Spatial and Visual Representations, Abilities, & Literacy


Spatial thinking and representation is possible without visual representations. Non sighted people are capable of spatially representing objects and events, which sighted people probably do also, but because we are sighted, we often automatically connect spatial thinking to visual representations.

The quality of a representation depends on the time a person takes to construct it. The construction which, can be internal (mental) or external (physically in the environment) for both spatial and visual representations. As we draw a picture and take time to add detail to an external representation, so too are our internal constructions improved with time.

Historically internal and external representations have been described in three general categories 1. concrete, 2. semi-concrete or iconic or pictorial, and 3. abstract or symbolic. However, as represented below, there can be a continuum between these categories for most representations.

For example: a bowl can be spatially represented as half of a curved sphere with an opening into the curve. Spatially it can be rotated so the opening is on the top to hold something or on the bottom to dump out its contents. This is possibly represented internally simply as opening on top, curve on bottom; or when inverted opening on bottom, curve on top. To represent it visually one could internally construct a mental picture of a bowl positioned as bowls are normally or inverted. The visual representation may have details with properties such as color of the bowl and markings or represented by a simple u shaped curve. Depending on the time we take to construct the representation and the complexity of what is being represented.

For example, a face is most likely more complex than a bowl and can be represented with a greater range details. The following figure shows this and also how Bruner categorized this continuum in three categories.

Concrete to abstract examples

In mathematics, concrete representations are shown with objects (counters, cubes, shapes, rods) and actions on those object to represent mathematical information; semi-concrete or iconic representation are shown with drawings or pictures of those concrete objects; and the abstract representation replaces the concrete objects and semi-concrete representations with mathematical symbols and numbers.

Spatial thinking and representation begins early with infants well before any verbal communication and is the basis for:

Spatial visual thinking and related descriptions

Careers That Require a High Degree of Visual Literacy
or spatial / visual abilities and skills

Visual Spatial Research


These differences might be explained by the differences in toys that boys and girls play with, differences in parental responses to girls and boys manipulation of toys, differences in amount of space boys and girls are allowed to explore and play, amount of time spent outdoors, and distances allowed to roam from home.

Research supports three ideas:

  1. Boys tend to outperform girls on visual/spatial tasks;
  2. Visual/spatial abilities can be improved through instruction; and
  3. Both sexes benefit from planned visual and spatial experiences, but girls benefit most if a narrowing of a gender gap in visual/spatial thinking is achieved.

School more than any other institution is responsible for the down grading of visual thinking. Most educators are not only disinterested in visual thinking, they are hostile toward it and regard it as childish, primitive, and prelogical. They emphasize information stored in proper categories with little thought to connecting it with the real world. This is counter to what research shows: teachers whose instruction has students make more mathematical connections at all levels of representation (concrete, iconic, & abstract) perform better than those with less experiences.

Visual Spacial Skills developed by Alan J. McCormack

Visual/Spatial Perception

Visual/Spatial Memory

Logical Visual/Spatial Thinking

Creative Visual/Spatial Thinking

Six Modes of Visual Learning (developed by the Polaroid Education Program)

  1. Exploring: the use of objects or pictures to identify and differentiate properties and their relationships to other properties. Similarities, differences, longer, shorter, tall, short, big, small, same, different, discriminate between letter and number shapes b, d, 2, 5.
  2. Recording: sketching, drawing, photographing, video-recording. Can develop the ability to sequence events in time, understand transformations, and improve memory through chaining of events. The ability to put together visual memories or actual recordings is directly tied to telling and interpreting stories in all forms.
  3. Expressing: acting, sketching, drawing, photographing, and video-recording to express feelings and emotions. The ability to identify emotions and to display different emotions in a variety of forms. Help interpret stories in all forms including forms beyond visual to include text, punctuation, sounds, and colors.
  4. Motivating: Celebrating student's accomplishments. Verbal encouragement, specific praise, and social recognition by students as well as teachers. Labeling students' creations and preserving them so that they are inviting to students over time and give legitimant recognition to the creators.
  5. Communicating: interpret stories from different points of view and create their own stories by acting, sketching, drawing, photographing, and video-recording.
  6. Imagining and Creating: speculate and create alternative ideas and events to include in drama, sketches, drawings, photographs, and videos. Telling alternative endings to stories, interpreting what a story looks like and create the actions and images in a variety of mediums.

Instructional Activities to Develop Visual Spatial Abilities



Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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