Visualisation to boost reading comprehension

Teaching strategies

Visualisation to boost reading comprehension

Visualisation – the process of picturing something in your mind (such as a character or a location).

Education worker standing in a busy hallway of a school.

When you imagine something in your mind, you are visualising it. Visualisation is our unique and individualistic interpretation of a text. What you see when you read a passage from a text is not necessarily the same as what someone else sees: the image created by your mind is dependent on your previous experiences. For example, read the flowing sentence: ‘He walked down the cold street holding his weapon in nervous anticipation of things to come.’ If you live in a small town, you are more likely to visualise a small town – maybe you even saw a scene from a Western movie. However, if you live in a city, you may have pictured a criminal or a police officer. What weapon did you picture? What was the person wearing? Were they male or female? Young or old? What time of day was it? What was the weather like? What was the character thinking or feeling? Was it snowing, raining, wet or slippery? Did you see big buildings, houses, farmland or shops?

What you see when you read a passage from a text is not necessarily the same as what someone else sees: the image created by your mind is dependent on your previous experiences.

Hint: visualisation can also apply to setting goals: a person visualises what it looks like and feels like to meet a particular goal. This type of visualisation is a powerful tool that can be taught to students explicitly.

As you may have experienced with the above example, we have little control over the images that our minds create. You may have pictured a close-up of the character’s expression. You may have pictured a panoramic street view. You may have pictured the street from the point of view of the character. What did you picture based on the word ‘nervous’? And what about the combination of the words ‘nervous’ and ‘anticipation’? These 2 words gave the sentence a sense of drama – something was about to happen – the character was probably sweating, stressed and hyper-aware. What if those words were removed or replaced? Regardless, the point is that you didn’t consciously make those decisions – your mind instantaneously made them without consulting you.

How we automatically and subconsciously interpret and imagine words in our mind is largely out of our control. Yet the amount of detail that our mind generates from a few measly words is truly amazing. In the English and literature classroom, this is known as ‘imagery’. It is studied extensively in high schools, particularly in the context of fiction texts such as poems, short stories and books. Authors spend a great deal of time using imagery to persuade the reader to imagine something in a certain way (or sometimes they purposefully leave out key details allowing the reader’s mind to fill in the gaps). Imagery is also a very important concept in the corporate world particularly in branding, public relations, marketing and advertising.

Here is a quick activity to get you thinking about imagery and visualisation. Read the following 3 sentences and write down what you imagine for each.

  1. The politician was caught cheating.
  2. The doctor performed open-heart surgery.
  3. The driver was speeding 30km per hour over the limit.

Did you imagine a male person for each of these sentences? Why? No information was provided to suggest that any of the above characters were male. Our minds use expectations, biases, experiences, stereotypes and pattern recognition to fill in the gaps where details are not provided. Think about the first example: did you image a male politician cheating on his wife? Most people will. However, the author did not specify any of those details – you assumed. What if the politician was cheating on a board game in order to lose to a child? Also, what race or ethnicity was the politician in your mind? How old were they? How would the answer to these questions differ if you lived in a foreign country? Would a Chinese person imagine the same person as an American?

Some students see, hear and comprehend words but struggle to link multiple words and sentences together in order to make meaning from a passage. This is a type of cognitive processing issue and may or may not be a symptom of a disorder (such as cognitive processing disorder). Physically, a person’s eyes, ears, optic nerve and brain are all working perfectly well; however, messages received by the brain are not processed properly (or at all). This causes comprehension issues – the student doesn’t understand what they just read. One of the reasons why this happens is that the student lacks the ability to form images: they have visualisation problems.

Teachers can help students to make the link between reading or hearing words and forming an image by implementing one or more strategies such as active reading, think-alouds and ‘purposeful visualisation’. For example, as the teacher reads to a group, they could pause now and then to explain what they imagine in their mind. Teachers often ask students to explain or draw what they imagine after reading or hearing a short passage. Over time, it is hoped that students’ comprehension skills improve as the process of forming images becomes automated and super-fast – just as probably happened to you in the activity further above. As with all metacognitive strategies, visualisation improves with practise, multiple exposures, explicit instruction and regular teacher support.

Teachers can help students to make the link between reading or hearing words and forming an image by implementing one or more strategies such as active reading, think-alouds and ‘purposeful visualisation’.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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