symbol imagery Lindamood Bell

Have you ever been waiting to check-out at the grocery store and, while glancing around at the sweets, happened to read the latest tabloid cover? You weren’t interested in what it said but, unconsciously and without effort, you now know which two celebrities were seen wearing the same dress at the same red carpet event.

Or, has your child asked you to spell something that you were able to rattle-off, without giving it a second thought? Your symbol imagery skills are a big part of what’s behind that ability to read and spell automatically. Symbol imagery is the ability to auditorily perceive and visually image sounds and letters within words. This underlying sensory-cognitive function is what enables us to be fluent readers.

Phonemic awareness is another important – typically more well-known – sensory-cognitive function needed for reading. Developing phonemic awareness can lead to significant gains in word attack skills, but not the same level of improvement in word recognition or contextual reading. You may learn to phonetically process (sound-out) a word but, if you have a weakness in symbol imagery, you may still face difficulties establishing sight words and, therefore, becoming a fluent reader.

Being able to sound-out words is an important skill, but English is not always phonetic. How do you know that ‘enough’ is spelled with ‘o-u-g-h’ and not ‘u-f’? It’s not because of the sounds you hear but, rather, because you can mentally picture the letters within the word. Even if English was completely phonetic, you wouldn’t want to sound-out every word. Reading would be a very slow process; you would become frustrated and start guessing or scanning, most likely hindering your ability to understand the text.

Symbol imagery allows you to develop an extensive sight word vocabulary – words you don’t need to sound-out or phonetically process because you recognize them instantly. A good reader primarily relies on sight words and contextual information, only using phonological processing as back-up.

Many children and adults do, however, experience weaknesses in symbol imagery, which often manifest in the following ways:

• Weak word attack skills (‘sip’ for ‘stap’)
• Weak word recognition skills (‘house’ for ‘horse’)
• Difficulty learning and retaining sight words
• Weak phonological spelling skills (‘optnrty’ for ‘opportunity’)
• Weak orthographic spelling skills (‘opertunity’ for ‘opportunity’)
• Difficulty reading fluently in-context (slow rate, high number of errors)
• Difficulty self-correcting reading & spelling errors

Luckily, symbol imagery skills can be assessed, developed, and strengthened once identified for people of all ages.

Image Credit: Lindamood-Bell

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Erica Kanpp is a Maui mama and at the time of writing was director of the Lindamood-Bell Learning Center on Maui.