Could a visualizing and verbalizing® program be the answer for reading comprehension struggles? Children with autism spectrum disorder, especially those who struggle to form mental images while reading, may benefit from a program like the Nancibell® Visualizing and Verbalizing® Language Comprehension and Thinking program.
Hearing your child read a sentence for the first time is music to parental ears; realizing they did not understand what they read may tone down the elation. Acquiring reading comprehension skills is a challenge for many children; research (Nation et al., 2006) suggests even though kids on the spectrum generally possess proficient word recognition skills, their reading comprehension is often impaired.
Reading comprehension and ASD
Randi et al. (2010) examined why reading for understanding is especially challenging for kids on the spectrum in a literature review titled: Teaching Children with Autism to Read for Meaning: Challenges and Possibilities. The review is introduced with mention of the fact that many autistic children are skilled at decoding but comprehension skills may be lacking.
The authors conclude the review suggesting that reading comprehension is essential for everyone, but for those on the spectrum it may be especially important as experience with written text may facilitate the acquisition of language skills (Randi et al., 2010). Prioritizing reading intervention for this population is crucial as research found over half of autistic children struggle with reading comprehension.
Specific challenges barring reading comprehension
With research (Nation et al., 2006) suggesting around 65% of school-age autistic children may have poor reading comprehension ability, the reason behind such comprehension difficulties should be examined.
Studies mention executive dysfunction, theory of mind, and weak central coherence as possible factors in poor reading comprehension amongst autistic children. In addition, relatively strong word recognition ability—which, as previously mentioned, is often found in children on the spectrum—may mask phonological decoding difficulties, which could hamper the development of reading comprehension (Henderson et al., 2014).
Henderson et al. (2014) offers a cautionary note concerning reading assessment which relies on word recognition. For the ASD population this may mean reading competence, especially reading comprehension, is overestimated.
Students with good reading skills are able to create mental representations from oral and written language, additionally their sensory system brings “parts to whole” effortlessly through imagery (Wang & Li, 2019). For those who have difficulty creating mental images while they read, understanding and remembering written text may be challenging.
Nanci Bell’s contribution to research (1991) explains how weak gestalt imagery (poor ability to create imaged wholes) may hamper oral and written language comprehension. Processing only parts of written or oral language input leads to challenges like difficulty following directions and poor reading comprehension.
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The Nancibell® Visualizing and Verbalizing® program develops concept imagery which may serve as a foundation for higher level thinking and comprehension. The program does this by targeting the visual imagery skills of kids with language impairments to facilitate better oral and reading comprehension (Lemelman et al., 2014).
Before looking at whether this strategy is successful and practical for children on the spectrum, it may be helpful to examine what it is and the details of how it aids reading comprehension.
Visualizing and verbalizing®
The Visualizing and Verbalizing® program was created by Nanci Bell. The program develops concept imagery, explained as the ability to see the “gestalt” or whole. Developing this ability serves as a basis for comprehension and higher order thinking.
The Lindamood Bell learning processes are described on the company’s website; the following quote on the homepage may be especially relevant to parents seeking reading or language comprehension support for their kids on the spectrum:
“Clinical research and experience over the last 30 years indicate there is a separate comprehension weakness that is rarely identified. This weakness often undermines the reading process…It is weakness, based in the sensory system, in creating an imaged gestalt.” (Nanci Bell, co-Founder of Lindamood-bell)
What is visualizing and verbalizing®?
Simply put, visualizing and verbalizing® teaches kids who struggle with understanding or comprehension to create a picture in their mind as they read or listen to a story.
Visualizing and verbalizing® is an evidence-based strategy that may improve overall understanding of oral and written language. To retain oral and written language we need to form visual representation in our minds. Such visualizing, or the ability to imagine a concept or (even a picture of such a concept) lays the foundation for comprehension in the reading process.
For visual learners (many autistic children are) the Lindamood Bell learning processes will make sense as it encourages creating a movie in the mind while reading. The ability to make a mind movie, or create a sensory image while reading, is a great indicator that a child understands what they are reading.
It is a multi-step program, where a child or adult with dyslexia, autism (and other language and literacy disorders) are taught to build an imaged gestalt. The teacher or volunteer provides an image and encourages the client to express what they picture using targeted questions. A verbal model is also provided teaching the student to verbalize accurately from an image.
The program therefore encourages reading comprehension through mental imagery and verbal elaboration (Sadoski & Willson, 2006). How can parents use visualization and verbalization to encourage their children on the spectrum to use mental imagery while reading, to improve reading comprehension ability?
Creating a picture worth a thousand words
Parents who are interested in working with their child to improve reading comprehension may want to implement the visualizing and verbalizing® concept with support. All Lindamood-Bell program materials can be ordered from Gander Publishing.
The materials can help parents to ask targeted questions to bring forth mental imagery. Structured word use in such questions may bring imagery to a conscious level. Appropriate questions about location, mood, color, and shape may develop visualization skills.
Using the materials, parents could start by presenting their child with a picture and asking them to describe it. Once they are able to do so, they should be prompted to describe something they know which is not in sight, for example, their school or family car. Parents should employ targeted questions eliciting vivid responses.
In this way, children are encouraged to form mental pictures or mental movies of the text they are reading. Starting simply with a sentence or two, and progressing to the point where mental images of the entire text are built in their minds. The child should express their mental imagery verbally according to the visualizations and verbalization method.
Teachers are in a great position to facilitate better reading comprehension—classroom instruction teaching kids to visualize (as they read) and also verbalize their imagery, develops concept imagery which improves critical thinking, comprehension, and memory.
There are parents who voice their concerns about the intensity and time commitment of the program. This is a valid concern, especially when considering the myriad of other therapies an autistic child may require. Knowing the program is evidence based with research suggesting benefits for a variety of language concerns means it’s easier to invest the time required.
Evidence based success
Research examining the success of visualizing and verbalizing® for a specific concern like better reading comprehension in a particular population (such as children on the spectrum) is tougher to find than general research about language intervention programs. One such study (Lemelman et al., 2014) investigated the effect of a 10-week intensive visualizing and verbalizing® intervention on the reading abilities of children with ASD.
The overall findings from the study (Lemelman et al., 2014) suggest visualizing and verbalizing® may be beneficial to improve vocabulary and oral comprehension in children on the spectrum. For reading comprehension, however, the authors mention more research with larger samples is necessary to further establish effectiveness.
For dyslexic students, research results show significant performance gains in spelling tests after 40 hours remedial training using the visualizing and verbalizing® method (Faber, 2006). Research (Sadoski & Willson, 2006) does seem to suggest that teaching children to utilize mental imagery while reading can improve reading comprehension.
Even though research lauds the benefits of implementing a reading intervention strategy (like the visualizing and verbalizing® method) there are very few schools and teachers implementing such programs (Koch & Spörer, 2016). As reading comprehension is crucial for learning from text, more parents are seeking help independently and finding it in programs like the Nancibell® Visualizing and Verbalizing® program.
In future, technology may also play a part in helping students who struggle to create mental images while they read. For students with such imagery deficits, innovative apps may be the answer to improve reading comprehension.
Authors (Wang & Li, 2019) suggest development of an innovative dual-coded multimedia application could help young children with imagery deficits to better understand and remember what they read. This in turn, will lead to increasing reading motivation and interest.
As parents we should utilize every resource available to foster better reading comprehension in our children. For many kids, understanding text becomes easier when they are able to create mental pictures while reading. Vivid images bringing understanding and retention of text stops words going in one ear, out the other.
When the world becomes an overwhelming place, many of us escape by entering the quiet joy of a great book. Finding solace between such pages is only possible if meaning is found too, otherwise reading becomes just another alienating experience for the neurodivergent mind.
Bell N. (1991). Gestalt imagery: A critical factor in language comprehension. Annals of dyslexia, 41(1), 246–260. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02648089.
Faber, Günter. (2006). The effects of visualizing and verbalizing methods in remedial spelling training: Individual changes in dyslexic students’ spelling test performance. International Journal of Special Education. 21. 85-95.
Henderson, L., Clarke, P. & Snowling, M. (2014). Reading comprehension impairments in Autism Spectrum Disorders. L’Année psychologique, 114, 779-797. https://doi.org/10.3917/anpsy.144.0779.
Koch, H., Spörer, N. (2016). Fostering reading comprehension in regular classrooms. Implementation and effectiveness of whole-class reciprocal teaching. German Journal of Educational Psychology 30: 213–225.
Lemelman, Amy & Murdaugh, D. & Crider, C. & O’Kelley, Sarah & Kana, Rajesh. (2014). The Impact of a Visualizing and Verbalizing Intervention on Language Ability in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Nation K, Clarke P, Wright B, Williams C. Patterns of reading ability in children with autism spectrum disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2006 Oct;36(7):911-9. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0130-1. PMID: 16897396.
Randi, J., Newman, T., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2010). Teaching children with autism to read for meaning: challenges and possibilities. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 40(7), 890–902. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-0938-6.
Sadoski, M., & Willson, V. L. (2006). Effects of a Theoretically Based Large-Scale Reading Intervention in a Multicultural Urban School District. American Educational Research Journal, 43(1), 137–154. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312043001137.
Wang, L., & Li, J. (2019). Development of an Innovative Dual-Coded Multimedia Application to Improve Reading Comprehension of Students With Imagery Deficit. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 57(1), 170–200. https://doi.org/10.1177/0735633117746748.