Tapping into Our Children’s Visual World to Improve Comprehension

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By Cathy Puett Miller, President, TLA, Inc.
Tapping into Our Children’s Visual World to Improve Comprehension

Our children today live in such a visual world, computer screens flashing, text messages streaming, images at lightning speed. But sometimes they are missing the opportunity to learn to think, because images are regularly provided to aid their learning. How can we help students transfer from those provided images to images of their own in their minds to aid in comprehension?

First, remember that reading is reading. Whether you read on a computer screen or on a printed page, the same strategies and mental processes apply. Students are very interested in technology and it engages them, not surprising at all. Engagement acts as a strong motivational tool.

Perhaps with the reading our students are doing on the Internet or a computer game, they do npt have to activate their own visual images since the visuals are provided for them. How can we use this visual world to help our students improve in these areas of reading comprehension and vocabulary? One possibility is to tap into a proven method for conventional reading comprehension instruction: visualization.

Keene and Zimmerman in, Mosaic of Thought , write: “Proficient readers spontaneously and purposely create mental images while and after they read. The images emerge from all five senses as well as the emotions and are anchored in a reader’s prior knowledge.”

Try introducing visualization to help students learn to do that (parents or teachers can do this):

Find a piece of text (with no pictures) on the Internet, written on your student’s grade level. Ask your students to read the selection and think about what images would enhance the information. It can be a news story, a how-to article or even a short story.

Next, have them brainstorm a list of descriptive words from the text. They can write them on a list or type them on the computer screen.

The final step is to ask students to re-read the words, and try to form images in their mind’s eyes of what the “helpful” images they would add would look like. Have them share in small group their thoughts. Point out that the students’ images may “look” different, based on what they already know or have experienced about the subject of the article/text.

This exercise begins to help students tap into the imaging that good readers create in their minds as they read. You may have to do this more than once or prompt students with specific questions to give them a solid idea of your expectations. If any of the students like to draw, they can also contribute by taking the ideas discussed in their small group and creating an illustration (with computer-aided art or with old-fashioned paper and art supplies).

Once the students grasp the idea of imaging, then transfer the idea to a piece of conventional text.

  1. Begin with a familiar fiction read-aloud with strong descriptive words and scenes. Don’t show the illustrations if it is a picture book. Make this playful, almost like a game rather than a strict lesson.
  2. As you read a short part, describe images you see in your mind. Direct modeling of the active thought process is the first step. For example, in Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s classic tale of a mischievous boy, he writes:

    That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.

  3. When you finish opening your mind, let students try to do the same. They are likely to have images similar to the illustrations in the book because they are familiar with the text and its pictures.
  4. Next, choose a selection of an unfamiliar book with a highly descriptive element. The book should be appropriate for students’ listening vocabulary level (up to two years above their reading vocabulary). If necessary, share a vocabulary mini-lesson, introducing unfamiliar terms. Before reading, remind your students of the earlier visualization exercise:

    “Remember when I read from Where the Wild Things Are? I thought about what the words said and I imagined what the characters looked like, what they were doing and their surround­ings. While I read, close your eyes and listen carefully. Stay alert and think about what is happening in the story. See if you can imagine the scene the words describe. Pretend you are making a movie; what would you see from behind the camera? I will ask you about your images when we are finished.”

    When you see describing words or adjectives (apply terminology they know), use those to help paint a picture in your head (hot, red, musty, quiet).

    For students identified as “at-risk”, discuss what it feels like to be hot, or what shade of red a tomato might be or how musty gym socks smell when they’ve been in a locker for three days.

    Give them concrete ideas and connect to prior knowledge. Turn on the thought pro­cess and you prime students to do the same when they read. Remind them to think about what characters smell, taste, feel, hear and think. Good readers do that. Also tell them this will help them remember what the story is about.

  5. Read the selection. Afterwards, direct a class discussion in which students share their images. Everyone’s will be different but acknowledge and value each.

    • If students’ images don’t fit the words, prompt them with questions to help them adjust their image (another effective comprehension strategy).
    • If they create images that reflect the words, praise them and encourage comparison/contrast discussions. Go back to the text to clarify the accuracy of their images.
    • Again, if you have artistic students, they can even create drawings of what they “see in their minds’ eye”.
    • If students have difficulty creating any image, try another short read-aloud session and practice modeling again. Ask questions to lead them to create images on their own such as “does this remind you of anything in your life?” OR “what do you think the dog looked like? Do you have a dog? How do you think this dog is the same as yours? Different?”

    Next time, use a different selection from the same text. Tell students you will share part of a story (show no illustrations). Ask each to draw their own illustra­tions as they listen. The physical act of creating a picture helps students grasp the concept and they don’t have to be a DaVinci to bring their images to life. They will have fun interacting over their drawings during the discussion.

    To connect this image building with comprehension and reinforce the concept, continue discussions with students about their images (in whole or small-group). Make it an everyday part of class. Those who do not grasp the concept as easily can learn from other students’ expression of their own “pictures in their heads”. Encourage those who struggle to ask other students how they came up with ideas.

    Integrate this exercise into daily class read-alouds and silent reading. Incorporate not only physical images but also feelings characters experience (explore the concept of inference).

    As you progress, you can help students learn to apply these ideas to expository text (in geometry, we need to visualize). Also encourage students to use visualization when they write descriptive narrative. During pre-writing, brainstorming time, they can close their eyes, image what the scene they are setting looks like, and then transfer those ideas to paper.

    Visualization opens the door for life-long reading. Most of all, it helps students develop habits of actively thinking about what they read which leads to greater retention and understanding.

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