Visualizing to Understand Content Area Text

Reading in the content areas is often difficult for students. The bulk of traditional reading instruction (especially in the primary grades) is based on fiction texts. This often leaves students unprepared for the volume of nonfiction, or informational text, that is used in the upper elementary, middle, and high school years. In addition, informational text comprises the majority of passages included on standardized tests as well as the type of reading that most students will do outside the classroom. Students need explicit instruction in comprehension strategies appropriate for informational text and opportunities for repeated practice.

In past months, we’ve focused on comprehension strategies such as making inferences, determining importance, note taking, and questioning. This month’s comprehension strategy, visualizing, promotes deeper comprehension of both informational and fictional text.


According to Into the Book, a reading strategies web site, visualizing can be defined as:

Readers [creating] images in their minds that reflect or represent the ideas in the text. These images may include any of the five senses and serve to enhance understanding of the text.

Research shows that proficient readers create mental images spontaneously and purposefully during and after reading. These images help readers recall details and draw conclusions.

Visualizing also helps students create nonlinguistic representations, or understandings, of concepts that do not involve words. Nonlinguistic representations are a powerful tool for learning and one of nine research-based strategies discussed in Classroom Instruction That Works, a 2001 book by Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock.


Visualizing can be used before, during, and after reading. Into the Book provides suggestions for using images and visual imagery with nonfiction text. As with any comprehension strategy, be sure to model the thinking processes involved! It is also important to remind students that the effectiveness of the strategy does not depend on their artistic ability. As long as the images are meaningful to the student, they will enhance comprehension of the text in question.

Before Reading

  • Have students preview and sort images from a text.
  • “Picture walk” through a text and make predictions about the content, based on the images.
  • Use Guided Imagery to prepare students for reading.
  • Have students draw pictures to document prior knowledge. Compare these pictures in small groups, and use them as the basis for a whole-class discussion.

During Reading

  • Ask students to explain how individual images support the main idea of the passage or book.
  • Discuss the relationships between the images within a text.
  • Have students sketch while listening to a read-aloud. Compare these pictures in small groups, and use them as the basis for a whole-class discussion.

After Reading

  • Have students make a drawing based on what they read. Compare this drawing to their prior knowledge.
  • Complete Venn diagrams, charts, or grids based on the text.


We’ve created a template that can be used to help students visualize this month’s Feature Story, “Ice Sculptures.” The template is based on a research-based activity called Gallery Images.

Visualizing Glaciers
This template can be printed and used in conjunction with the Feature Story, “Ice Sculptures.” As they read, students create images to represent the content and write a caption to accompany each image.

Literacy Set
Everything you need to teach the strategy of visualizing: a content knowledge article, template, and illustrated and electronic book copies of “Ice Sculptures” at all three grade bands.

Into the Book
Into the Book is a reading comprehension resource for K-4 students and teachers. It focuses on these research-based strategies: Using Prior Knowledge, Making Connections, Questioning, Visualizing, Inferring, Summarizing and Synthesizing. For this issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, we’ve highlighted the sections dedicated to the strategy of visualizing. Links to teacher and student areas are discussed separately.

Into the Book – Teacher Area: Visualizing
This area of the site, designed for teachers, provides background information about the strategy of visualizing. Formal and informal definitions of the strategy are provided as well as six learning objectives. Each learning objective is addressed in a video clip. The Teacher Area also includes seven pages accessible from a side navigation bar: Student Interactive (a guide to the Student Area described below), Student Video (a guide to the 15-minute video for use with your students), Teacher Video (a 15-minute video showing a reading professor teach the strategy to third-grade students), Lessons, Teaching Tips, Books, Research, and Links. The wealth of information contained in this site provides a comprehensive resource about the strategy of visualizing.

Into the Book – Student Area
Students must have a key to access the site. Only a first name is required to generate a key, and a key may be reused on several occasions by the same student. This part of the site is most appropriate for students to use individually, but it could be projected for group or whole class use.

Within the site, students select a tool that represents one of the reading strategies. For the strategy of inferring, students need to select the magnifying glass and drag it over the large book in the center of the screen. The book then opens to reveal an interactive site that teaches the strategy, models the process of using the strategy, and then asks students to try the skill. Audio, song, video, and interactive graphics are all part of this engaging and informative activity.

This article, available from the Ohio Resource Center’s AdLIT Reading Strategies web page, discusses the process of visualizing as well as what teachers can do to support students as they practice the strategy.

Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement.
This book presents nine research-based strategies for improving student achievement. Nonlinguistic representations, one of those strategies, is discussed in detail in Chapter 6.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright August 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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