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Visual Imagery

Good readers construct mental images as they read a text. By using prior knowledge and background experiences, readers connect the author's writing with a personal picture. Through guided visualization, students learn how to create mental pictures as they read.

Why use visual imagery?

  • Generating an image while reading requires that the reader be actively engaged with the text.
  • Creating mental images while reading can improve comprehension.

How to use visual imagery

Follow these few simple steps to provide practice developing students' mental images:

  • Begin reading. Pause after a few sentences or paragraphs that contain good descriptive information.
  • Share the image you've created in your mind, and talk about which words from the book helped you "draw" your picture. Your picture can relate to the setting, the characters, or the actions. By doing this, you are modeling the kind of picture making you want your child to do.
  • Talk about how these pictures help you understand what's happening in the story.
  • Continue reading. Pause again and share the new image you created. Then ask your child to share what he sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels. Ask what words helped him create the mental image and emotions. By doing this, you are providing your child with practice with this new skill.
  • Are your images identical? Probably not! This is a great time to talk about why your images might be different. Perhaps your child went on a school field trip or had a school assembly that changed the way they created the picture in their mind. Perhaps experiences you've had as an adult influenced what you "drew." These differences are important to understand and respect.
  • Read a longer portion of text and continue the sharing process.
  • Once this is a familiar skill, encourage your child to use mental imagery when she is reading by herself. You can feel confident that these mental pictures will help your child understand the story in an important way.

Resources

Into the Book: lesson plans that help students learn to visualize:

Picture This! Using Mental Imagery While Reading

Read article >

Reading for Meaning: Tutoring Elementary Students to Enhance Comprehension

Read article >

When to use: Before reading During reading After reading
How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

Examples

Math

Teaching Shapes Using Read-Alouds, Visualization, and Sketch to Stretch from ReadWriteThink encourages strategic reading and real-world math connections.

See example >

Draw a Math Story from ReadWriteThink helps students move from the concrete to the symbolic.

See example >

Art

From the Art Junction website: Suppose you had a hat that would help you think like an artist (76K PDF)*. What would it look like? How would it work? Try to imagine such a hat in your mind's eye. Once you have a mental picture of your "artrageous" hat, make it using a paper plate as a base and colored construction paper to create it's form. It may help to draw a picture of your hat before you start.

See example >

Music

The San Francisco Symphony Kids' Site offers an online radio that provides musical examples of drama, excitement, tragedy and triumph. The musical selections offer a great opportunity to pair visualization and writing. Simply select a station button, have kids listen and visualize, and then draw or write what they "see" in the music.

See example >

Differentiated instruction

For second language learners, students of varying reading skill, students with learning disabilities, and younger learners

  • Start with small bits of text. Gradually add more as students get more familiar with the strategy.
  • Pair students, or organize them into small groups, for visualization work. Use a strategy like Think-Pair-Share to help students become more comfortable developing mental images.

See the research that supports this strategy

Gambrell, L., & Koskinen, P.S. (2002). Imagery: A strategy for enhancing comprehension. In C. C. Block & M. Pressley (Eds.), Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices (pp. 305-318). New York: Guilford Press.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Mental Imagery in Reading: A Sampler of Some Significant Studies

Children's books to use with this strategy

All the World 

All the World 

Alliterative, onomatopoeic language (and gentle illustrations) reveal a child's day shared with family from sun-up to moon-rise.

Least Things: Poems about Small Natures 

Least Things: Poems about Small Natures 

Short poems (haiku) were written in response to but also evoke creatures shown in crisp close-up photographs of small animals and insects in their natural surroundings. This collection and others by Yolen/Stemple introduce information about nature, and could be used as part of the science curriculum.

Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing 

Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing 

The first book in the saga of Peter Hatcher presents a recognizable family and real characters in believable (and often funny) situations including his disgustingly cute but annoying little brother, Farley, better known as Fudge.

Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales 

Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales 

Eight well known folktales (e.g., 'Little Red Riding Hood,' 'Musicians of Breman') are retold and simply illustrated. (This might be paired with other versions of the same tales and start a study of comparative literature for younger children; e.g., what does the language in this rendition call to mind? How does it compare to X,Y, orZ?)

Red Sings from Treetops

Red Sings from Treetops

Each season of the year has its own special color and feeling. Summer, fall, winter, and spring are presented in rich, lyrical language accompanied by stylized illustrations that evoke something special about each.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Join Minli as she journeys to save her village and her family from a dreary fate. A storyteller's voice effectively brings to life this unforgettable award-winning novel, illustrated with exquisite Chinese paintings.

Aesop's Fables

Aesop's Fables

Almost 100 fables attributed to Aesop have been selected and illustrated in this oversized collection. Familiar and less familiar tales are included, and most are distinguished by illustrations that give these old fables a fresh face. This large collection is an introduction to these classic stories.

The Bunnicula Collection: Books 1 to 3

The Bunnicula Collection: Books 1 to 3

Harold the family dog narrates three stories of life with supernatural suspicions which begins with Bunnicula, the bunny with fangs. In the Howliday Inn while boarding at the Chateau Bow-Wow, Harold and Chester (the Monroe cat) encounter a werewolf, perhaps. Chester and Harold must stop zombie vegetables when the Celery Stalks at Midnight. Over-the-top humor is very appealing to a broad range of listeners (including adults!).

Comments

I love how these reading tips are so clear for the teaching adult. To suggest books that will help teach the strategy is a real bonus. Makes me want to teach kids how to read again.

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"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald