Meet Joe, a college student struggling in his classes. Recently, he sat down to talk about his experience in school. “I can remember reading out loud in class and then not being able to answer the questions. Reading the words was no problem. But, then when I couldn’t answer the questions, the kids would laugh at me. The worst was that I had a teacher in high school that continually called me stupid…maybe I am. Am I?”
Joe’s problem with literacy isn’t that he can’t decode the words, it’s that he can’t comprehend the concepts. Telling him to “pay attention” or “think when you read” doesn’t help him. As Joe reads or listens to language, he processes “parts”—the in-one-ear-and-out-the-other syndrome. He remembers a few details, but he can’t get the big picture.
He has always had this problem, and not just when he reads. When he tries to follow directions and can’t remember all of them, he gets in trouble for not paying attention. When he tries to express himself, verbally or in writing, it comes out disjointed and out of sequence. When he listens to conversations or classroom presentations, it goes by him before he can get it. When he tries to participate in conversation he can’t make salient points because he spoke to the “parts” he processed. When he tries to think critically or problem solve, he is constantly frustrated. Though Joe can read and spell words, he has a language processing problem that has permeated the quality of his life and eroded his self-esteem.
Joe’s symptoms can be traced to his difficulty in getting the gestalt, the whole—necessary for processing language and thinking. Most importantly, his difficulty in getting the gestalt can be traced to his weakness in the sensory-cognitive function of concept imagery—the ability to visualize the whole.
While researching the relationship of imagery to comprehension and trying various steps to develop imagery, Nanci Bell, co-founder and director of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, discovered that individuals who had difficulty understanding could not connect the parts to form an imaged whole. Instead, they got “parts” —bits and pieces— and could not get the main idea, draw a conclusion, make an inference, or evaluate.
This processing of parts instead of the gestalt contributes to a range of symptoms, most of which Joe has experienced:
- Weak reading comprehension
- Weak oral language comprehension
- Weak oral language expression
- Weak written language expression
- Difficulty following directions
- Difficulty with critical thinking
- Difficulty with problem solving
- Weak sense of humor
Unfortunately, weakness in concept imagery can be a hidden problem in the field of reading. It is often misdiagnosed, and it interferes with processing both oral and written language. Those who do not have the problem cannot know how painful it is. Individuals describe it as feeling foggy, like when you go to sleep in a movie and then cannot put it altogether. They say that they have hidden the problem behind good social skills, noting when to smile appropriately in conversation or when to laugh at jokes they really didn’t get. They say that they go to tremendous lengths to cover this problem because most people just think they aren’t as bright or aren’t good listeners or communicators. A graduate from MIT said that when he was in class trying to grasp a lecture, it was as if someone was going along with an eraser and erasing the language before he could get it.
As we process information through our sensory system, concept imagery brings the sensory information together, enabling us to create the gestalt. And, the gestalt is a necessary piece for cognition. Furthermore, there is little question that imagery is directly related to cognition. Aristotle said, long before phonemic awareness was thought about, “It is impossible to think without a mental picture.”
For someone like Joe, the sensory system must be stimulated and taught to image and process the gestalt, enabling the higher order thinking skills of main idea, conclusion, inference, and prediction to be improved. Reasoning, logical thinking, problem solving, and perhaps even creativity can be developed.