Concept Imagery and Cognition: No More IT
All too often there is a missed learning difficulty that so many are affected by.
Many who can get through school with no or little obvious problems such as
reading difficulties can actually be faced with a much great challenge—being
able to comprehend what they read or hear. This difficult of being able to retain
information is often recognized by others as "just not getting it" or not paying
attention. Research shows that there is a real cognitive process that needs to be
Meet Joe. "I can remember reading aloud in class and then not being able to answer
the questions. Reading the words was no problem. (Shy smile.) But, then when I
couldn't answer the questions, the kids would laugh at me. (Looking down.) The worst
was that I had a teacher in high school that continually called me stupid...maybe I am.
(Long pause, brown eyes looking at me.) Am I?"
To this day my chest tightens remembering how Joe looked when he told that story.
He was embarrassed and sensitive, and his problem with literacy wasn't that he
couldn't decode the words, it was that he couldn't comprehend the concepts. He could
not get it, and telling him to "pay attention" or "think when you read" didn't help him. It
As Joe read or listened to language, he processed "parts"—the in-one-ear-and-out-the-
other syndrome. He could sometimes remember a few details, but he couldn't get the
big picture. He had always had the problem, and it wasn't just when he read. It was
also when he tried to follow directions and could not remember all of them, and then got
in trouble for not paying attention. It was when he tried to express himself, verbally or
in writing, and it came out disjointed and out of sequence. It was when he listened to
language, conversation or classroom presentations, and it went by him before he could
get it. It was when he tried to participate in conversation and could not make salient
points because he spoke to the "parts" he processed. It was when he tried to think
critically or problem solve, a constant frustration for him. Though Joe could read and
spell words, he had a language processing problem, and IT permeated the quality of
his life and eroded his self-esteem.
Joe's symptoms could 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 could be traced to his weakness in the sensory-cognitive function of
concept imagery—the ability to visualize the whole.
Numerous years ago, while researching the relationship of imagery to comprehension
and trying various steps to develop imagery, I discovered an interesting phenomena. It
wasn't that individuals couldn't image, it was that they couldn't image the gestalt. They
could not connect the parts to form an imaged whole. Instead, they got "parts"—bits
and pieces—and thus 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 had 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 of us who do not have the problem cannot know how painful it is.
Individuals have told me that it means that you feel foggy, like when you go to sleep in
a movie and then cannot put it altogether. They tell me 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 tell me 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 told me 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.
The critical role of this function to cognition and the quality of life provokes some
questions. One frequently asked me is whether or not this function can be developed
and applied to higher order thinking skills? The answer is yes. Just as phonemic
awareness can be developed and decoding and spelling established, an individual's
sensory system can be stimulated to image and process the gestalt—enabling the
higher order thinking skills of main idea, conclusion, inference, prediction to be
improved. Reasoning, logical thinking, problem solving, and perhaps even creativity
can be developed.
Another question often asked me is whether or not weakness in concept imagery is
increasing? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes. Scores from the National
Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) show continuing deficiencies in higher
order reasoning skills. The NAEP found, as have other recent assessments, that
problems in reading and expressing ideas in writing stem mainly from difficulty with
What might be contributing to this apparent decline? One answer is television, not
because of the content television brings, but because of the process television denies.
Since individuals do not have to image when watching television, imagery is not being
stimulated, at least not like it was when story-telling, old radio shows, and reading for
pleasure were our recreation.
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."
Lastly, as I speak nationally and internationally to professionals about the role of
sensory-cognitive functions in language processing, I am heartened by their
enthusiastic response and improved awareness about reading. I have hope that we
are entering the era of gestalt thinking in the field of reading, and consequently may be
entering a time where we institute solutions—solutions that might eradicate learning
problems for all individuals. No more Joes. No more IT.
For information on getting help with concept imagery contact Lindamood-Bell Learning
Processes at www.lindamoodbell.com or 800-233-1819.
Nanci Bell is the author of renowned literacy publications including Visualizing and
Verbalizing for Language Comprehension and Critical Thinking®; Seeing Stars®:
Symbol Imagery for Phonemic Awareness, Sight Words, and Spelling; Talkies® for Oral
Language Comprehension and Expression; and On Cloud Nine® Math. She is also the
Co-founder and Director of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, and international
organization with Learning Centers, Professional Development Workshops, and School
Partnership Programs that have a mission to enhance learning for all people, for all