Visuals to Enhance Learning

Picture this. The anguish of the Cherokee people during their “trail of tears” relocation to Oklahoma. A microscopic virus that can inhabit living creatures. The pattern of solutions for the equation 2x=3y. The geographic locations of the major volcanic eruptions of the 20th century. The growth in population of Wisconsin from 1950 to 2000 as reflected by the U.S. Census. The relationship between increasing levels of phosphates and the population density of game fish in our streams.

Perhaps you were able to generate some images of the information described in the preceding paragraph. Clearly, the mental pictures you evoked were undoubtedly quite varied, ranging from visual scenes such as those represented by photographs to graphs, maps, charts, or tables. As proficient readers, we expect that some information can be better communicated through visuals rather than words. Increasingly, readers of today’s text materials are expected to “read” nonverbal as well as verbal forms of information.

A quick flip through a new textbook reveals that publishers are now emphasizing visual displays as a major source of important content. Teachers sometimes comment that new texts feel almost “cluttered,” with very few pages devoted solely to words. To accommodate the space demands of visuals, publishers may adopt an “either/or” policy: information will be either presented in words or in visuals, but not in both forms. Therefore visuals may assume a primary rather than auxiliary role in communicating critical concepts.

Teaching/Learning Activities:

Many students have developed the habit of skipping visuals as they read text assignments. In addition, the information derived from some types of visual displays, such as graphic representations, may not be readily apparent to students. Ogle (2000) advocates modeling visual literacy activities to students as a regular part of the classroom routine.

Step 1: To heighten student awareness of visual information, engage them in activities that develop the habit of interpreting non-verbals as a regular practice when learning from texts. One activity is to take students on a “visual tour” of a chapter. Create a study guide that walks them through visual displays and encourages them to spend some time considering the information presented in each.

Include extensive prompts that guide students toward interpreting each type of visual. Although the captions provided by textbook editors may be helpful, often students will need more direction as to how to “read” the visual. For example, you may wish to ask students to describe what they are seeing in a photograph or drawing. Graphic information, such as tables or diagrams, may be best processed through questions that ask students to notice elements of the graphic and to determine what relationships might be suggested.

An important aspect of this step is to immerse students sufficiently into a visual so that they become comfortable encountering information in a multitude of formats. As students become familiar with reading various visuals, they can be asked to collaborate with a partner to create their own tour of a chapter as an assignment. This activity can be especially useful with visuals that are prevalent within a content area – math visuals, for example, are quite different from what students find in social studies texts.

Step 2: A second phase in developing visual literacy is to involve students in creating their own visual representations of text information. Ask students to assume the role of “Visual Editor” of a textbook. Supply them with pads of sticky notes and direct their attention to a paragraph or two that might be difficult to understand. After reading, have each student confer with a partner to brainstorm possible visual displays that might enhance comprehension of this passage. For example, the following world history excerpt could prove challenging to students:

“Feudalism became the prevalent system in Europe. In this system, nobles swore an oath of loyalty to the king and provided him with military support. Each noble, or lord, might have additional lords also pledged to him, making them his vassals. Thus, underneath the king were various layers of lords, and a noble might be both a lord and vassal to other lords. The next level was the knights, or mounted soldiers. At the bottom of this pyramid of relationships were the peasants, or serfs.”

What visuals could be created to make this text clearer? Each set of partners decides upon a visual, which is then posted on a sticky note on the chalkboard. Students can then examine their classmates’ ideas and select the visual that works the best for them. In the example above, students might decide upon a pyramid diagram that clearly indicates the hierarchy of relationships described in the passage. Each student “editor” then draws this visual on a second note and affixes it to the textbook page.

Step 3: Encourage students to experiment with drawing as an activity for learning. For example, in a highly visual subject like biology, students often discover that reproducing visuals that they are studying from the textbook, labs, and class presentations can be a powerful means for examining and understanding this visual information. Use of color in such visuals is especially advantageous. Students begin to realize that drawing a visual causes them to analyze it in much greater depth.

Other variations include the Sketch to Stretch activity (Short, Harste, and Burke, 1996). After students have read a passage, ask them to render the most important idea in a drawing. What do they feel is the central concept of this poem, short story, history passage, or science segment? Obviously, the intent of this strategy is not to produce “works of art,” but is to ask students to visualize what the words are saying and to read carefully for clues as to what to draw. Some students may be capable of exceptional drawings, but most will probably create basic sketches that reflect what they perceive in a passage.


Students gain practice in formulating mental images as they read, which is a necessary component for reading comprehension and is often a weakness for struggling readers. Students began to investigate the balance between presenting information through writing and representing information through visuals in their own communications.