Picture This: How Visualizing Stories Supports Reading Comprehension
“The fog comes in on little cat feet.” Carl Sandburg wrote this vivid image more than a century ago. Every time I see fog, I picture the fog to be like an old and wise feline softly padding along its way and then sitting silently, as cats do, to watch people go about their day, the sounds muffled somewhat because the fog blankets the world.
Why authors use sensory imagery
When the weather is foggy, it brings up a sensory image—for example, a mental picture inspired by the words of a brilliant poet. Creating sensory images is one key to reading comprehension: a strategy that helps readers better understand reading material. Readers who lack reading comprehension, i.e., people who do not visualize the scenes depicted on the pages they read, rarely enjoy reading. To them, books are just words, dry words without meaning or pleasure. But fortunately, imagining sensory details is a skill that parents can help their children develop! Laura Ingalls Wilder was a talented artist who worked with words and inspired my imagination. When I was a young person reading her books, I’d take breaks, closing my eyes to envision the scenes that were without modern distractions. In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura sees a town for the first time: the town of Pepin, Wisconsin. Before this point, she had never seen two houses together, so the sight of a town with buildings from one end of the horizon to the other leaves her speechless. In the 21st-century world, it’s hard to imagine living in a cabin that is so far in the woods that no other dwellings are in sight. To truly comprehend Wilder’s stories, readers need to activate the movies in their minds inspired by young Laura’s words.
Helping students imagine sensory details
Parents can encourage children to create sensory images by modeling or demonstrating this strategy while reading aloud. After reading a particularly vivid description, you as a parent should pause and say, “Wow, I can see this in my mind!” Then describe the scene as you see it, pointing out the details. In addition, parents can:
- Ask children to point out specific words that add detail to the pictures in their minds. Recognizing these powerful words will aid your student’s reading comprehension and have an effect on his or her choice of words when writing.
- Make predictions. Based on what you “see” now, what might happen next?
- Encourage reading book series. With each book in a continuing saga, mental pictures of characters and common settings become more detailed.
- Avoid seeing the movie based on a book until after the child has finished reading the book. That way, the child keeps the integrity of his or her own interpretation, which he or she can compare to the images made by a professional moviemaker.
Sensory images, the mental moving pictures created by the words, make books come alive. When the words come alive, reading becomes a pleasure.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview author Nicholas Sparks. I asked him about his settings and how it is that his words create such detailed pictures in the readers’ imaginations. His answer created yet another movie in my mind. He described his hometown as one source of his inspiration: “I live in a small town that, I swear, hasn’t changed much in thirty years. I mean, people walk places, it’s very hot and muggy, [and] you’ve got the Spanish moss hanging from trees, [with] kids running around barefoot. It’s very much like a place stuck in time; the core of the place has not changed. And it is a unique and wonderful place.”
A unique and wonderful place—that’s what a book or story can be when the reader takes the time to visualize, so I hope you’ll encourage your family to develop this powerful and enjoyable reading skill.
Parents, how do you help your children develop visual mental images as they read? Please share your experiences with this reading comprehension strategy in the comments.