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Using the illustrations in graded readers – visualization

July 24, 2018 by cymaster

We learn and teach how to speak, write, read and listen in English, but we often forget that visual literacy and visualization is also an essential part of language education. The use of visual images not only facilitates the learning process, but it has also become almost impossible to engage students and conduct a successful and enjoyable educational program without it.

Illustration from the reader Stubs Grows Up by Paul Davenport. Illustration by Giulia Sagramola. © Helbling Languages

Illustrated readers are excellent resources as they combine storytelling and visual images in an entertaining way. When we express ideas about an image out loud, we interpret it and create a narrative about it, which can be the source of a host of activities. As one of our illustrators, Lorenzo Sabbattini said in our interview, ‘illustrations don’t just accompany texts, but, especially in the case of graded readers, they help with understanding and teaching a new language.’

Illustrations help our students with all the stages of the reading process: prediction, close reading, text analysis, summary, character description, vocabulary teaching and revision. Successful readers create mental images in their mind during the reading, as 'visualization allows students the ability to become more engaged in their reading and use their imagery to draw conclusions, create interpretations of the text and recall details and elements from the text.' (Seglem & Witte. 'You Gotta See It to Believe It: Teaching Visual Litearacy in the English Classroom'. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53(3), November 2009. pp 217.)

Several language teachers have experimented with a method called Visual Thinking Strategies, and having seen how much it improves critical thinking, reading, speaking and writing skills, they have started adapting it to language teaching. I have also used this method for a year now and I have only had positive and successful experiences with it.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)

VTS is a successful teaching program developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine more than twenty years ago, and is used in museums as well as in schools, colleges and universities. In VTS discussions, teachers support student growth by facilitating discussions of carefully selected works of visual art. (

(You can watch short videos of VTS discussions here.)

Illustration from the reader The Anti-bully Squad by Rick Sampedro. Illustration by Marzia Sanfilippo. © Helbling Languages

During VTS discussions teachers use the following questions:

  • What's going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

These questions should always be used in this order, with the same wording, which can be modified so that they work with texts. ‘What’s going on in this text?’ and ‘What did you read that makes you say that?’ will also work well.

How can VTS discussions help us with teaching reading?

By drawing your students’ attention to an illustration and asking the three VTS questions, they will soon think of the picture as a story, and it will help them analyze and understand the image better, reading it as a text now. This way they will be a step closer to the written text. By asking ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ they will try to support their statements by finding evidence, and think more critically about the image. Sometimes by saying out loud what we think ‘looks’ evident, we can arrive at interesting ideas and learn new vocabulary and language structures. By finding ‘evidence’ and explaining why they ‘see’ certain things, they will practise reasoning and expressing their opinions. This will help them with finding connections in the text too.

Not only will they start using the VTS questions while reading, it will also help them with visualization when they read texts without illustrations. We can improve visualization by turning the process around and start with the visual input first, then move on to activating vocabulary and background knowledge. At the end of the discussion ask your students to read a passage and then ask the same three questions.

Illustration from the reader The Clever Woman by Herbert Puchta. Illustration by Marzia Sanfilippo. © Helbling Languages

Here are some points to remember:

  • give  your students enough time to look at the picture;
  • let them express any ideas they have about the picture;
  • invite quiet students to express their opinion;
  • ask your students to support their statements with evidence;
  • summarize what the students say and make the necessary grammar corrections;
  • make connections between students’ comments.

VTS is a teacher and student-friendly method that will make you and your students feel comfortable about discussions. Once your students start using visual and critical thinking skills during reading, they will feel more successful and become more enthusiastic about reading.

Over the next months we will be looking at other ways and methodologies for using pictures in your teaching.