Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Making Visualizations Visible

The ultimate goal of literacy instruction is to arm students with the literacy processes, strategies, and skills that they will be able to intuitively and independently use to extract meaning from text. "Text" can include the written word, videos, interviews, speakers, field trips, conversations, discussions, and more.

The teaching and learning of these literacy strategies is best done in authentic contexts. On page 70 of Making the PYP Happen, the authors state that "it is the school's responsibility to provide authentic context for language teaching and learning in all areas of the curriculum," [emphasis added].

In a Primary Years Program (PYP), the program of inquiry provides the authentic, engaging, challenging, and significant context for learners to develop and use language. In other words, teachers should situate literacy instruction right inside the units of inquiry. However, it should be clarified that although comprehension and metacognitive strategies are to be taught within the unit of inquiry, it cannot be assumed that learners will implicitly pick up on these strategies while studying content concepts. PYP teachers still must provide specific time and opportunities for their learners to explore, discover, practice, and construct understanding of these literacy strategies. When we teach literacy in this way, students are learning literacy processes and content concepts simultaneously.

Recently, I took the opportunity to teach a first grade reading lesson from our school's literacy curriculum. The objectives of the lesson were that students would retell story events and visualize & analyze characters during reading. Rather than use the text provided by the series, which would not have been authentic, challenging, or significant for the first graders, I choose a text that would help the learners understand their current Unit of Inquiry's Central Idea: Responsible choices promote balanced living.

A List from Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel.

In the story A List, Toad creates a list of all the things he'll do during the day. I selected this story because the list he makes contains many responsible choices that would represent a balanced lifestyle. (SPOILER ALERT: Toad never completes all the items on the list because it blows away in the wind and he subsequently goes melodramatically ballistic, which should not come as a shock for those of you who know Toad well.)

Before reading the story, I discussed with the students the importance of being able to really understand a story while we read. "After all," I said, "that's the point of reading! To understand what you read." In their book Strategies that Work, Harvey and Goudvis say that "different readers rely on different strategies to help them gain better understanding." One such strategy is visualizing. "Visualizing strengthens our inferential thinking. When we visualize, we are in fact inferring but with mental images rather than words and thoughts." The authors continue, "When we visualize, we create pictures in our minds that belong to us and no one else," (p. 130-2).

However, if we let students keep their visualizations locked up in their minds, students may become mentally overwhelmed. Rather, my goal of the lesson was to get students to make their visualizations visible so that they could more fully engage in thinking. " is difficult [for students] to do their best thinking because of cognitive overload, that is, because the thinking demands exceed their capacity. When our thinking is distributed, when we do not have to rely solely on our internal mental resources, we free ourselves up to engage in more challenging thinking," Ron Ritchhart in Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It, p. 100-1).

I prompted students to visualize what was going on in the story as I read, but then to draw those pictures from their mind on a blank sheet of paper. After reading, we talked about what their pictures should include, if they really, truly understood the story. Together, we decided that students would need to have the characters of the story, the setting (time and place), and what went on in the story (the events).

To show students how to self-assess their understanding of the text, one student showed his visualization to the group while I modeled the kinds of questions the students should ask themselves.

Did I understand the story?
Did I include the characters?
Did I include the setting?
Did I include the important events of the story?
By reviewing all the students' visible visualizations (I included other examples below), the classroom teacher and I could clearly and quickly see who was able to adequately extract meaning from the text and who was not. Using this powerful information, the classroom teacher could form guided reading groups to support students' unique and specific literacy needs.

After reading about making students' thinking and understanding visible by having them draw out their mental visualizations, how could you make your students' visualizations visible with the "texts" they read, listen to, and view?


  1. Thank you for this blog post, it is certainly relevant and informative for the staff at our school. the strategies are well documented and clearly illustrate how to use process concepts when teaching literacy. Perhaps you could say more about the unit of inquiry that relates to this lesson.

    1. PYP Colleague: great question!

      TD: Who we are: an inquiry into personal, physical, mental, social, and spiritual health. CI: Responsible choices promote balanced living. Key concepts: causation, responsibility, perspective. Related concepts: choices, balance, health, benefits, costs, consequences, scarcity. Lines of inquiry: An inquiry into ... what it means to make a choice (cost/benefits), responsible choices, balanced living.

      The lesson described in the post was a literacy lesson, meant to focus on literacy process concepts (visualization), as you point out in your comment. However, the idea is that the classroom teacher will now be able to use the same text to explore the ideas in their unit of inquiry.