1. Everyone can visualize. Everyone experiences mental imagery when they dream at night. You visualize when you discuss and converse. You visualize as you plan.
2. Some people struggle to visualize when they read. Somewhere in the decoding process, the visualization breaks down. There are many reasons for this. You cannot assume that your students are visualizing when they read.
3. I believe some students have visualization challenges. Some have major challenges, some minor. However, there are things teachers can do to increase children’s visualization skills.
A while back, I sat with a small group of students reading a poem called “Barnyard Ballerina.” The students read it silently, and then I asked them my favorite question; “What did you see as you were reading?” Jasmine chimed, “a girl named Gracie was in the barn dancing with her tutu.” The others nodded and agreed. Actually, the poem was not about a girl. It was about a cow named Gracie that imagined herself as a grand ballerina rather than a lowly farm animal.
Jasmine had visualized something, but it wasn’t the right thing. Had she visualized the “tail” and the “four hooves” mentioned in the poem, she may have understood it more accurately. This is a perfect example of visualization challenges.
How do we form images in our mind? When we see or hear a word a recognition unit called a logogen is activated in the mind, which helps us form an imagen (Sadoski, McTigue & Paivio 2012). Our mental representation of a word differs based on our background knowledge and memory associations.
Moreover, our images are connected to larger pictures in our brain (Sadoski, McTigue & Paivio 2012). If someone says “pizza” I don’t simply envision a pizza in isolation. I might envision an entire scene of the last time I had a pizza with my family. Research has shown that abstract words are more challenging to understand than concrete ones and are often processed in different parts of the brain (Giesbrecht. Camblin and Swaab 2004, Goodglass 1969). However, abstract words such as compassion can become connected to concrete images and scenes in our brains (Sadoski, McTigue & Paivio 2012). Compassion may be linked to mental images of a person offering aid to someone under hardship.
In thinking of our Barnyard Ballerina poem, I wonder what word or phrase triggered Jasmine to visualize “Gracie” as a little girl, and then miss lines later in the poem that described her as a cow. Was it the name Gracie? Any word or phrase can alter one’s mental image of something. And, the way we form these images is tied deeply to our background knowledge. Reading print and forming a mental image is a complex and personal process.
I’ve spent much time in guided reading groups like the one mentioned. I took note of students who could not verbalize where their comprehension broke down, because they couldn’t see the story. What I noticed across the board is that almost every student who experienced difficulties with comprehension had major struggles visualizing. They simply could not see the story. As time went on, I began to refer to their struggles as a “failure to visualize.” While this is not a formal term, it seemed to fit the challenges my colleagues and I witnessed. I realized this was a pretty harsh term, so I often try to refer to it as “visualization challenges.” Visualization challenges involves struggling to form fluid images in the mind when reading text.
Thank you for enduring these basics! This will help launch us into a discussion about WHY many students have challenges with visualization. Tune in for more. 🙂
***All student names have been changed to protect their privacy.