For some students, they may not create a visual image while reading. This might be something they need to be taught how to do. Like teaching a student how to read, which according to Marianne Wolf (2007), is not something the brain would do naturally (like talking or walking); we have to give the student some external scaffold and processes to internalize, practice, to become a good reading habit.
First, it is important to tune students into their five senses. Have them practice calling to mind a sight, a smell, a touch, a taste, and even a sound from common words or phrases: ice cream (taste/smell/feel), laughter (hear/see/feel), bunny (feel/see/smell), summer (all), nighttime (all).
After we practiced with a memory, we moved to reading a book. There are so many children’s books that can help with this activity, such as Owl Moon (1987) by Jane Yolen. The book should be about a topic that is in the student’s background knowledge. For instance, I worked with students in Pittsburgh once and brought a book about the ocean. Only two of the 20 students had even been to the ocean. It was not possible for them to bring up the “smells” of the ocean, even if they had seen a video that could help with the sights and sounds. I brought shells, but that was no match for the real ocean.
For older students, or for students who are ready to move to the next level in visualizing, the following activity uses specific words and phrases from a non-picture book, for them to record what they are seeing (among the other senses):
It supports a student specifically connecting words with visualizing. Then, students can work to understand that their picture might not always be the same as a peer’s.
Finally, teachers can show students that they can adjust the picture in their mind’s eye, to better match the information being provided by the text.
Our goal in this stage is to have the students know that the picture is there and what it can be used for. I once heard that a good indicator of comprehension being lost, and needing to reread, is when the picture in one’s mind disappears or becomes too fuzzy to hold meaning. This is the work that we are doing above – making sure students know why it is important to have a picture of what they are reading.
When wanting a student to inference more specifically through visualization, we can have them act on what they see to make predictions, discuss characters’ feelings and motives, identify the author’s purpose, and explain the theme(s) of the text. In nonfiction, a clever activity that I saw Steph King, a third grade teacher, use was to cover up the caption of a photograph and ask the students, based on what they saw (external visualizing), write a caption for the picture and explain why the author needed it in the text to create or further meaning.