Visual Discrimination

Visual discrimination

Visual discrimination is just one of the seven types of visual perception impacting visual efficiency.  While the word “discriminate” has many different meanings, visual discrimination refers to the ability to tell the difference between things. Someone who has “discriminating taste” can tell the difference between Heinz and off brand ketchup, for example.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting Visual Perception

Visual discrimination

What is visual discrimination

Visual discrimination can be defined as the ability to is determine and classify objects, symbols, shapes, etc. by differences in color, form, size, texture, or orientation, or shape by the eyes receiving visual input and analyzing that information.

Visual discrimination occurs by the eyes and brain detecting differences in objects, utilizing working memory and stored memory to determine distinct differences or matched features.

This visual skill is necessary for reading, writing, math skills, play, activities of daily living, and essentially all aspects of utilizing visual input.

Visual discrimination is a skill that kids need for so many skills.  From identifying and matching socks when getting dressed and doing laundry to recognizing subtle differences in multiple choice problems, visual discrimination is a visual perceptual skill that allows kids to excel in reading, writing, and math activities or struggle!

When explaining visual discrimination, it is important to understand it’s role in visual perception as part of the overall visual processing system. One aspect of visual processing is the component of visual motor skills. Included in visual motor skills are three main areas:

Visual motor skills are made up of several areas:

1. Visual Processing Skills- how the eyes move and collect information. Visual processing skills includes visual tracking, convergence, saccades, visual fixation, and visual attention. A component of visual processing includes visual efficiency.

2. Visual Perceptual Skills- ability to make sense of what we see. Visual perceptual skills are essential for everything from navigating our world to reading, writing, and manipulating items. Visual perception includes visual memory, visual closure, form constancy, visual spatial relations, visual discrimination, visual attention, visual sequential memory, and visual figure ground.  

3. Eye-Hand Coordination- Using the visual input effectively and efficiently with the hands allows us to manipulate and manage objects and items. This area enables us to use visual information in a motor action. Eye-hand coordination requires fine motor dexterity, strength, shoulder stability, core stability, etc.

Why is Visual Discrimination Important?

Visual discrimination is critical for reading fluency, writing, and other academic areas.  It is also important in everyday activities.

  • Finding matching pairs of socks in the drawer. Picking out the navy versus black socks
  • Determining when a letter is reversed in handwriting or on paper. Read here about letter reversals and the role visual discrimination plays in reversing letters.
  • Picking out the sugar versus the flour when cooking
  • Using shampoo before conditioner when they are in similar bottles
  • Reading a map to follow the direction of roads
  • Selecting the correct items in the grocery store
  • Picking out two identical buttons to sew on a shirt from a pile of 30 similar ones
  • Scanning a pile of receipts to find the correct one
  • Looking for a phone number, while scanning a page or ad

How is Visual Discrimination related to reading or dyslexia?

In order to read fluently, the brain clumps letters together to form familiar words. There are tests that show the beginning two letters to a word with the rest jumbled. 

The brain is able to use the context clues to read the jumbled texts.  The brain is also able to read upside down, backward, and in different fonts.  Perception happens beyond the eyes. 

The eyes are just the window, or lens.  The brain is responsible for perceiving or making sense of what the lens has seen.  

Reading fluently requires quickly being able to tell the difference between fonts, discriminating between similar letters (b, d, p, q), clumping words together, determining where one word begins and ends, recognizing familiar words, and other decoding skills.  

People with dyslexia are not readily able to perceive the difference between these similar letters or words. They are able to “see” correctly, but their brain often reverses or mixes the letters and words, making it much more labor intensive to decode.  The good news is, the brain can be trained to make sense of what it sees.

Red Flags for Visual Discrimination Difficulties

Once you have determined visual acuity is 20/20, or has been corrected to working vision, watch for these common signs of visual discrimination issues:

  • Confusing letters and numbers
  • Writing with reversals
  • Difficulty correctly reading aloud
  • Does not enjoy activities such as reading or puzzles
  • Unable to pick out relevant information during open book quizzes, or scanning a page to find an item
  • Difficulty finding objects in drawers or cupboards
  • Slow or unable to find matching objects with subtle differences
  • Delayed or labored acquisition of math and reading skills
  • Poor handwriting – difficulty with letter sizing, spacing, line placement, letter formation
  • Math difficulties – number reversals, losing place when visually counting, difficulty lining up match figures

Fun Fact!

According to theories, males DO have more difficulty with visual perception than their female counterparts.  Males are genetically programmed to hunt, gather, and protect. 

They were not hardwired to cook, clean, shop, match items together, etc.  Males have not evolved quick enough to meet the ever changing challenges they face on a daily basis! 

According to the University of Washington, males can see motion and colors differently than females. This lends to the hunting/protecting theory, however is also linked to autism spectrum disorders in males. 

You can give the males in your life some slack when they just “can’t find” the salad dressing in the fridge next time!

Visual Discrimination Tests

When doing visual perceptual testing, it is important to isolate visual perception from motor skills.  Having students touch the answers rather than writing them, or calling out letters, is a better measure of visual perception. 

The following is a partial list of popular assessments.  The VMI subtest is more of a screener than a true visual perception test.  

Visual discrimination activities

Visual Discrimination Activities

Visual discrimination activities happen everyday through functional tasks. To work on these specific underlying visual processing skills, it is possible to target visual discrimination development through play, games, and activities.

Additionally, there are numerous worksheets, games, activities, and resources available on visual discrimination. 

The good news is, visual perceptual skills can be improved through practice and brain training, and can be incorporated into the client or student’s specific interests and goals. 

  • Sorting – similar buttons, shades of colors, types of toys, box of 100 crayons by color, similar socks, silverware by type or pattern, coins, laundry, etc.
  • Visual discrimination games such as (Amazon affiliate link) Spot it – these games are wildly popular. The OT Toolbox has some Spot It games too
  • The OT Toolbox has their own visual perceptual games as well
  • Puzzles – teach context clues, sorting pieces, noticing differences
  • Word searches
  • Printable worksheets such as I Spy, letter discrimination, etc.
  • Matching activities like this space matching activity
  • Workbooks – (affiliate link) Amazon has some reliable resources
  • Toys/games – if toys and games are more your speed, check out this list of visual perception toys

Visual Discrimination Play Ideas

The visual discrimination activities below support development and refinement of the skills needed to process differences in forms or objects.

  • Visual Processing Bundle– includes printable visual discrimination activities and information to better understand visual processing skills.
  • Free Visual Perception packet– Print these visual discrimination worksheets and use with crayons, pencils, and hands on materials such as wikki sticks or string.
  • Sunshine Visual Perception activity- This Google slide deck is a digital therapy activity that supports development of visual discrimination skills.
  • Color matching Elmer Activity– Use the children’s book, Elmer, to discriminate between details in a book.
  • Finger dexterity exercise– This visual processing activity supports visual discrimination skills by using eye-hand coordination along with utilizing visual information.
  • Practice “b” and “d” with sensory writing– Discrimination between letters is an aspect of visual processing that relates to functional performance in reading and learning.
  • Color shape discrimination Sort– Sorting shapes by color or form is a preliminary task that can be accomplished by young babies and is a building block for more refined skills.
  • Coin discrimination– Visual discrimination skills are needed to sort and use coins when paying for items or counting change.
  • Real toy I Spy game– I Spy games are powerful visual discrimination skills. This activity uses real toys and can be replicated at home or in therapy sessions using household objects.
  • Letters on the garage door– This gross motor visual discriminaiton task can be played outside or inside.

visual discrimination or visual acuity

The most important testing tool you can use is to rule out “visual acuity” problems before visual perception.  Vision plays a major role in learning and visual discrimination is just one aspect of vision and learning.

A pair of glasses is a much easier and straight forward fix than years of visual perceptual training. 

Visit a qualified ophthalmologist to check for any vision difficulties.  Once these are ruled out, use one of the great testing materials listed above to determine any visual perception deficits. 

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

Shamrock Directionality Maze

Shamrock directionality maze

No matter how evolved my directionality is, I will never be able to understand “turn west out of the car park” Wait what?  Directionality is being able to follow or discriminate left and right, top and bottom.  Today’s post is offering a Shamrock Directionality Maze freebie to work on both of these skills.  This is especially important when learning to write or read left to right. 

Following a map with oral or written directions is much more difficult without the understanding of left and right. Try playing Simon Says with a group of your learners.  This will quickly help point out the directionally challenged right away. 

Before assuming your learner can not learn visual perception, work on teaching and training the eyes and brain to perceive the difference between items. There are ways to accommodate for this deficit, however, try practice first.

Today’s Shamrock directionality maze goes really well with our other St. Patrick’s Day Activities free resources for this time of year:

Can your learner see?

When addressing vision and visual perceptual deficits, it is important to rule out visual acuity issues before addressing perceptual difficulties.  What might appear to be difficulty learning because of perception, may simply be that your learner is not able to see the words correctly. Glasses are a much simpler fix than working out visual perceptual delays.

types of visual perception

There are seven different types of visual perception.  Each plays a key role in visual development.  This Shamrock Visual Discrimination Maze focuses on visual discrimination and directionality.

Want to add this resource to your therapy toolbox so you can help kids thrive? Enter your email into the form below to access this printable tool.

This resource is just one of the many tools available in The OT Toolbox Member’s Club. Each month, members get instant access to downloadable activities, handouts, worksheets, and printable tools to support development. Members can log into their dashboard and access all of our free downloads in one place. Plus, you’ll find exclusive materials and premium level materials.

Level 1 members gain instant access to all of the downloads available on the site, without enter your email each time PLUS exclusive new resources each month.

Level 2 members get access to all of our downloads, exclusive new resources each month, PLUS additional, premium content each month: therapy kits, screening tools, games, therapy packets, and much more. AND, level 2 members get ad-free content across the entire OT Toolbox website.

Join the Member’s Club today!

making this shamrock directionality maze purely visual perceptual

In order to make this purely a visual perceptual activity, any type of writing or coloring needs to be eliminated.  Adding a fine motor skill, while an excellent way to use this visual discrimination maze, muddies your data.  While making this purely a visual perceptual task, prepare your page by coloring all of the items exactly the same, or leaving them all plain, and laminating the page.  Ask your learner to use their finger to follow the direction of the maze.

Testing Visual Perception with classic tests such as the Motor Free Visual Perception Test (MVPT), eliminates writing or letter recognition, by asking learners to point, or otherwise indicate the correct answer.

Teaching kids to follow the directions they need to physically move right, left, up, down requires development of spatial concepts such as spatial reasoning. This can be a real challenge for some kids! 

Many treatment sessions focus on more than one goal. This is more functional and relevant to classroom objectives than isolating skills.  Worksheets like the Shamrock Discrimination Maze encompass more than one skill such as coloring, cutting, gluing, reading, following directions, etc. Add fine motor skills to this free worksheet, by asking your learner to follow the maze with their writing tool, then color the shamrocks as they follow the path.

We’ve shared directionality activities before that help kids navigate and use maps with movement.

Other ways to use this Visual Discrimination Activity:

  • Laminate the Shamrock Directionality Maze to make it reusable.  This is efficient, wastes less resources, and learners love markers! Note: not all learners love reusable pages. Some feel it is important to be able to save their work and take it home
  • Project this shamrock activity onto a smart board to make it a group task, or work on large motor movement and shoulder stability
  • Enlarge the task for beginning learners who need more writing or coloring space.
  • Shrink the task for more advanced learners who need to learn to color in smaller spaces, or follow smaller directions
  • Try different writing utensils. Some learners work better with markers as they glide easier on paper. Did you know that golf sized pencils and broken crayons promote more of a tripod grasp than traditional long versions?
  • Try different colored paper for more or less visual contrast
  • Use (Amazon affiliate link) Dot or Bingo markers to mark the path as the arrows are followed
  • Have learners call the direction out loud as they pass it.  Down, right, down, left, etc.
  • Incorporate other methods to teach directionality, such as playing in a mirror, Simon Says, line dancing, follow the leader, Twister, or the Hokey Pokey
  • Add several visual perceptual tasks to further improve skills. The Visual Brain has informative resources on Visual Discrimination and directionality

Shamrocks and Spring Together!

Need more shamrocks? The OT Toolbox has a great post including All Things Shamrocks. Check it out.

If your theme encompasses Spring, the OT Toolbox has a great Spring Occupational Therapy Activities Book filled with 109 activities

In the Spring OT packet, you will find:

  • Spring Proprioceptive, Vestibular, Visual and Tactile Processing Activities
  • Olfactory, Auditory, Oral Motor, Fine Motor Spring Activities
  • Gross Motor Activities
  • Handwriting Practice Prompts
  • Spring Themed Brain Breaks
  • Occupational Therapy Homework Page
  • Client-Centered Worksheet
  • 5 pages of Visual Perceptual Skill Activities

East or West may always be confusing

For some, directionality, visual perception, and laterality come easy.  Others need to be taught repeatedly with activities like the Shamrock Directionality Maze, or given accommodations and strategies to overcome this difficulty.  I fear I may never be able to follow west/south directions. Is there a google maps adaptation for dummies that would translate west and east into left and right?  I have mastered those directions.  

Even though summer is by far my favorite season, spring is much better than winter!  Let’s hope you are digging out of the snow and getting some warmer days, so you can get out and head west out of your driveway!

Free St. Patrick’s Day Directionality Maze

Want a printable resource to build directionality and visual perception skills? Enter your email address into the form below to access this clover maze. This printable is available inside our Member’s Club during the month of March. Members can log in and quickly access the printable, along with all of the other free items here on The OT Toolbox.

Free St. Patrick’s Day Maze!

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    Victoria Wood

    Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

    • Note: the term, “learner” is used throughout this post for consistency, however this information is relevant for students, patients, clients, kids or children of all ages and stages, or whomever could benefit from these resources. The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.