discrimination they are also learning
  • how to orient to print
  • how to search for more information
  • how to work with the written language code
  • how to make decisions
  • and how to do these things quickly

(Clay, 2001, p .159)

When teachers assume that a poor memory is causing a student to struggle with learning words they might overlook the importance of checking for problems in the way the student is looking at print.

Learning Words

Although we do not want to become overly focused on words it is important that our students have a growing bank of words they can read. They need to be able to read these known words with automaticity. Building a sight-word vocabulary is important to both comprehension and acceleration.
In the very early stages of learning to read, having students coordinate pointing to each word with their finger can assist with word learning. When a child is able to point to words as they are reading it helps to build a connection between what they are saying and what the word looks like.

Learning Letters Supports Learning Words

In early learning, students will notice the similarities between letters before they are able to notice the differences. Particular features will catch their eye and stand out to them and other features will lose significance. For some students, the teacher will have to teach them how to look at the differences. It will be helpful for the teacher to take note of what features the child is attending to and which they are neglecting.
As I stated earlier,  we need to stress directionality from the very beginning. When we model tracing a letter we work from top to bottom and left to right. We also model for the child what feature of a letter is made first. In the case of directionality, we want to be redundant and echo this work throughout the lesson.

Analyze the Observation Survey

A close look across all of the tasks on the student’s Observation Survey will provide a lot of information about how a student is looking at print. When looking at the tasks ask yourself:

  • Is the child paying close attention to print?
  • Is the child’s attention to print superficial (notices particular features)?
  • Is the child’s attention to print disorganized (eyes look at the middle or the end of a word)?
  • Is the child’s attention to print fleeting (eyes off text)?
  • Does the student always notice spacing or are there lapses (ANY lapses should be considered a red flag!)?
It is important that we do not take for granted that directionality is secure. It is essential that noticing and reading spaces is secure without lapses.

Using visual information

As the student is reading he/she goes through several stages when searching and deciding what to attend to:

Stage 1: Expectancy – something interesting comes to the reader’s attention.

Stage 2: Attendingthe reader directs his/her attention to what has caught his/her eye.

Stage 3: Sensory inputthe reader is looking, searching, comparing, and discriminating information.
Stage 4: Trial/checkThe brain tests out a few likely responses.

Stage 5: DecisionThe reader makes a decision.

(Clay, 2001, p. 157)

These stages are not clear-cut and linear. Readers move back and forth between stages and stages are connected to each other.  Understanding these stages can help us to better analyze how a child is using visual information.

In Summary

We should keep in mind that it isn’t merely about teaching words. It’s about the bigger picture.  We teach children about words so that they will understand that words are formed by a particular set of letters that have a beginning and an end. They will learn where they need to focus their attention which is vital to word learning.

“…children must be able to find out which visual hooks to hang their phonemic awareness on. Teachers often give too little thought to how we perceive the things around us in our world; how we see the printed page, and how we hear the spoken word.” (Clay, 2001, p. 146)



Clay, M. M. (2001). Change Over Time in Children’s Literacy Development. Auckland: Heinemann.

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