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What Sounds Right To You
May Look Better To Your Child



What Sounds Right To You
May Look Better To Your Child

© 1999 Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.

"My daughter can spell all her vocabulary words when I quiz her orally Thursday night, so why can't she spell them on the test Friday morning?" "My son knows how to beat every level in Donkey Kong, so why can't he learn his multiplication tables?" Sound familiar? For the majority of children, learning at school comes easily enough. But for a few students in every classroom, school is much more of a challenge - to them, their teachers and their parents. Just as puzzling is the child who struggles for the first few grades, and then suddenly seems to blossom in third or fourth grade. Or the reverse: the child who excels until that point, and then begins to fall behind. If this describes your child, how can you help?

Making sense of these perplexing situations begins by remembering the different ways we learn. As we go through the day, we store information using our traditional five senses: sight, sound, touch ("kinesthetics"), taste, and smell. Though perfume makers might have us believe otherwise, sight, sound and touch/feel get the most use. Just as each person in the family has a favorite place to sit in the living room, each has preferred ways of learning and remembering. The way we learn something influences how we remember it later. For example, if you learn a phone number by saying it to yourself, when you recall it you may "hear" it or say it back to yourself. By contrast, some people remember a phone number by its physical location on the phone pad. Ever watch someone trying to remember a number by moving their fingers? Still others will memorize phone numbers visually, and then "see" them written in their address book.

Which style of learning and remembering we use (or "representational system") can have considerable impact on how we do in school, the career we choose, and how well we understand and are understood by others. Just as country western and heavy metal don't get air time on the same radio station, people who speak one representational language can have trouble understanding the same idea when it is expressed in a different representational language. Consider the following example of a parent trying to help a child with a list of new spelling words (enough, though, thought, through):

Child: These spelling words sound all wrong!

Parent: Let's look at the words together and I'll show you how to learn them.

Child: But when I say them the way they're spelled, they don't sound right.

Parent: Pay attention to what I'm trying to show you here. Stop griping and focus on this for a few minutes and it'll get clearer for you.

Child: But I am listening! Don't you hear what I'm trying to tell you?

The increasing frustration between the visual parent and the auditory child is likely to get played out regularly without either really understanding why it's happening. Before I discuss the impact of learning styles on your child at home and school, take the brief quiz below to develop a sense of whether your child may have one or two learning channels which are much stronger than the others.

Find Your Child's Personal Style

Circle all the answers that you believe apply (or none at all) for each question.

  1. When my child has leisure time, he or she prefers to:
    1. watch TV, a video, or go to the movies.
    2. listen to music, radio, or read books.
    3. do something athletic, physical, or using his or her hands.
  2. What my child notices most about people is...
    1. how they look or dress.
    2. how they sound when they talk.
    3. how they move.
  3. My child learns most easily when he or she ...
    1. sees someone demonstrate what to do.
    2. gets verbal instructions.
    3. gets "hands-on" experience.
  4. When my child is finding his or her way around a new school he or she tends to...
    1. use a map.
    2. ask for directions.
    3. trusts his or her feelings about which way to go.
  5. My child enjoys books or magazines that...
    1. have a lot of pictures.
    2. discuss interesting topics.
    3. cover sports, activities, or crafts.
  6. When my child has many things to do, he or she ...
    1. make lists or imagines doing them.
    2. keeps reminding/telling himself or herself there are things to do.
    3. feels uncomfortable until all or most of the things are done.
  7. When my child is talking to someone, he or she ...
    1. tries to see what they are saying.
    2. listens closely so that he or she can hear what they have to say.
    3. seems to try to get in touch with that they are saying.
  8. When my child solves problems, he or she ...
    1. keeps looking at alternatives until the pieces come together.
    2. talks about new approaches until something clicks.
    3. fit possibilities together until he or she gets a feeling of balance.
  9. My child likes any place where:
    1. there are things to see and people to watch.
    2. there is music, conversation, or quiet.
    3. there is room to move.

Count all of the a's, b's, and c's and make a bar graph of the score.

a. ______ (Seeing)

b. ______ (Hearing)

c. ______ (Sensing)


The VAK assessment tool above is modified from the original adult version © 1999 Jay Arthur - The KnowWare (tm) Man. Complete profiles can be obtained by sending $8 to Lifestar, 2244 S. Olive, Denver, CO 80224.

  seeing hearing sensing


Most children and adults automatically use a blend of several senses when they are taking in new information. Multi-sensory teaching helps students improve how much they retain because the more "channels" or modalities in which the information is presented, the better anchored the memory. This is why good teachers build lesson plans that involve the eyes, ears and kinesthetics. For the child who learns best or primarily in one channel, however, multi-sensory teaching can have real drawbacks. Let's see what happens when children bring their personal learning styles to the first day of school.

As children move through school, the way they are taught goes through some important changes. While much teaching in the early grades is multi-sensory, it is skewed towards a kinesthetic, hands-on approach. Children at this age learn by touching, manipulating, and taking apart their world. Between third and fourth grade, teaching shifts to a much more auditory approach. There are fewer worksheets and more oral presentations of new material. Then sometime before high school there is another shift, this time to a more visual mode where concepts are more abstract, symbolic and graphic. While most of us can learn well enough in any of these three modes, a few children seem to learn easily in only one mode. You can begin to guess, then, what is happening for the child whose experience of school changes dramatically around third or fourth grade. Kinesthetic learners may begin to fall behind as the teaching style shifts to a greater emphasis on auditory based learning; by contrast auditory learners suddenly come into their own.

If your child, like most, learns through a blend of the three major learning channels, your job as a parent is greatly simplified. But roughly one child in six is what Michael Grinder, the National Director of NLP in Education, calls a "translator." Any information that enters through his or her sensory system has to be 'translated' into their primary/only mode of storage. If you have ever studied a foreign language, you know what this is like. After listening to the foreign words, you need a few seconds to translate them into your native language. You can't listen to any more words until you translate the ones you just heard. To speak, you need a few seconds to translate the English thought into its foreign language equivalent. UN translators can do this on the fly; the rest of us need extra time. The student who is a "visual only" learner needs a few seconds to translate what he just heard into something he can store visually. A "kinesthetic only" learner who listens to his mother tell him what chores to do needs a few seconds to translate that into a motor sequence ("Mom wants me to grab the wastebasket and take it outside to the barrel; put my socks in the top drawer; move my Beanie Babies off my bed and onto the bottom shelf.") While a student in class is performing this kind of translation, no other incoming information can be handled. For those few seconds anything else the teacher is saying or presenting is lost. The result is that the student has gaps in what he or she knows, which may only become evident at test time!

How can you and your child's teacher recognize cues that help identify a child who is one of these "translators"? Here's a description that helps tease out how these different types of children present:

Visual learners:

Children who are visual learners like to see what they are learning and experiencing. Because what they see takes precedence over what they hear, you may find it impossible to carry on a conversation with a visual child (or husband!) who is watching TV, even if the sound is turned down. Children who are visual learners are more likely to spend less time on the telephone because they can't "see" the conversation. They want to look at the other person for all the visual (nonverbal) cues. If you are giving directions to a visual child, include visual anchors such as, "Please be sure you put both (holding up two fingers) your lunch box and book bag by the door (pointing)." One clue to a visual parent can be heard in the reprimand, "Look at me when I'm talking to you!" For such parents, lack of eye contact is perceived as a lack of attention. (However, auditory people tend to avoid eye contact when listening so that they won't be distracted by what they see. They look at something neutral so they can listen better.)

If your child is a visual learner, he or she may like to have music playing while studying. It breaks the silence without being visually distracting. Visual learners tend to be strong, fast readers, but may not enjoy having someone read to them. They tend to be excellent spellers, but may have trouble spelling words they have never seen. They like things more organized, whether it is their desk or the format of a paper they are writing. When talking they tend to speak faster than other types of learners. But expect to see their gaze glaze over or turn away if you begin to monopolize a conversation!

In the classroom, strong visual learners are also more at risk of tuning out intermittently for two reasons when the teacher is talking. A "talking head" is not as visually stimulating as watching what other children are doing. (The average listening span of adults to a monologue is only three minutes!) Plus, the visual learner has to pause regularly to translate what he just heard into a format that can be stored visually.

Here are some words to listen for from a child who is a visual learner. These words all reflect a visual orientation to how the child perceives the world. The visual child will use words like these without consciously choosing them, because they match the way he or she naturally processes things internally.

see, look, picture, show, hazy, bright, dim, large, color, vivid, shape, near, far, focused, clear, sparkle, perspective, point of view, flash, look, see, dimension, shine, reflect, magnify, glint, sheen, view, transparent, opaque, hazy, foggy, dull, fuzzy, sharp, light, brilliant

 Auditory learners:

Children who are strong auditory learners love telephones, since their primary sense (ears) is the one being used. If you call home and ask your auditory teenager to take something out of the freezer, it is likely to happen. But make the same request of a visual teenager and the chances that it will get done fade considerably! The child who sits in class doodling could be bored, but he or she may also be an auditory learner: by doing something that occupies the hands and eyes that does not require thinking, the ears are free to really listen.

Such children are the most talkative of the three styles. Listen for a more rhythmic style to the way they speak. They love discussions, though they may tend to monopolize. They enjoy being read to, but may be slower at reading than visual learners because they tend to read subvocally to themselves (some move their lips as they read.) They are usually good phonetic spellers, but tend to talk better than they write. As I mentioned above, don't expect a lot of eye contact when talking to this kind of child. Such children are likely to look at something neutral (i.e., with no movement) to be able to listen better. This, of course, rules out the TV!

In class such children will find it easy to listen to the teacher give a lesson orally, but may get lost when they have to move around the class to a different center, or when they have to follow visual directions. If the teacher is showing something on the chalkboard and a student nearby is talking to a friend, the strong auditory learner is at risk of shifting her attention to the conversation and away from the visual material being presented on the board. The same problem with the time needed to translate visual or kinesthetic input to auditory also applies.

Here are some of the words you're more likely to hear from a child who is an auditory learner. The auditory child naturally speaks about the world in language which reflects this internal auditory way of perceiving things.

hear, loud, soft, whisper, shout, scream, rhythm, resonate, harmony, talk, speak, tempo, stereo, sound, hum, sing, rings a bell, word, tone, vibrate, listen, said, quote, saying, noisy

  Kinesthetic learners:

Sometimes called "haptic" learners, children who learn best this way like to move, touch, feel, and manipulate what they are learning. Babies do this naturally - everything goes to the mouth to be explored. Such children tend to like action oriented books. When spelling, kinesthetic children may count out letters with body movements and cross check with internal feelings. In conversation they use more gestures and action words. Their way of organizing things is more likely to be based on what feels right than on how it looks.

Children who excel at sports, like their professional athlete counterparts, tend to be strong kinesthetic learners. Ever watch an Olympic skier practicing at the top of the run? He or she will be moving/twisting/turning through a sequence of turns and jumps while standing near the starting gate. As adults these children migrate towards careers as builders, craftsmen, mechanics and artists who work with their hands with wood, stone, clay or machines. Meta-kinesthetic people rely heavily on a particular aspect of kinesthetics - intuition. These individuals often make excellent sales people.

The strong kinesthetic student loves to be doing things. If the teacher passes out a worksheet to work on, such a student is at greater risk of beginning to do what feels right, whether or not the teacher has finished giving oral directions, and without reading the directions at the top of the worksheet. If the lesson the teacher is giving does not involve a hand-on component (sorting beads, painting a poster, etc.) this kind of student may initiate his own physical activity such as doodling or exploring the contents of his desk. When this happens, the ears and eyes may not give enough attention to the teacher to learn what is being presented. As with other single modality learners, the strongly kinesthetic student may miss instruction while she translates what is being presented into a kinesthetic form for storage.

Children who are strong kinesthetic learners also have their own favorite words. Their natural focus on movement, feelings and intuition as a way of perceiving and understanding the world around them will be expressed in words like the ones shown to the right::

pressure, heavy, temperature, light, vibration, soft, rough, touch, feeling, solid, move, hot, cold, motion, fuzzy, smooth, floating, drifting, heavy, handle, connects, shape, fast motion, slow motion, warm, textured, grasp  

If you find that you and your child speak a different representational language, cheer up. Learning to speak his or her language is much easier than learning a foreign language. I wish I'd had a foreign language phrase book the day I ordered steak au poivre (pepper steak) instead of steak au pauvre (poor man's steak)! Here's a quick translation guide you can use if you notice what you are doing isn't working - er, isn't sounding quite right - ah, just isn't as clear as you'd like.





I see... I hear... I feel, I get...
That looks... That sounds... That feels...
I can't get a clear picture of what you're saying. I'm confused by the tone of what you're saying. I can't get a grip on what you're saying.
Look at me when I talk to you! Are you listening to what I'm saying? Are you getting this?
I can't get that into focus. I don't like the sound of that. I don't get it.
That looks bad. That sounds terrible. That feels awful.
Show me what you mean. Describe that in more detail for me. Walk me through that one step at a time.
What's your perspective? What does all of this sound like to you? What's your grasp of the situation?
Watch me Mom! Listen to this Dad! Man, do you get my drift?
Imagine how this might look over here. Tell me whether this sounds better to you. Do you think this would be a good fit?

What can you do at home to help?

Before jumping to any rigid conclusions about your child's learning style, talk with his or her teacher. If the problems have been significant, consider having a thorough educational evaluation done to rule out other factors which could be a problem such as visual or auditory problems, ADHD, a learning disability, or emotional distress. If the evidence suggests your child is one who learns much more easily in a single particular mode, be sure to coordinate your efforts at home with what your child's teacher is doing at school. Here are some suggestions to help make learning more fun and successful at home.

Start with basic principles that teachers utilize: teach new things in ways that involve several senses, not just words. Particularly for children in grades K - 3, remember that they love movement, action, and learning in a hands-on way. For example, my nine year old son has a new understanding of fractions now that he has been using our bread maker to sell homemade bread to the neighbors. As you can imagine, all that measuring and pouring involves a lot of physical movement. It also involves the three major senses. He has to read the recipe (˝ t. baking powder), look at the measuring spoons to find the correct size, and then physically measure the correct amount of flour, salt, etc.

The notion of beginning with your child's strongest learning channel and then moving to a second channel is called "bridging." Educators know that learning is strengthened by involving multiple channels. The battery operated game Simon is a good example of this. The visual child can remember the sequences by memorizing the colors (red-red-blue-green). The auditory child does the same thing by memorizing the sequence of sounds (la-la-do-fa), and the kinesthetic child uses location (top-top-bottom-left). If your child is a strong kinesthetic learner, for example, have him practice playing the game by focusing on the color or sound cues. A number of the newer educational computer games incorporate similar multi-sensory learning, bridging what is being learned in one channel by also presenting the information in other channels. Two examples that come with separate versions for different grades are Math Blaster and Reading Rabbit (The Learning Company.)

Remember the child who knew all those spelling words when quizzed orally on Thursday night? She might be a child who is a much stronger auditory learner. To help her with the test on Friday, first have her silently spell each word to herself - and then write it - when you quiz her Thursday night. Have her use the same sequence when she takes the real test on Friday. If your child is a kinesthetic learner, have her trace the words on fine sandpaper with her finger. This helps anchor how it feels to write the letters. Then have her look at the word, holding it just above eye level and slightly off to her left. (The physical position matches the way most people retrieve visual memories: they usually look slightly up and to the left!) Finally, have her spell the word aloud.

What about the Donkey Kong child who can't memorize the multiplication table? He may be a visual-kinesthetic learner who has more trouble with auditory tasks. Since math is a language (auditory) with its own rules about sequencing, this kind of child may learn math facts more easily with a visual aid. One way you can visually store the sound of the words "7 x 7 = 49" is with a triangular flash card like the one below:


Notice that by covering one of the corners and asking "What is the missing number?" the child has not only broken the linear structure of multiplication, but has a visual structure for learning division as well as multiplication.

If your child is a strong visual learner who can't seem to find things, he may have weak "figure-ground" skills. This kind of child has trouble visually scanning a room or a homework sheet to locate a specific item or piece of information. If he puts something down without looking at it, he may not form a reliable visual memory of where he put it. These ideas may help reduce how often you are asked to search for missing items. (1) Have him picture in his mind where he would like to routinely keep item x such as his sneakers. Then have him watch himself as he mentally rehearses doing that. Finally, have him actually put his sneakers in that place, looking at them as he puts them down. Help anchor it by having him silently say to himself, "I am putting my sneakers (location). (2) If they are already lost, have him imagine rewinding a videotape in his mind back to a point when he was wearing the sneakers. Then have him watch what he was doing after that, in sequence. If this isn't enough, have him physically retrace his steps, so as to involve the kinesthetic channel to help with the memory. If two channels aren't enough, have him say aloud what he did at each point in the sequence. The likelihood of finding the sneakers increases as more memory channels are involved. Don't expect these to become habits the first few times. Most good - and bad - habits only become well ingrained with many repetitions. Your job is to help him practice, so resist the temptation to put the sneakers in the chosen location yourself!

Sometimes a solution does not require changing channels per se. The parents of one very bright 12 year old I evaluated said he would dissolve into tears if he had to write even a one page composition. Watching him write I suspected he had problems with fine motor skills. It took him more than a minute to write a sample sentence neatly, 35 seconds to write it quickly, but only 12 second to type it on the keyboard! He solved much of his written homework frustration by merely shifting from writing to typing, since typing only requires gross motor coordination to produce excellent results. Over the years I've evaluated a number of students who find homework much easier to do when they type it.

For several years now auditory learners have had the wonderful option of using dictation software (Dragon Systems and IBM both sell excellent programs) which lets them speak into a headset microphone that puts what they say directly into their favorite word processor. My 15 year old son has been using Dragon Systems software for two years to do most of his written assignments. For older students, the dictation software is also an excellent tool for taking notes in outline fashion from textbooks. Reviewing for tests is much more efficient this way.

Because learning takes place inside our heads where no one can see it happening, most people don't realize how different their style of learning may be from the person sitting just across the table. By listening carefully to the words your child uses when he or she talks, you can learn a lot about how he or she stores and retrieves information. If your efforts to help with homework haven't been working well, learning how to simply translate what you say into his or her best learning channel may produce results which will surprise you. Effective learning is aided by good strategies for learning. The suggestions above are intended to help you and your child discover the strategies he or she uses that already work best so that they can be used more consistently. Remember, the strategy that sounds right to you may look very different to your child!


Dilts, Robert & Epstein, Todd. (1995). Dynamic Learning. Capitola, CA: Meta Publications.

Engel, Gregory & Arthur, Jay. (1995). The Neuro-Linguistic Programming Personal Profile. Denver: LifeStar.

Grinder, Michael. (1991). Righting the Educational Conveyor Belt. Portland, OR: Metamorphous Press.

Wong, Harry K & Wong Rosemary T. (1998) The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications, Inc.