Cover for article titled Reading Comprehension Strategy #1: Visualization showing a girl reading next to a lion.

Reading Comprehension Strategy #1: Visualization

This post is the first in a series about reading comprehension strategies.  Today’s reading comprehension strategy is using visualization as we read. Or in other words, making a movie of the book in our mind as it unfolds.

Some children may do this naturally as they read and some may need some or a lot of help developing this skill.  Regardless, almost all children will improve their reading comprehension skills from their current level if you use some of the strategies below.

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Visualization as a Reading Comprehension Strategy

When we talk about visualizing what we read, we are not just talking about what you “see“.  We are also talking about the other sensations a story can make you feel.  You may “smell” the food cooking in story or even “taste” it.  You may “hear” the crunching of the leaves as one of the characters walks in the woods.  You may even “feel” sensations in your body such as chills or your stomach clenching.

This visualization has many benefits…

Imagining all of these sensations keeps you focused on what you are reading.  Have you ever read something and realized that you kept “reading”, but you actually have no idea what the last few paragraphs you read said?  A lot of times this is because you stopped making a movie of what you were reading.

When you visualize what you read, you draw on the experience you already have of people, places, things, and events.  If you imagine how a food smells, you are recalling how a similar food has smelled to you in the past.

You also draw on information you have learned, but maybe haven’t experienced firsthand.   If you picture a soldier in a book living in a Civil War tent, it is because you have seen a picture or video of one before. This is activating your background knowledge, which is an important reading comprehension strategy I discuss more in this post.

Drawing on all these previous experiences builds connections in your brain of the new information you are learning and what you already know.  Through these connections, visualization helps your brain build a better and more in-depth memory of what you read.

When you want or need to recall what you read at a later date, these sensory images you have created and then connected to other images in your mind will help.  Think of all the times you need to find or remember something and you stop and make a picture in your head to help you.

Step 1: Have a Conversation

So, how do you help your children build this visualization skill while they read?

The first step is to have an explicit conversation about visualizing what we read.  Being clear and detailed with our children (or anyone else) about what we would like them to learn or understand is always the first step to building a skill.

Ask if their brain makes a movie while they read.  Share what your brain does while you read.  Pull a few other family members into the conversation to describe their experiences of making movies while they read.  This could be a good dinnertime conversation.

I recently discovered that my husband can picture objects in his brain and then move them in different ways so he can see all the sides and parts of the object.  I definitely don’t have this skill!  As we talked I realized that when I picture a scene in my head, I have a narrower view of the scene than I would in real life.  And the resolution isn’t that good either!

Take a minute right now and think about how you picture things…you may learn something new about yourself!

Now, I think it is important to stop and share that some people do not make pictures in their head at all!  So if you experience that, you are not alone!  Melissa from Pocket Homeschool shares her own experience here:

From Melissa at Pocket Homeschool

Some people are not able to visualize – this is called aphantasia. Sometimes people mistakenly think this means you can’t enjoy reading. However, I know from my own experience with aphantasia that you definitely can still love reading.

When I read, I connect with the words because I think nearly exclusively in words. This is one thing that makes bad writing so difficult for me to read!

If a child is frustrated by activities that tell them to visualize, it may be that they literally can’t. Ask your child questions about what they experience in their head – but be prepared that it may be hard for them to answer. Even as an adult, it’s hard for me to explain how my brain works.

Step 2: Model How to Visualize

Sometime soon after you have the above conversation with your children, do a read aloud and model how you visualize what you are reading.  If you don’t currently have a habit of reading aloud to your children because they have gotten older, then grab a book that you can use to model visualizing.  And, check out this post of how you can incorporate read alouds in your home on a regular basis.

As you read, stop now and then and describe what you are seeing in your mind.  We did this a lot with Anne of Green Gables last year.

An example from <em>Anne of Green Gables</em>...

Marilla was a tall, thin woman.  Her dark hair showed some gray streaks.  It was always twisted up in a hard little knot behind her head. -L.M. Montgomery

This short description helps us start to picture Marilla in our mind.  I might say out loud to my kids how I picture Marilla thin and tall.  I would likely use my hands to show the thinness and tallness.  I would talk about her dark hair and how the detail of “gray streaks” made me realize that Marilla is older than I thought, but not so old that all of her hair is gray. So I add a few lines to her face in the picture I have of her.  And then I would use my hands on my own hair to show how her knot might look behind her head.  I would tell them that a little knot must mean her hair is thin.

This is a pretty full picture for just three short sentences.  But then I would talk about what we don’t know and how I have filled in those details on my own.  For example, we don’t know what Marilla is wearing.  But depending on how much we know of the time period of the story at this point, we might have a picture of those clothes.  I might give an example of a dress from a show we watched or just describe the length, color, and style that I have created in my head.

I would continue to read for a bit and then stop at another interesting description and model this picture-making process again.  If you stop too often, it will keep you from enjoying the story so just a couple times during a reading session might be enough.  Gauge your children’s feelings about it and do what works for them.

Now this modeling of what you see is not a “one and done” type of thing.  This is a practice you can continue during future read alouds.

Step 3: Practice Visualizing Together

The next step is to have your children practice visualizing what they read.  Again, this will be easiest to practice during a read aloud at first.  You may do this shortly after you modeled how to make a movie in your head or you may save it for another day soon after.

This time, you will ask your child to close their eyes and make a movie while you read to them.  After a paragraph or two, stop and ask your child to describe in detail what they see.

If they are not sure where to start, ask some questions to prompt them.  Using the quote above from Anne of Green Gables again, you could ask them to show you with their hands how tall Marilla is.  Or what color hair they picture her having.  Ask what she is wearing and talk about how the book doesn’t tell us.

If their responses are way off, just gently tell them how you pictured something different noting the specific words that clued you in.  Bring their attention to those words and then describe what you pictured.

You will want to practice this skill several times when you read together getting more detailed about your pictures over time.  You can add in conversations where you pull out strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives in what you read and how those help you fill in details in your picture.

Here is an example of some strong words (in boldface) from the first few lines of The Wind in the Willows

An example from <em>The Wind in the Willows</em>...

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. -Kenneth Grahame

There is so much you can discuss about these few lines.  The word “little” helps us remember that this is a mole’s home so have your children show with their hands or arms how big the house would look.

Then we have lots of nouns that help us picture what the mole is using to clean…brooms (more than one), dusters, ladders, steps, chairs (I am picturing these being all different heights.) and a brush and pail.  Did you picture a paintbrush since that would go with a pail of whitewash? (You will likely have to explain to your kids that whitewash is white paint.) And then we can picture a black mole with white paint on him…that is funny!

Next we can picture what it would feel like to have dust in our throat and our eyes.  Ask your kids what this would feel like and what would they do if this happened.  Ask them to imagine that their backs ache and their arms are weary or tired.  They could act out how this feels.

Some day you may develop such a great practice of making movies during read alouds with your kids that you start to cast the movies with actors and actresses you know!  Or picture where you would set the movie if you were to make it in real life.

Step 4: Draw, Act Out, and Narrate

Some kids will love to draw out what they pictured in their minds.  They may like this better than using words to describe what they see.  This is why we often have children draw in the comprehension pages of our unit studies and why this is included in our Poetry Notebooking Pages.  

Drawing will help children turn those words into pictures even if the pictures are really simple.  You can help your kids pull some words from the text to help them like size or color words or more descriptive adjectives as they get better at it.

Four printable pages from different unit studies showing reading comprehension questions including a drawing prompt on each page.

Some kids will like to act out scenes from the movie they make in their mind.  This could be done spontaneously as you all read or it could be at the end of a chapter or book.  Some hildren may even want to put on a full production of what you have all read, which is a great reading comprehension strategy!

Or if you have children that like to talk, they can describe their movie from beginning to end after you finish a chapter or section of the book.  This is called narration and we will talk about why narration is a great skill to build in a future post.

Other Supports for Visualization as a Reading Comprehension Strategy

Picture Books and Graphic Novels

Picture books for younger kids and graphic novels for older ones are great books to help build their visualization skills while they read.  They provide the pictures to match the text they are reading so kids have a starting point to make their own movie.

Moving from full picture books to books with just a few pictures such as Magic Tree House books is a good way for younger children to then take over making the pictures and movies themselves while they reading.

And alternating graphic novels with traditional chapter books for older children can encourage them to take on the visualization of the story themselves.  In this review of a particular graphic novel, I talk about how they can help children learn history.

Build Background Knowledge

If children don’t have background knowledge about the topic they are reading about, then it is hard to make a picture or movie in their heads.  Therefore, it is good to build that background knowledge before they start a book or during the reading of it.

Watching videos of the place and time period where the book is set is helpful. For example, before we started reading the first book in our Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic Unit Study, we watched a 10 minute video about the Canadian Arctic.  The Listening to Learns that we include in each of our unit studies also builds this background knowledge for students.

If you are reading historical fiction, find some videos about the actual events that took place.  These will give your kids a really good idea of what to picture as they read.

Sometimes just looking up pictures of the objects, people or places mentioned in the story will give you the images you need to fill in the blanks in the movie in your mind.

If Your Child Continues to Struggle with Visualization

Melissa from Pocket Homeschool shared above a little about aphantasia and how it may mean your child does not visualize what they read despite the above strategies.  She has some great ideas to help those kids…

From Melissa at Pocket Homeschool

If they struggle to enjoy reading or connect the words to an image, find out what part of stories do appeal to them. If they like the visuals or movie or tv, try graphic novels. If they like hearing stories, try audiobooks. If they are moved by their emotions, look for stories in first person, where you are invited to feel what the characters are feeling.

Ready for another reading comprehension strategy? Read about why it is important to bring background knowledge into what we read, the different types of background knowledge, and how to help our children develop this skill.

In the meantime, what thoughts did you have while reading this post?  Comment below or email us.

If you enjoyed this post then, you may be interested in reading 7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!

7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!
  • Zimmermann, Susan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 224 Pages - 07/22/2003 (Publication Date) - Harmony (Publisher)