Jan 26

Visualization: 3 Things You Need to Know

Visualization2As a fairly new teacher, I will never forget the look on a certain student’s face when I suggested that a movie plays in my mind every time I read a book.  This student, a member of my high school Title One Reading Class, was a bubbly, lovable girl who often had plenty to say, but at that particular moment was speechless. Temporarily surprised by her response, I was too! You see, I have always been a good reader and for as long as I can remember I have seen elaborate sensory images in my mind every time I read.  As a beginning teacher, I assumed that my students must be doing the same thing. But… obviously, they weren’t.  After the student recovered from her long moment of slack-jawed silence, she informed me that she had never once seen a picture in her mind while she read.  And so began my journey of learning about the power of visualization and how explicitly teaching it to my students could make a significant difference in their comprehension of both fiction and nonfiction texts. 

Visualizing, the act of creating sensory images in the mind while reading, is a particularly important reading strategy.  There is much research that demonstrates the benefits of purposely teaching readers to visualize. It is one of the skills that make comprehension possible.  However, it is important to remember that not all visualization instruction is created equal.  What follows are three things you need to know about training students to visualize. Read on.  


This is something I worried quite a bit about at the beginning.  I can remember when I first started explicitly teaching the strategy of visualization. I asked students to do a lot of drawing.  I wanted them to communicate visually what they were seeing while reading.  Admittedly, I was a little concerned that someone would walk in, especially at the high school level, and think that my teaching wasn’t rigorous enough.  After some thought, I got over this. I reminded myself that visualization is a very important piece of the comprehension puzzle and drawing is a worthwhile tool in the process. I knew I had more to learn, but I was headed in the right direction.   

Try this:  Close your eyes.  Visualize the color green. Now try visualizing the color lime green. Did your visual picture change after you read lime green?

This is a very simple way of demonstrating how the text adjusts the images in a good reader’s mind and how this helps a good reader draw conclusions about what they are reading. Of course, good readers are doing this on a much more complicated level each time they sit down to read. Entire mental worlds are formed and altered as their minds adjust to new information on the page. Your time with students is valuable and there isn’t enough of it, but spending time helping students learn how to visualize is time very well spent. 


Visualizing isn’t just about seeing a picture.  When I first started teaching students how to visualize it was all about what they “saw” in their minds.  While this was helpful, it really isn’t the whole shebang of what visualizing can do for a reader.  After reading the book, Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman, I realized that visualizing entails the mental production of a whole sensory experience.  By doing this, a good reader expands on the author’s words and adds depth to what they are reading.  

Try this:  In picking up where we left off…visualize the color lime green. Close your eyes if you need to.  Now go beyond just what you see.  What do you smell, taste, hear, feel and what emotions are you experiencing?  

I do this same activity with my students before reading the book Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.  While I am now a fourth grade teacher, I feel this activity would have been just as effective with my high school students.  It is amazing the kinds of sensory experiences each student has to share after they close their eyes and spend some time really experiencing the color. Each student’s experience and response is varied, nuanced and slightly changed by each individual’s prior experiences.  I especially love the addition of emotions to the sensory experience.  Students really enjoy attaching an emotion to the color they are seeing and it truly does add depth to the author’s words.  

If you are interested in helping students create multi-sensory images while they read, check out our Visualizing Squares product in our YouCan2 store. This product invites students to elaborate on the author’s words and go deeper into the text.  When using the Visualizing Squares with a class select a poem or passage to spend some time with. Have the students close their eyes and mentally “walk around” in the scene the author has created for them.  It will quickly become clear who is comprehending the material and who is not.  I often use a poem about a child sledding down a hill at night.  See an example below.  Many students, after spending a minute or so “walking around” inside the poem, jot down that they see things that the author’s words did not explicitly suggest, but are still supported by the text. For example, they might say that they saw a cabin on a hill with smoke curling from its chimney, that they heard the sound of snow crunching underfoot or that they saw the light the moon cast on the snow. It is obvious that these students are using visualization and inference to create a deeper world from the text thereby enhancing their comprehension. However, there are always a handful of students who don’t seem to have read the poem at all.  For instance, they might say they feel the heat of the sun.  These students are not yet able to use visualization techniques to support their comprehension. This is an important reminder that while we want to use visualization to elaborate on the author’s words we still must use the text as the foundation for our visualizations.  I am able to learn a lot about each student’s ability to visualize when using the Visualizing Squares.  Visualizing Squares Blog Photo (1)


This final thought is one that, at last, is becoming real for me as a teacher. Using visualization to comprehend nonfiction text, at first, seemed unnatural to me.  However, as we all know, the Common Core asks us to focus more on nonfiction text and, with this in mind, I started really thinking about how I personally use visualization to comprehend this broad genre.  This thinking has really opened up a completely new world for me in regards to how I teach the reading of nonfiction and how I also, as a side benefit, have enhanced my own skills in this area.  

Alan Paivo’s research on dual coding reminds us of the importance of using visualization while reading nonfiction text.  In his research, he states that thinking consists of both a verbal and a nonverbal system.  When a reader creates a mental image that relates to what they read they make abstract ideas more concrete, memorable and meaningful. When reading nonfiction we are often reading for a purpose and we often hope to retain or remember certain information. Good readers create mental images that help them retain this information and understand the author’s message more clearly. For instance, a reader might create a mental picture of steps and arrange the information in a hierarchical way to understand the organization of the text’s ideas.  I have found that having students draw the organization images they are seeing to be a very effective study method. My class just finished a nonfiction book about growth mindset and what happens inside our brains as we learn new things. Together we visualized by making a mental picture in our minds of what our brain looks like as we learn.  Now, every time they need a little growth mindset reminder, I ask them to recall the picture we made. It has really helped make the the text more memorable and less abstract. These are skills that will help students throughout their lives to be more effective readers and learners.

On a more personal note, I have learned to practice visualization in my daily life outside of the classroom.  When cooking, I visualize myself performing each step of a recipe.  This has been hugely helpful!  I am actually able to remember what to do as three children are pulling on my pant legs and are doing their very best to distract the cook (me)!  Go visualization!  

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