Using Visual Imagery to Respond to Texts

For many students, drawing pictures in response to literature feels "fun" and unthreatening compared to writing a response. Yet asking students to draw what they see as they read is essentially the same thing as requesting a written response: Both demand that they identify and restate an important concept in the text in a way that is personally meaningful. A visual representation of a text or portion of a text can be done at any point in a reading -- as a first response, to sum up, or as a final assessment. Teacher Alfredo Lujan says this about his use of the technique: "After [the students] had discussed the poems [in Keith Gilyard's book Poemographies] and then the title, in my mind, they were making a link, and I thought, 'What better way to represent that than visually?' So instead of giving them a standard assignment like 'write an essay explaining what you meant' ... I thought in this case ... it would be best represented visually." Some of his students made posters, some maps, and some drew their responses.

A visual representation can take any form. Students can simply describe orally, to a partner or to the whole class, the images they "see" in their minds as they read. They can also do simple sketches in response to what they read, then share those sketches. Or they can create more elaborate responses by making posters, maps, portraits, masks, photo essays, sculptures, or other visual art forms. Visual responses can be done with the text as a whole, with a portion of the text, or with some theme or idea that runs through it.

Students can also capture the meaning of one word through drawing. Some teachers have students draw the meaning of a vocabulary word they are studying. Other teachers ask for a visual response as a culmination of a study of one concept or theme. For example, students might attempt to draw a concept like "hero" after a study of mythology, or visually represent themes like "identity" or "racism" that may arise in their reading.

Many teachers already use "mapping" in the classroom. Mapping is the practice of having students show their thinking about an idea, book, or theme by graphically representing the relationships between pieces of information. Markers, construction paper, and other supplies that encourage a visual response can help to make these maps more visually engaging.

A teacher introducing students to the concept of representing visual images might begin by modeling the images he or she "sees" while reading a text. The teacher can explain how describing and reflecting on these images helps develop comprehension of the text. Students might then begin by describing their images orally to a partner or by writing in a journal. Small peer groups might meet to discuss these images and discover what they have in common. Image-making is an ongoing process. Just as written and oral responses to literature will grow in sophistication with practice, so will the making of visual representations. Teachers should model how these responses, like written and oral responses, will be different for different genres of texts.
Good writing evokes images in our minds as we read. Good readers are constantly making and revising these mental images as they progress through a text. As educators Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman, authors of Mosaic of Thought, put it: "Proficient readers spontaneously and purposefully 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 ... [They] use images to draw conclusions, to create distinct and unique interpretations of the text, to recall details significant to the text, and to recall a text after it has been read." Talking about this with students and having them describe or draw the images they "see" as they read helps them strengthen their ability to use these mental pictures for comprehension and interpretation.

- Keith Gilyard and Mourning Dove

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