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Visualizing When Reading, by Maryann Manning

Improve comprehension by helping students develop mental pictures of what they're reading.

Many children and adults have told me that they liked the Harry Potter movie but preferred the version they had created in their imaginations. I have vivid memories of my failure to enjoy the television series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. I liked my characters much better.

Building mental pictures of settings and characters when reading is something I took for granted when I began teaching reading, however, I find many students must be assisted with this ability.

Numerous factors hinder the development of visualization. A lack of background knowledge, inattention to punctuation and phrasing and little personal involvement with the text are three that are significant.

Prior knowledge is important because readers can't build a mental picture of an event or situation they don't understand or with which they are unfamiliar. For this reason, some fiction is easy to understand when the topic is within the students' range of experience. Nonfiction can be difficult because there is less opportunity for students to be familiar with the content prior to reading the text.

Some students see reading as a race to be won or a chore to finish quickly. These students must slow down while reading so they can activate the pictures in their heads. Each end punctuation mark should be seen as a time for the reader to stop and develop a picture of what is happening in the text.

Passive readers who have little personal involvement need help in becoming involved in the text. Discussions before, during and after reading help these students make a personal connection to the text. Drawing, dramatizing and playing games such as Pictionary® or the acting out of an interview in a talk-show format helps make reading come to life for these students.

Rationale. Visualizing is necessary for comprehending any text. This ability can be enhanced by helping readers concentrate on the pictures they create in their minds.

Lesson. Introductory statements for the discussion of visualizing reading content may include the following points:

(Primary students)

  • When you listen to a story read aloud, picture the action in your mind.

  • When you read or hear a story, ask yourself about the setting, "Where is the story taking place? Can I see the place?"

  • When you read or hear a story, ask yourself about the characters, "Who are the characters in the story? What do the characters look like?"

(Intermediate and middle school students)

  • An important reading skill that improves your comprehension is visualizing the content of the text.

  • There are times when you cannot visualize what you are reading because you do not have enough information.

  • The scenes you create in your mind are limited by your knowledge of the setting and characters.

Demonstrating with texts

  1. Read aloud descriptive passages from a fictional text, but do not show the pictures. Ask several students to describe what they see in their minds after you have read a few paragraphs. Ask younger students to draw a picture of what they see and then share their creations. Discuss why everyone does not visualize the same scene. Finally, show the illustrations or photographs.

  2. Read aloud the beginning of a fictional text. Ask students to write some details they visualize and ask them to add to their details as you finish reading. Ask students to reread what they wrote at the beginning and then discuss how their visualizations changed during the continued reading of the text.

Demonstrations by the teacher

  1. Read aloud a piece of fiction you have written that is about a topic which is familiar to your students. Think aloud about your feelings and your activation of the senses such as smell and taste. Share how you, as an author, build pictures in your mind as you write.

  2. Read aloud a short article from a magazine or newspaper. Pause after each paragraph and think aloud as you describe what you visualize.

  3. If you've been disappointed by a movie that was based on a book, discuss how the movie's images were different from those you visualized.

Demonstration by students

  1. During literature circles with books that have few illustrations, ask students to describe settings and characters. Discuss how your mental pictures help you understand the text.

  2. Ask students to read a short piece of unfamiliar nonfiction. Ask them to think about whether they can research the topic by observing and/or interviewing informed individuals so they can build more realistic mental pictures.

Facilitating social interaction
During content-area discussions and conferences, ask students who are having difficulty understanding the text to talk about what they're visualizing. Science and social studies offer opportunities to discuss mental pictures while increasing content knowledge. Asking "What do you see in your mind?" "Why do you think you formed that image?" and "What information do you need to help you visualize what is taking place?" helps students to be aware of visualization and promotes conversation.

Increasing the use of visualization
We form mental images when we read or think about anything. During math, we can increase understanding by helping students form images of situations in story problems. I think you'll find that whenever we suspect students aren't understanding content, visualization may strengthen reading comprehension.


Maryann Manning is on the faculty of the School of Education, The University of Alabama at Birmingham.


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