Top Teaching > Danielle Mahoney > Visualize! Teaching Readers to Create Pictures in Their Minds

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Visualize! Teaching Readers to Create Pictures in Their Minds

AnaemilyworkAs we gear up for a short week filled with the excitement of Thanksgiving celebrations, plan for some relaxing reading work that will strengthen your students’ listening skills as well as their ability to visualize as they read independently. Check out this group of 4th graders as they sketch drawings and jot down words and phrases inspired by what they visualize during a read-aloud of Cynthia Rylant’s Scarecrow. Watch our videotaped conversations to get a better sense of what students picture in their minds.



Visualizing is a skill that is essential for building reading comprehension. We know that when readers lose their mental picture, comprehension is lost as well. 

As we read, we create mental images of what is happening in the story as it unfolds, based on what we already know and understand about the world around us. We are tapping into prior knowledge, making connections, inferring information, and paying attention to details. Characters are created in our minds and our own unique version of the story begins to play out in our imaginations, just like a movie. This is exactly why some of us are rather disappointed when the book version of our favorite novel hits the big screen. (I’m still getting over my disappointment of the movie version of The Bridges of Madison County. No disrespect to Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep! They were just so far away from my own mental pictures of Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid, the two main characters in the book.)

Readers get upset when their mental picture doesn’t match the casting director’s pick for the starring role. In other cases, we are happily surprised by the movie versions of our favorite books. (How could you resist falling head over heels in love with Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, the actors who played Allie Hamilton and Noah Calhoun in the movie version of Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook?) Whether or not your students will be disappointed or pleasantly surprised when the movie version of their favorite book comes out, it is important that they let their imagination take flight as they read books independently. 

Choosing the Right Text

When teaching young readers how to visualize, it is important to choose the right text. There are many incredible authors out there who have the art of creating pictures in a reader’s mind down to a science. Be sure to choose a text that is full of descriptive language. 

Inspired by the season and the calming mood that is created by this story, I chose to use Cynthia Rylant’s Scarecrow to teach a diverse group of 4th graders how to visualize. It is important to prepare for possible "bumps in the road" before reading any book with your students. When planning out your lesson, read over the text beforehand and be prepared to pause at certain places to provide the appropriate scaffolding to meet the diverse needs of your students. 


Making Pictures in Our Minds

The part of this lesson that may excite students the most is that simple fact that there are no right or wrong answers. When readers visualize, they create pictures in their minds that are unique to them.

You can start off by giving students the freedom to record their visualizations without using lined paper or a graphic organizer. Try using a blank piece of drawing paper and encourage your students to organize their thinking in their own unique way. You'll find that some students may create one large illustration and add details as they go while others will divide the paper into sections, creating new scenes as they listen to the details in the book. It is interesting to see how each student organizes the pictures created in their mind in their own special way.

To get started, you may follow a format similar to this:

Establishing the Purpose:

  • It is really important for readers to create pictures in their minds as they read. 
  • When you visualize a story, you let your imagination create the story as you see it. 
  • Visualizing will help you to have a better understanding of the stories you read. 


  • Listen as I read ___________________.
  • Write about what you see as you hear the story. 
  • Use illustrations, words, phrases, or sentences — or combine them all!
  • Draw and write as YOU see it in your mind. There are no right or wrong answers. Just fill up the paper as you visualize the story.

Begin reading the book aloud to the students at a moderate pace. You’ll want to pause and give students enough time to get their visualizations down on paper. Stop at planned points to clarify difficult vocabulary and check for understanding. In addition, there may be parts of the text you need to reread to the students, giving them time to develop a clearer sense of what the author is encouraging them to picture in their minds. Remember — during this first reading of the story, refrain from showing your students any of the beautiful illustrations that may grace the pages. You want students to create their own mental images without any bias. 

The students will work on their listening skills as they process what they are hearing to sketch drawings and jot down words and phrases that show what they visualize. Afterwards, be sure to allow children extra time to splash some color on their work. 



Have children share what they visualized in partnerships. They will enjoy identifying common elements as well as making distinctions between their pictures. 

During my lesson, some students chose to use sketches . . . 






































. . . while other students combined pictures and words.

















Amitvisualize Lilibethvisualize

























Note: These scans were created using the Genuis Scan app for the iPhone. (I love it!)




Start Up a Conversation!  

As your students work on coloring their sketches, take the time to speak with them about what they visualized. Short conversations about their work will give you a deeper understanding of their comprehension of the story, as well as their ability to visualize. I had the pleasure of speaking with quite a few students during my lesson. (I could sit and listen to kids talk about their reading work for days on end!) In this video, you’ll notice that I restate the purpose of the lesson many times during my conversations.

Here are some key phrases you may want to use during your own conferences:

  • Tell me about what you saw in your mind.
  • What did you visualize while you were listening to the story?
  • What are you working on now?
  • Tell me a little about your picture and what you visualized.



You may choose to take note of what you observe during conversations with your students. If so, keep these questions in mind as you record your findings:

  • What vocabulary words are students using from the text?
  • What have students inferred?
  • Where did they lose comprehension?
  • Did they sketch? 
  • Did they use words? Phrases? Whole sentences? 
  • What are my next steps with this student?

Time to Unveil the "Real" Illustrations

Treat your students to a second reading of the book you've chosen in which you show off the illustrator's work. Gather children in the meeting area and reread the book to the class. This time be sure to show the illustrations as you read the book aloud. Your students will be, “OOOOOH-ing" and “AHHHH-ing" as they compare their mental pictures to the illustrations in the book. Rereading the story while showing the illustrations is sure to spark new conversations!

Lauren Stringer's illustrations are really beautiful. There are great resources for Scarecrow on her Website, such as an audio clip of Cynthia Ryant reading the book, along with pictures of the original illustrations in her studio.  

Connections to Independent Reading

As with all of the reading mini-lessons we plan, you’ll want to connect this skill to your students' independent reading. Encourage students to practice visualizing in their just-right books, nonfiction texts, magazines, newspaper articles — or anytime they see words on a page!  


Project Find Update

This is the week we’ve been waiting for! On Thursday morning Project Find's blessings will be in full swing as I make my way to the heart of New York City with bags and bags and bags and bags of handmade cards that will be given to homebound seniors. Thanks to all of you who have made the effort to get involved. I couldn’t do any of this alone. Your kind spirit is much appreciated.

So far we have collected 2,164 cards from all parts of the world. (I’ve even received two packages of cards from students in Korea!) It looks as though we’ve exceeded our goal, and I know that there are more cards on the way. Wow! Next week I will post a full story on the day’s events including a slide show of photos for you to share with your students. Big thanks to all of you!



Wishing you and your family a healthy, happy Thanksgiving filled with lots of love.



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