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What Is Visual Learning?


Visual Learning, Eye Movements, and Visual Circuit Teaming

How humans learn and process new information is deeply linked to their eye movement skills. Poor eye movements are indicative of how much data is perceived with each glance. An infant should be able to visually follow a target briefly. A three year old will follow a target with some head movement. By the time a child enters the first grade; their eye movements should be quite smooth. The poorer an individual’s ability to take in information and coordinate data from each eye, the more confusing and disturbing their environment appears. Consequently, poor eye movements lead to distraction, disorientation, and disorganization. Can you imagine how hard learning is if you cannot remember instructions, do not know where you are looking, and cannot understand what you see?


Reading, Writing, and Spelling

For success in school, children must be able to coordinate their eye movements and follow a line of print without losing their place and look ahead. Children with visual circuit teaming or binocular issues often cope with double vision or shifting letters by shutting off or suppressing one visual circuit. Their brain ‘turns off’ one eye and neurologically blocks its visual input. By shutting out the information, children and adults can maintain single vision, but reading becomes extremely tiring and robs the individual of energy, comprehension, awareness and a natural flow.


A common mal adaptation for children and adults with vision problems is to see the world in a piece meal or fragmented manner.  Fragmented performance is characterized by reading with frequent pauses, and writing with poor spacing and inconsistent letter size. If reading is difficult, a person will want to avoid the activity, develop low self-esteem, and be discouraged by the massive amount of effort it takes to stay on the line, visually recognize words, and remember and understand what they have just read. Individuals who struggle with word sight recognition work too hard at decoding the mysterious letters on a page.  Without an adequate vision system the child may learn to read with tutoring or resource help, but continues to struggle with reading fluently and with good comprehension. Consequently, there may be little interest in doing assigned reading tasks. Unfortunately, they have not learned to gather information from the printed page effortlessly and automatically. 


Spelling is another important skill that children and adults need to have.  Many words don’t look the way they sound or sound the way they look. Children often spend a great deal of time trying to remember correct spelling for tests, and then have difficulty retaining the correct spelling for story writing.


The most effective method of dealing with reading, writing and spelling problems is by giving children and adults new and effective visual tools. After working on tracking ability or eye movements, teaming of the visual circuits and visualization skills, patients who have been previously diagnosed with reading problems or learning disabilities, can become active and voracious readers and very competent writers and spellers. Visual recognition of words and visualization skills are the keys that separate successful students from struggling students.



Vision problems also affect how children and adults learn and understand math. Research has demonstrated that poor visual perceptual ability is significantly linked to poor mathematical ability. Vision perception refers to the process of interpreting and organizing visual information. This action can be divided into two categories: visual discrimination and visualization. Visual discrimination involves a person’s ability to identify an object’s distinguishing features while visualization refers to their ability to remember that visual image, and recreate it in space.


In order for children and adults to discriminate between numbers and break down complicated problems into manageable components, they need to use their vision processing skills. Therefore, in order to see problems from different perspectives, in order to actively manipulate and visualize three-dimensional space, children have to develop very strong visual competence. Math is dependent on the individual’s ability to imagine objects in space and time. The gift of visualization is the tool that humans use to make accurate predictions and view situations from different angles, allowing us to understand conceptual math problems. When an individual experiences delays in visual development, they cannot understand math’s relationship to space and time.


These delays create coping strategies within struggling children, which cause them to memorize instead of internalizing abstract concepts. They often need extra time to complete work and have to put in an incredible amount of effort while achieving meager academic successes. By strengthening a child’s visual discrimination and visualization skills, we can give them a more in-depth and richer understanding of abstract ideas and mathematical concepts.


In addition, the child who has difficulty aligning numbers in columns, has deficient visual circuit teaming skills. (Visual circuit teaming refers to the coordination of the input from each eye.) He or she is unable to organize space or to make accurate spatial judgment as to when and where numbers need to be placed.  Similar issues are observed in handwriting.


Language- Listening and Communicating

Many children suffering from poor eye movements, poor visual circuit teaming and weak visualization skills are misdiagnosed with auditory processing disorders. They have a difficult time following multiple directions, cannot access words to communicate clearly, and overall struggle with verbal expression. The cause of these difficulties with language is the child’s attempt at ‘remembering’ words in a specific sequence, instead of using visual skills to convert what they hear into imagery. Children who cannot translate words into bigger pictures and meanings have to work extra hard to store information and have minimal access to expressive language. Compensating for poor visual learning processes, a child who has to ‘remember’ information will never be able to see the bigger picture. While their brain structures are normal, these children and adults use their vision system, the brain’s main operating system, in an abnormal way. Only by working on their eye movements, visual circuit teaming and visualizing talents can the cause of their struggles with language be truly addressed.      

Disorganization and Disruption

A 2 year-old child enters a room and sees a vase. He will touch the vase, feel it, and pick it up to know what it is. Children begin to explore the world through touch. They rely on tactile information to answer the following questions: What is it? Where is it? What do I do with it? As children get older, they rely more on their vision system to give them a sense of time, place, and function. If their visual abilities do not develop properly, children can get stuck in a fragmented and tactile universe. Vision is a much more efficient system of exploration, and individuals who do not have a good perceptual match between vision and touch- a mismatch, can become very physically hyperactive, fidgety, and disruptive. Overly hyperactive children do not rely on their vision for gathering information. They have not been able to transition to a more complex visual way of seeing and learning, and cannot process visual information in a continuous and effortless manner.  If their surroundings are not stable, if they cannot trust what they see, if they have mismatches in space, children compensate by moving, touching, and physically claiming their environment. 
Often this need for physical hyperactivity is misdiagnosed as AD(H)D and medication prescribed for this disorder does nothing to solve the underlying vision problem, which is causing the disruptive behavior. A more holistic approach is to help the child become more visually competent and comfortable in this world. If a child can trust what he or she sees, they can learn to exist in the universe through visual exploration. If they can begin to see the bigger picture, children become more aware of the consequences of their actions and are able to better internally adjust their behavior. When steps are taken to improve visual competency, a disorganized, hyper, and emotionally struggling child is transformed into an individual who is able to control their impulses, organize space, organize their own thoughts, and appropriately direct, and monitor performance, e.g. read fluently with good comprehension, neat writing, follow directions, compute math problems, play team sports, etc.


Visual Learning Process

Visual skills are built, one on top of the other. These skills include eye movements and location abilities, visual circuit teaming, visualization, and visually directed physical movement. Problems ensuing from the inadequate visual circuit teaming, coordination of the input from each eye, make reading, writing, mathematics,  as well as tasks involving organization or planning, and even sports very stressful activities. This leads to skipping words or lines when reading, messy, clumsy writing, poor eye contact, poor listening skills, difficulty following directions, weak catching and throwing skills, and overall developmental delays. Listening skills and the ability to follow directions are compromised because so much effort is required for the visually inefficient child or adult to look and visualize or plan ahead, causing gaps in their comprehension and inconsistent or poor follow through.                                                                  


Children and adults often deal with the stresses of weak vision skills by compensating with less effective learning strategies. They adapt to tunnel vision, and often what is meaningful is limited to what is seen directly in front of their faces. They avoid difficult tasks. They memorize facts instead of cognitively understanding complex instructions and lessons. If left untreated, vision problems can drastically affect a child’s academic performance and their sense of self. We need to teach these individuals how to learn visually and how to trust what they are seeing.


The Visual Learning Process is a behavioral optometric approach that addresses how we think, speak, listen and move. VLP aims at changing a student’s learning strategy so that the child can succeed by understanding, instead of remembering or memorizing. All children need to learn how to learn and be cognizant of their level of awareness.                                                  


VLP involves specific stages of visual learning: normalizing eye movement, developing adequate visual circuit teaming and visualizing skills, and making connections between visual abilities and academic and personal achievements. Before children can develop a higher level of visual competence, they need to learn how to accurately perceive incoming visual data and appropriately visually direct and monitor their performance.


Unfortunately, having 20/20 visual acuity or normal sight, provides no information as to how someone is using their vision to take in data, organize it and compare it with previously stored input, and finally what they do with this new information. Vision is an ongoing act of perceiving, processing, and performing. Our vision system answers the questions: Where am I? Where is it? What is it? What do I do with it? Learning to answer these questions is an integral part of the Vision Learning Process.


Once individuals learn to trust what they see, they are ready to process more visual information. By highlighting the need to ‘hang on to space’,  i.e. be able to select an area for attention while seeing the space around it, diaphragmatic breathing and good posture, VLP teaches the child to be aware of themselves, their thoughts, and actions. This awareness positively affects their social behavior, their academic achievements, their athletic abilities, and their level of organization. By simultaneously and effortlessly taking in a greater amount of information, children become more comfortable in their own bodies as well as in physical space. Activities aimed at expanding the visual fields open up a child’s level of attention, academic and social prowess.


VLP allows individuals with poorly developed vision skills to discover how to learn and perform visually. Because vision is the main operating system of the brain, learning how to perceive and visualize has a profound impact on cognition, posture, balance, movement, speech, and an overall sense of self.

Behavioral Optometry, Ltd.

Jeffrey Getzell, OD, FCOVD, FCSO

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