Removing Roadblocks to Visualization: Schema Building

I am totally preaching to the choir with this post! Seasoned teachers know the importance of building background and using visuals. Early child-hood teachers are total pros at remembering to use visuals, but sometimes as a 5th grade teacher I forgot the importance! I hope this post inspires you! 🙂

Visualization is a skill we take for granted. In a perfect world, all of our students would come to us with a natural ability to visualize. Unfortunately, some students struggle to create mental images necessary for learning and comprehension. In Arthur Glenberg’s article How Reading Comprehension is Embodied and Why That Matters, he gives a great thought:

“Another strategy might be to exhort the child to think about the meaning? Who has done what to whom?…How does this text related to a previous text? Use your background knowledge! Create pictures/movies in your head! But, all these exhortations presume that the child has access to meaning and is just too lazy to use it. What if the child is struggling to derive meaning from the written text? (Glenberg 2011).”

There are times and situations where getting students to talk about their background knowledge and visualizations truly helps them visualize. However, some students truly do not have “access to meaning” to even begin to visualize. Lack of background knowledge or experiences would cause them to not be able to access meaning.

So what do you do when students have these visualization challenges? Help them build some background!!!

Build Rich Experiences…Visuals for the Physical Eye Sharpen the Mind’s Eye

A few years ago I sat next to Sara on the bus as we rode to a zoo field trip. She had moved from Lebanon the year before, so I asked her if she had been to any zoos in Texas yet. She told me that the only zoo she had been to was one in Lebanon. Later in the day I asked her how the zoo we were visiting compared to the Lebanese one. She described the zoo in Lebanon as “a hallway of little cages of only a few animals.” She was astounded by the larger animal habitats full of plants, ponds, and scenery props. Sara had schema for a zoo, however it was very different than mine. Through the year, I got to hear many of Sara’s memories of life in Lebanon and Iraq. She had a whole set of schema for things, some frightening and some beautiful, than I did. All of our students come to us from different walks of life. Some of their lives may be similar to our own, and some vastly different. There is beauty in that. It is important to recognize that a student’s life and schema can alter the way they imagine something. Even though Sara and I had come from different backgrounds, she had been given many experiences and life opportunities that gave her vast, worldly background knowledge.

A student’s background knowledge will effect what they are capable of visualizing. Recall our discussion from cognitive science: when you hear a word it draws an imagen in your mind. If you do not have background or a visual connection for a new concept, it is very challenging to create an effective imagen. This reinforces the importance of using visuals and why it is so foundational to teaching.

(Sidenote: Tanny McGregor’s book, Comprehension Connections offers unique ways of taking abstract reading skills such as metacognition and inferring and giving them tactile visuals to help students learn the strategies (McGregor 2007).))

As busy teachers, it can be challenging to provide rich sensory learning experiences for students. Your time and resources are limited. Not every lesson can be a parade. But you can take advantage of field trips or special event days and milk them for all they’re worth.

One strategy I’ve found particularly helpful is to take as many pictures as possible of field trips and special events. I try to snap pictures of every animal, habitat, museum artifacts, etc. Then I can flash one of the pictures up on your projector any time it ties in with your lesson or the literature you’re working with.


After a field trip to the Inner Space Caverns, I used our photos to help students gain background for tons of informational text, etc.

Oil Spill.jpg

This Oil Spill Simulation is done with household ingredients. It incorporated science and gave us a visual experience for a selection we read on oil spills.

Blubber Glove.jpg.

Creating a blubber gloves only takes Crisco, laytex gloves and a bowl of ice water! One hand sits in the glove while the other is bare. Both hands go in the water. This gives students a sensory experience to learn how blubber keeps animals warm. We did this as a cross-curricular activity to help us build background for reading about the tundra.


This particular guided reading group spent a few days reading an informational book on ocean animals. The first day of reading this text I learned that nobody from the group had been to the ocean before. I knew they could see pictures in the book, but I wanted to give them a multi-sensory experience, so I borrowed a little salt from the science lab, and the next day we started off touching, smelling and tasting some salt water. It only took about five minutes to walk to the science lab for salt and one minute of instruction time to build a little schema on the ocean! These ideas are SO simple, but very effective!

New ELAR standards across the country have an increased focus on non-fiction text. Therefore, every tangible and visual experience students have across the content can be valuable for visualizing texts used in the reading classroom. The more vocabulary and rich experiences a child has, the better they will do as readers. If you made it to the end of this post, wow!!! Sorry it was SO LONG. But, I hope it inspires you to pull some visuals out and get some great learning going in your classroom!



(TOTAL SIDENOTE: In the past, reading instruction grades 4+ used to focus more on teaching a piece of text rather than teaching skills. (novel studies, etc) More recent practices involve skill-based models. More schools are adopting frameworks to foster independent reading through Reader’s Workshop and Literacy Station models. I am a believer in a skills-based model with a blend of quality shared readings. Students need to have shared reading experiences to model reading skills, but these shared readings also provide a great opportunity for teacher’s to bring in tactile, sensory objects that go along with the text. The salt water was quick and simple, but it supported comprehension. Small investments of time for sensory examples can lead to reading with greater meaning for any future text over the topic.)


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