Many years ago I was having a reading conference with one of my 3rd graders. He was reading High Tide in Hawaii from The Magic Tree House series. After he read a page, I asked him to turn the book over and tell me what he was seeing in his mind.
He said, “I don’t know.”
I asked him what he knew about Hawaii.
He replied, “What’s Hawaii?”
Well there you have it, I thought. How can you visualize something if you have no schema for it? He had no idea what this book was even talking about.
I’m not trying to oversimplify, but basic life experiences and background knowledge are key for picturing as you read. I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but I loved (and visualized) The Kite Runner. I clearly have never been to Hogwart’s, but I was totally there every time I read a Harry Potter book thanks to a little background on castles and magic. You don’t have to have a passport full of stamps to visualize all kinds of amazing places. However, you do need background knowledge and frames of reference. Cognitive research suggests that there is a relationship between visual imagery and visual memory (Pearson, Naselaris, Holmess & Kosslyn 2015). Visual memories create our background knowledge, and help us form images. Therefore, our background knowledge is deeply linked to what we are capable of visualizing when reading.
Earlier, I argued that too much screen time could be detrimental to visualization. We can never take away screen time, but we can take advantage of it to build background knowledge for visualization. Various forms of media and screen time have built a good deal of my background knowledge. Before I read The Kite Runner, I had some background knowledge of Afghanistan and the Middle East. My knowledge was rudimentary, but it was enough for me to visualize the story. For my own interest I stopped and looked up many pictures and articles online about Afghanistan in the 1970s.
As for my student, he went on to learn a great deal about Hawaii from information and photographs we found online and examining it on a map. We re-started the whole book together at a reading conference a few days later, and then he launched into independent reading to finish the book. Lack of background knowledge is a major contributing factor to visualization challenges, and later I’ll look at this more deeply and offer suggestions for building background. We cannot control the background knowledge and experiences our students enter with; however, we can help to build their schema so they can create stronger mental images.