Too Smart for Words

By Marlo Payne Thurman, M.S.

January, 2014

Great with conceptual math but can’t memorize the times tables? Love LEGOs® but prefer to build their own instead of following the directions? Need to look away to think or answer a question? Great at reading but poor at spelling? Have amazing ideas but struggle to get them on paper? IQ scores look like the Rocky Mountains? These are but a few of the common characteristics we see in gifted kids whose strengths lie in the visual and perceptual domains. Sometimes just too smart for words, these children can struggle verbally, while their greatest aptitudes remain marginalized or under-challenged.

Recently, a 2e Newsletter reader asked for tips to help her “high performance IQ child” — one who fits this profile. As both an educator and a school psychologist with a career dedicated to all types of twice-exceptional learners, I have some thoughts about what can benefit these kids. In this article I’ll address understanding and educating children who do their best thinking in pictures.

Verbal vs. Nonverbal Learning Styles

Many of us grew up believing that being smart meant thinking within the context of language (speaking, reading, and writing). Today, most learning in school relies on listening and memorizing important “facts,” then demonstrating learning by reading questions and writing or typing responses to simulated problems. “Quick and efficient” is the classroom motto. Children identified as gifted are often those who speak early; use precocious vocabularies; and then, once in school, demonstrate advanced reading skills along with the ability to take in and recall academic information.

Given this narrow view of what it means to be smart, we give little value to those individuals who fail to perform well within the context of our system of education. For children who have gifts that lie in the nonverbal domains, identification as a gifted child, or even recognition for being smart, may not be so simple, even though society may be evolving to need these skills more than ever before. In fact, the verbal learning style may no longer be the style that equates with high intelligence in our modern society. If you ask adults who make their living in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), they invariably report that it’s often the talented and creative nonverbal learners who have the most to offer.

Life in the Classroom for the Nonverbal Learner

Having owned and operated one of the first twice-exceptional schools in the country, I have learned that some children simply do not learn or perform well under the conditions of our traditional learning model. John Dewey, often referred to as the father of the American curriculum, told us that “all children learn best by doing.” Unfortunately, little school learning is participatory and almost none involves learning through experience.

Sitting and listening can be literally painful for children who view the world through visual or kinesthetic “lenses,” children whose learning is best done by seeing, moving, touching, and doing. These kids, often described as nonverbal learners, test high on tasks of visual, spatial, and perceptual reasoning and achieve lower scores in the areas of verbal reasoning and memory for language.

Gifted verbal learners stand out when they can’t read well or fail to complete their writing assignments on time. Their teachers assume from their verbal responses that they have the ability to do the work. But what expectations do teachers have about those children who never answer questions, can’t respond succinctly, seem off on a tangent, or fail to raise their hands to offer an opinion? Unfortunately, many assume that these kids simply don’t know the answer, are not paying attention, have behavior problems, or are lazy.

Meeting the Needs of Nonverbal Learners

In today’s world, with its ever-increasing visual media, we use our visual minds much more than did our recent ancestors. In fact, given visual media and what we now understand as the brain’s neuroplasticity for learning, some people have even proposed that children’s minds, as we know them,have already been permanently changed. Regardless of whether children’s minds are different than they were or whether learning is still done best through the oral tradition, it’s not surprising to see more and more visual learners in our classrooms. I believe our children are evolving towards what they see and what is valued in society, and this evolution appears to be happening in spite of relatively little change in our system of education. In other words, our kids are becoming more visual as the education system is in yet another cycle of returning to standards for a traditional, verbal-oriented style of instruction.

With the number of learners with nonverbal strengths growing, five changes need to occur in our classrooms to better meet their learning needs.

1. Gain a Better Understanding.

We must gain a better understanding of what our assessments are telling us about nonverbal learners. Often when a child achieves high performance scores on an IQ test, the scores are summed up as “He has good visual perceptual skills.” When asked what this means, most “experts” (even those who do many assessments) simply describe the tasks from which those scores were obtained without really understanding the scores themselves. However, when interpreted well, those high performance IQ scores can provide detailed information that includes the following:

  • Whether a child’s visual system produces “flat” thinking (like a movie) or true three-dimensional thinking
  • Information about visual memory, which can be strong for singular images, complex visual information, and/or visual patterns and sequences
  • The level of a child’s visual attention to detail, serial reasoning, and visual logic
  • How skilled the child is at scanning, discriminating, and using vision to connect motor planning and fine-motor skills for pencil-to-paper tasks. A child with vision skill deficits can still be considered a visual learner!

2. See What’s Available.

Once we determine that a child is a visual learner and understand the specifics of what that means, we then need to take a hard look at what’s available to that child in school. The aim should be to pair global technology with literacy, science, and math in ways that match the child’s learning styles and meet his or her needs. We have the technology to do much more than put classroom teaching, as it currently exists, into computer applications. The computer is a highly visual tool that offers possibilities still very much untapped for educational purposes.

Our goal in education must be to guide and direct all children; and through technology, we can teach non-verbal children in their areas of strength. As it stands now, we primarily use technology to drill our traditional methods of verbal teaching through sequential repetition. In so doing, we continue to focus on the verbal learning style through the computer, and our non-verbal learners pay the price. We must recognize that, while all schools have at least rudimentary technology programs, the gap between the technology we teach in schools and what children need to know for our rapidly advancing technological world is wider than ever.

3. Distinguish between Arithmetic and Mathematics.

We must make a distinction between arithmetic and mathematics. The way we, as a society, have chosen to teach arithmetic forces it to be linear and sequential — a series of memorized steps — when at its core, mathematics is actually an entirely different, nonverbal way to think. Despite changes in math curriculums over time, we still present early math as a language-based sequence, taught primarily by teachers who are, themselves, verbal learners. Yet, if we were to place children on a simulated construction project, they would rapidly learn applied and conceptual math (possibly out of order, but certainly in a way that they would remember it). With this in mind, kids need to be told that while they might not be good at the memorization and sequencing of arithmetic as it is taught in school, they could still be very good at higher-level mathematics.

4. Give Time to Explore.

We must give children time to randomly explore, investigate, and think about their world in order to truly develop their scientific minds. Science curriculum, like the rest in our schools, is also taught from the perspective of listen, read, memorize, and copy. Doing what we are told to do in science class is not random, nor does it teach kids how to think. Even more important, our kids need to be given more time both to think for themselves and to perform their own personal research on the world around them. Countless hours spent on homework, as well as on TV and video games, cuts into this time. Think back to one of your own personal “greatest discoveries.” What were you doing when you got your grand “aha”? I bet you were not filling out a worksheet!

5. Dig Deeper.

To prepare highly skilled visual, spatial, and/or visual-perceptual children for their place in the world, we need to ask more than “What do we teach in school?” We must dig deeper and instead ask “What is school’s purpose?” As part of that question, we might consider whether to make some significant adaptations or even totally change both how and what we teach our children — especially those for whom the existing system doesn’t work.


To me, as a second-time-around doctoral student, it’s more apparent than ever that our current system of education — one focused on ensuring that all learners achieve and demonstrate the academic standards through high-stakes testing — has not seriously reconsidered its curriculum for over 150 years. As such, it might no longer be preparing our students for their adult life. Let’s look at an example.

Kyle is a high school junior who’s never been a good student. His spelling is horrific; he has the penmanship of a third-grader; and, to top it off, he often loses completed school work before turning it in. Kyle struggles to remember details in reading, can’t get his ideas on paper in writing, and can’t show his work in math. Nevertheless, he usually has the correct answer.

When I spoke with Kyle, it was clear that vocabulary was a strength area (although later IQ testing showed severe word-finding problems). In the past, he was diagnosed with ADHD and an anxiety disorder but was never identified as being gifted. Nevertheless, Kyle has managed to build a solar car that actually drives, write multiple pieces of original sheet music, and produce a short film that won several awards at a local film festival.

When Kyle was evaluated to see if he might qualify for extra time on his SAT test, his IQ scores showed 72 points of difference (a difference of 12 to 15 points is considered clinically significant). The range of his scores went from below the 1st percentile to all the way up to the 99.99th percentile! He was brilliant, which came as a shock to Kyle’s parents. Because his verbal IQ scores were much lower than his performance IQ scores, Kyle had never once looked good on paper.

What Can We Do for Students Like Kyle?

Following are some strategies I have found to be effective for Kyle and many others like him. These strategies play to students’ strengths by changing the focus from what is difficult for them to what they can do well.

Math Strategies

  • Provide visual and tactile counters in math.
  • By fifth grade, provide a calculator if they are still struggling with arithmetic.
  • Teach skip counting for all multiplication tables.

Reading Strategies

  • Teach both phonics and whole-word reading methods.
  • Let students read comic books.
  • Offer books on CD, film, and/or online research and museum tours for material that is otherwise entirely verbal.

Writing and Spelling Strategies

  • Grade spelling and content separately.
  • Use visual spelling: Write it; close your eyes; see it.
  • Let them dictate to a live person.
  • Modify written work and provide opportunities for projects instead. (All children need to learn the value of work and to be rewarded for their achievements. Unfortunately, most school work involves writing, a task that requires these students to work hard but does not necessarily result in high-quality output. While writing requirements should not be excused, these children benefit from alternative assignments that give them the chance to work hard and be rewarded for their efforts.)
  • Encourage story building by drawing stick figures in motion. (They often do this anyway.)
  • Explore Google Sketchup (software for doing 3D drawings) to get visual ideas onto paper.

General Learning Strategies

  • Remember that simply sitting still and listening are hard for visual learners. Giving them something to hold, look at, or do during circle times or lectures can often improve their ability to attend and participate.
  • Have them close their eyes to practice multi-step tasks.
  • Use touch prompts (i.e., a finger for each step) to help students remember the steps of a process or parts of a whole.
  • Draw pictures and use visual cues (i.e., a picture of hands hanging up a coat).
  • Provide a place for tinkering both at school and at home. Tinkering is sacred!
  • Consider mentoring, enrichment, and apprenticeship in strength areas.


I believe that as the field of neuroscience advances and we come to understand thinking and learning better, we will one day have a real explanation for what I have always called the “aha” of eureka moments. With that, we might even begin to figure out other ways to learn for kids who can’t or won’t sit still and listen.

Thinking in words will always have its place in education and in society; but in my opinion, it has been and always will be the unspoken ideas — the ones that start out as thoughts too complex for words — that will continue to revolutionize our world. With that premise in mind, I see our nonverbal, gifted learners as a priceless resource; and I challenge educators everywhere to find creative and alternative ways to identify, understand, and develop these most precious minds towards a world that is eagerly waiting for their skills.

Marlo Payne ThurmanMarlo Payne Thurman, M.S., is a school psychologist, education consultant, and member of the 2e Newsletter Editorial Advisory Board. In her private practice, she specializes in assessment, advocacy, cognitive training, sensory and behavior support, and socio-emotional coaching for individuals from around the country who are gifted yet asynchronous. Marlo also operates Brideun Learning Communities, which designs custom, play-based therapeutic programs; and she provides consultative support to new 2e program start-ups. Marlo holds a board position with the United States Autism and Asperger’s Association, is the director of the U.S. College Autism Project, and teaches special education courses to pre-service teachers at the University of Northern Colorado.

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