Parenting Tips · Teaching

Things Good Readers Do: Visualize

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In part 1 of this series, we went through some essential habits that good readers develop in their lives.

In part 2 of this series, we’re going through some essential strategies (ways of thinking) that good readers employ as they read. We’ve been going through the acronym SQP2RS (pronounced Scoop-ters), since these are strategies that any reader can (and does) use with any text.

  • First, we talked about Surveying (skimming and scanning) a text to get a general sense of what a text is about or to find specific information in a text.
  • Then, we talked about Predicting and Questioning before and during reading, which increases engagement with the text and is a way to self-monitor for understanding.

Those are the first three letters in the SQP2RS acronym.

The next part is 2R, which stands for 2 words beginning with R: read and respond.

However, just saying to students “we read the text and understand it” doesn’t help them know how to do understand it or what to do while reading. And before they can respond to reading, they do, in fact, need to develop a deep understanding of what they read.

To that end, while I’m teaching this SQP2RS acronym to my students, I include a couple of strategies in the middle that help them understand more while reading: visualizing and making connections. So while they’re not technically part of the acronym that you’ll find anywhere on the internet (that I’ve seen), they fit under the “Reading” part of the acronym.

We’ll talk about visualizing this week and making connections next week.

Last week, I said that I love the strategy of predicting and questioning, but if it’s possible, I love teaching the reading strategy of visualization even more.

Why Teach Visualization?

Put simply, teaching visualization is important because it helps readers check their understanding of the text. When readers lose the picture in their mind of what’s happening, then it is quite possible that there are some holes in their understanding of the text.

However, there are so many more reasons that visualization is important to teach. Here are a few:

  • it helps connect artistic and visual learners to the words on the page
  • it teaches the use of imagination to students
  • it increases engagement with reading

Let me walk you through these for a moment.

Connecting artistically talented students to words

Every year I’ve taught, I’ve had at least one student that has dyslexia. Often, these students are incredibly talented when it comes to drawing, spatial awareness, and picturing what’s going on around them. However, no matter how amazingly intelligent they are, when anyone’s brain struggles to process text, learning to read and write is incredibly difficult. I mean, can you, if you don’t have dyslexia, imagine if the letters and words moved around on the page as your brain tried to process them? That would be incredibly frustrating!

However, when I teach about picturing the action as it’s happening, all of a sudden, these kiddos who struggle with the words realize that they can use their visual/spatial skills to help them understand the text, and they start to realize how valuable their artistic skills are.

Teaching the use of imagination

It saddens me to no end that teaching kids how to use imagination is necessary, but BELIEVE ME, it is!

So many of my students are used to all their technology making the images for them, so they haven’t learned how to do that for themselves.

This is one of the reasons I adore using The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles in my class: it talks about practicing using the imagination.

I have had students remark, upon finishing the book, that one of the reasons they liked it was because it helped them learn how to use their imagination.

So even though it’s sad that we need to teach the use of imagination, it is also encouraging to me that books (and grownups) can help them learn!

Even if you don’t use the Whangdoodles to teach visualization, though, there are plenty of other books out there that can help students practice visualizing the characters, the setting, and the action of the story.

Increasing engagement with a text

Many students, especially those who haven’t had a lot of experience with books at home, don’t really know what to do with reading, except figure out what the words say.

They don’t realize how those words that they are deciphering can, when taken as a whole, weave a beautiful tapestry of pictures in their minds if they know how to visualize (imagine) the characters, setting, and action.

They haven’t experienced the magic and wonder of seeing entire worlds in their minds through the words on a page, or words read aloud.

But when they’re taught how to do it, they all of a sudden realize that there’s so much more to do when reading than just figure out what the words say.

When they do, they have a more vested interest in the text, and that helps them predict, ask questions, and just think more in general about what’s going on in the text!

What is Visualization?

We’ve talked all about why visualization is so great and important, but some of you may be wondering: what, exactly, is it in the context of reading?

Great question.

At first, when I started off teaching, I said it was picturing what happened, or making a picture of what’s happening in your mind.

But then I realized that it’s not really individual pictures; the characters move through the action, which is a lot more like a movie. I love that, in Fish in a Tree, which is about the main protagonist and her struggle to learn to read, she describes how she thinks as mind movies. I think it’s similar to how a lot of readers visualize what’s happening as they read.

That’s the way I describe it:

Visualization is making a movie in your mind about what is happening.
Photo by Martin Lopez on

It’s definitely the best description I can think of for what happens in the minds of good readers when they read.

The great thing about describing what’s going on in the mind as a movie is that it connects to all our technologically-savvy kiddos to the process of reading. It all of a sudden clicks for them.

I loved when, after teaching about visualization and then reading a particularly exciting part of a book, a student exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, Miss Sutton, it was like a movie in my head!!!”

They were so excited because the whole idea of visualization all of a sudden made so much sense and enriched their experience of reading times a factor of a thousand – to be mathematically precise. 😉

How I teach Visualization

First, of course, I explain to them what visualization is and why it’s important to learn how to do it (see above two sections).

I talk about the importance of using imagination, but I also go into more detail about how checking our mental pictures helps us know if we’re understanding the text.

One example I often give is when I’m reading descriptions of the setting. Those can be hard to picture! And sometimes, the author just doesn’t do the awesomest job of conveying what is in their heads through the words they wrote on the page.

So I use the example of an author describing the layout of a house and share my thought process of picturing it, and going back and rereading when I’m not sure I have the layout solidly in my mind.

I remind them that the point of reading is to understand what we read, so if they’re mental movie comes to a halt, or there’s a blank spot, that probably means their understanding is faltering.

The best remedy for that is to reread, or see if there’s some vocabulary that they need to look up.

Another important piece of this is to talk through how they can tell if it’s critical to their overall understanding or not.

For instance, they might not need to remember the exact layout of the house, but if it’s, for example, the safe house in The Mysterious Benedict Society, they need to be able to visualize the maze in the house that the kids have to get through as their last test.

Another example could be paying attention to the description of a character’s physical appearance. For example, using The Mysterious Benedict Society as an example again, if kids skip over the idea of how tiny Constance is, that’s going to mess with their understanding later in the book when they discover why Constance is so small. However, in The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, remembering that the strange old man they meet at the zoo was wearing a brown sport jacket and mismatching other clothing really isn’t crucial to understanding his character in the story, other than to get a general sense of his eccentricity.

Once I’ve finished defining the strategy and explaining the importance of it with some examples, then I model it and we practice it together.

Sound familiar? Yep, it’s the same process as alllll the other strategies I teach.

The reason I enjoy teaching this strategy so much is because it’s different than all the others: it appeals to all my kiddos who love art, but don’t often get to use it in the classroom. Rather than more reading and writing to practice this strategy, they get to draw.

Photo by Eren Li on

However, don’t be surprised if this also stresses some of your students out.

If you have some budding perfectionists, they’re going to be frustrated that what they put on paper doesn’t look anything like what they see in their heads.

If you have definitively non-artistically talented kids, they’ll also be stressed that they’re expected to draw in reading class.

The good news is, you’re not their art teacher, and you’re not taking an art grade. You’re just trying to get them to practice making little movies in their heads of what they’re reading.

So you can hurry the perfectionists along by reminding them they don’t need to (or have time to right then) add every detail in their vivid imaginations, and you can assure the less artistically-inclined students that you’re not grading on artistic components, but rather if their renderings reflect the way the book is describing the setting, characters, or action.

For example, if the person is described as wearing a purple bow tie, did they catch that detail and draw a purple smudge at the person’s neck? Good enough.

So in really practical terms, here’s how it goes:

We practice this while I read aloud to them as a whole class or in small groups.

I read a brief passage from a book that describes something or someone and then I sketch it out for them, explaining what I’m visualizing in my head, and then “drawing” it. (I’m not the best sketch artist, so this helps put my non-artistic kids a bit at ease.)

Then we read some more, and I stop at another descriptive place – perhaps in the middle of some action, or when a new character or setting is introduced – and ask them to draw.

If we have time, they can share it with someone sitting next to them or with the whole class. (Not gonna lie, I haven’t made time for this every year.) This is as close to a “we do” as you can get with something as internal and personal as visualization.

Then, as we wrap up our focus on visualization, I’ll ask them to draw something and turn it in for a grade on this strategy. Again, not grading on artistic ability but whether or not it clearly depicts something from what we read.

If you can’t tell at all what it is, or there’s not much detail, the student might be fudging. That’s good information for you and informs you that you may need to check in with them.

Then, we keep practicing this with whatever we’re reading all. year. long. Oftentimes, though I won’t often pause to have them draw, I’ll remind them of the strategy at intense parts of the book, or very descriptive parts, and say, “Oh, this is a part you’ll need to visualize” or “Are you visualizing what’s happening here?” as a way to help them picture things more and more.

This isn’t something that has to be hammered in over and over, but with consistent, year-long practice, it’s incredible to see students who struggled at first to truly picture things to later get a shy, or even exuberant smile, and say, “Yeah, yeah I can see it! That was intense!”

I wouldn’t be surprised if you all are tired of me talking about The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, but I haven’t found its match for imagery and sparking the imagination while reading.

I especially love to check in with them on visualization after the Professor and the boys rescue Lindy from the Splintercat. That is an amazing part of the book to visualize, and they’ve usually gotten enough practice by then that they’re able to imagine that scene very well.

Another great place to do this in that book is when they finally (spoiler alert) get to meet the Whangdoodle.

However, there are myriad other books where picturing what is happening, or how the character is positioned in a hiding place or something like that, is crucial to comprehension, so this is an important and simple skill to practice with basically any text. Even nonfiction science books describing creatures or phenomena allow the opportunity to practice visualizing.

Tips for Grownups at Home

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Grownups at home, helping your child visualize what they are reading is important and simple for you, too!

It’s not as necessary with picture books, because, well, they give you pictures to see. You can use picture books to practice and teach this strategy, as long as you don’t show the illustrations. Or, if they have enough text that the illustrations only show part of the action explained on the page.

For chapter books, though, it’s essential that readers start practicing right away.

Don’t worry though; you can start super young with reading simple chapter books. My sister has been reading chapter books for my nieces for over a year, which means they started listening to them as three-year-olds. Will they remember everything? No, but they’re getting good practice in with strong grownup support as they learn to read.

If you’re starting with them young, you may not need to explain the why of this strategy unless they ask.

If they’re at an age or stage when they are asking, feel free to use any or all of the reasons listed in the “Why Teach This” section above, as you deem appropriate or helpful.

The biggest thing you can do is model visualizing by describing out loud what you see in your head when you imagine a character or a piece of the story’s action when you’re reading out loud to your child.

You may be dubious about how this helps your child, but think of it this way:

If someone tells you not to picture a pink elephant with purple ears, that’s immediately what pops into your head right?

If you describe how something looks in your head, your little one can’t help but picture some version of it too – provided they have the background knowledge for it.

If they don’t know what something is in the book, show them a picture and then describe to them again what’s in the book.

For example, when we’re reading aloud, and come across something “old” like a jukebox, or something out of the realm of their everyday experience, like snow for kids who live on the equator, showing them a picture gives them the background knowledge they need to imagine what is being described to them – at least enough for their comprehension to remain intact.

The next best thing you can do is have them describe what they’re seeing as you read out loud – or even draw their imaginings. This description, whether verbally or through drawing, helps solidify the practice of visualizing while they read.

Once they’ve had a decent amount of practice describing/drawing what they’re seeing, you can cue them, as I mentioned I do, to visualize during particular parts of the books as you read.

You may have noticed that for the above suggestions, I said while you are reading out loud. Having a more experienced reader being the one who is reading gives young readers the mental space to practice this strategy.

Eventually, if the child is reading aloud, you could cue them as well by saying what you’re visualizing, or having them pause and describe, but I would say to do this sparingly so as not to interrupt the flow of their concentration and comprehension as they read.

The more they practice, the more automatic it becomes. Once they’re reading to themselves silently, you most likely won’t need to check in with them on this because they’ve had enough practice that it’s become a habitual strategy that they use.

Some great books for helping kids learn to visualize

I know I like a good book list when I’m thinking about teaching a particular skill or strategy. I truly believe that you can use any book to practice this skill, but it is nice to have some books that make imagining things really easy when first introducing the skill.

I recommend looking for books with lots action and creative settings.

Here are a few books I recommend:

Charlotte’s Web – while many editions do have some illustrations, I find the amount of illustrations is just right for adding background knowledge, especially for kids who don’t have a strong farming background. But it also doesn’t have so many that it requires no visualization from those who do.

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles – I explained my reasoning above. 🙂

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Beezus and Ramona – there are a few illustrations throughout, but the crazy things that the little siblings do in these books are familiar enough that kids will most likely have the necessary background knowledge to vividly picture what’s going on – for example, when Ramona sticks a doll in a cake while it’s in the oven, or eats one bite out of every apple in the basket.

Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle – the descriptions in these chapters of what things the kids get into are great for visualizing. For example, when the kid who refuses to clean his room up gets stuck in his room because it’s so jam-packed with toys, and his parents have to give him water via a hose raised up to his bedroom window, it’s descriptive (and crazy) enough that kids can get a good mental movie going in their heads.

Number the Stars – the intensity of this book is just right for helping kids visualize the scariness of Nazi-controlled Denmark without being too dark or scary.

Science nonfiction books – anything describing animals or where they live, or describing how things function in the human body are good for visualizing parts of a whole or processes.

For more great book recommendations, including nonfiction and picture books, I recommend This Reading Mama’s post.

Happy reading!

Previous posts in this series:
Series Introduction
Part 1: Habits of Good Readers
Finding Just Right Books
Abandoning Books
Setting Goals & Tracking Reading
Make it a Habit
Talk About Books
Part 2: Strategies of Good Readers
Skim and Scan
Predict and Question

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