Words and Pictures

One of the questions I ask my pupils is this: Do you think in words or pictures?

This always requires a bit of consideration: most teachers don’t ask this sort of question. But eventually they’ll be able to come up with an answer, and understanding this will help me teach them better. If I’m demonstrating, for example, how to mate with a king and queen (something I’ll return to shortly in another article), I’ll ask word thinkers to remember the verbal explanation I’m giving them. With picture thinkers, though, I’ll suggest that they ‘take a photograph’ of the different checkmate and stalemate positions and store them in their memory with the appropriate label. They could also play through the sequence of moves like watching a movie. By and large, word thinkers will prefer reading books and picture thinkers will prefer watching DVDs, so this will affect your recommendations for reinforcing your lessons.

Now a lot of this is nurture: we live in a much more visual world than when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s so it’s natural that many more children will be picture rather than word thinkers, just as they will be hunters rather than farmers. There’s certainly a lot of nature involved as well, though.

Me, I’m a pretty extreme word thinker. You can tell if you try to play a blindfold game against me. I can’t picture anything at all: I can only see what’s in front of me. When I attempt to play even one blindfold game I try to think back to the words I’ve spoken. Did I say the word ‘bishop’, and, if so, what was the name of the square that followed it? Picture thinkers will probably find playing blindfold much more easy than I do. They’ll also find it easier to analyse tactical continuations, especially those that involve thinking several moves ahead. My word/fact thinking gives me a good memory for names and facts, but sadly not a good memory for opening theory.

Wikipedia quotes child development expert Linda Kreger Silverman’s suggestion that less than 30% of the population are strong visual/spatial thinkers, another 45% use both visual/spatial thinking and thinking in the form of words, and 25% think exclusively in words. Of the 30% of the general population who use visual/spatial thinking, only a small percentage would use this style over and above all other forms of thinking, and can be said to be ‘true’ “picture thinkers”.

For many of us, the concept of thinking in pictures was popularised by the autistic writer and academic Temple Grandin. In her most recent book, The Autistic Brain, written with Richard Panek, she classifies three types of thinking: picture thinking, word/fact thinking and pattern thinking. The last of these, pattern thinking is what strong chess players do.

“What makes a chess master a chess master?”, Grandin asks. “Definitely not words. But not pictures, either, which is what you might think. When a chess master looks at a board, she doesn’t see every game she’s ever played and then find the move that matches the move from a game she played three or five or twenty years earlier. (That’s probably what I would try to do.) A chess master doesn’t “see” a board from a nineteenth-century chess match that she’s studied.

“So what does a chess master see, if not pictures? By now you can probably guess: patterns.”

This is no surprise to those of us who’ve been banging on about pattern recognition for years. Chess, like mathematics, is very much about patterns, and also very much about logic, which explains the correlation between expertise at chess and maths.

So we need to look at whether our pupils are word or picture thinkers, in order to tailor our teaching to their requirements. We also need to teach them to become pattern thinkers. Children can learn tactical patterns by solving lots of checkmate and ‘best move’ puzzles. As they make progress they’ll need to understand strategic patterns as well. We could also work closely with schools to identify children who excel at pattern thinking and encourage them to take up chess.

Richard James


Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon.