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Visualizing to Make Meaning

By incorporating differentiated models, practicing visualization, and supporting your students as they visualize (drawing on principles for Universal Design for Learning), you can help your students learn to use all of their senses to engage with and imagine the world of a text, and to bring that world to life as they read.


I grabbed my purse, stepped outside into the cold night air, and watched as a flake drifted to the ground. I started walking to my car, but I had to grab hold of a mailbox to keep from slipping.

Did you picture a woman standing outside on a winter’s night watching the snow fall? Or maybe you pictured her taking a step and then slipping on the icy sidewalk as she headed to her car? If so, you were visualizing — a critical reading skill that is necessary to comprehend both informational texts and literature. Within the College and Career Readiness Standards for Reading(opens in a new window), visualizing has a role to play in helping students identify key ideas and details and understand craft and structure.

Proficient readers scan and interpret text, forming a mental image of what is happening. Visualizing while reading adds texture to a scene by adding imagined details that the text may not spell out, and it is an indication of successful text comprehension.

By incorporating differentiated models, practicing visualization, and supporting your students as they visualize (drawing on principles for Universal Design for Learning), you can help them learn to use all of their senses to engage with and imagine the world of a text, and to bring that world to life as they read. See UDL Editions Visualize Strategy(opens in a new window) for a student-friendly explanation and rubric for visualizing.

How Visualizing Helps Across Content Areas

  • Reading Fiction: It can help students “see” the characters, their actions, and the environments in which they live.
  • Science Texts: It can help students understand the procedures in an experiment.
  • Math Problems: It can help students follow the steps in a word problem.
  • Social Studies Resources: It can help students understand the setting of an event or time period, and it can give students insight into the lives of historical figures.

Technology Tools for Visualizing

A range of tools (both low-tech and high-tech) can support your students’ ability to visualize. For example, you could encourage students to draw, use dramatizations, and/or create music. Students could use cameras to take photos, or they could search for photos, images, and other graphics. They could create their own videos or watch those produced by others; they could listen to music or use programs to create their own. A variety of software tools and apps are available that stimulate students’ visualizations and support their efforts to draw, diagram, and create images.

If students are reading digital text, they can access a variety of embedded supports to enhance visualization (e.g., audio explanations, photos, and images), including embedded prompts that encourage students to stop and visualize. All of these tools can help you to differentiate instruction. The video below provides ideas for using supports that are built into text to differentiate instruction.


In the Classroom

Ms. Flynn uses primary sources to help her Grade 5 students learn about the American Revolution. Her goal is to bring the era to life for her struggling readers and those with learning disabilities. She has found that visual and auditory clues support her students’ understanding of, and connection with, the texts they are studying.

The lesson she is planning has a clear objective: Teach students to use visualization strategies to build an understanding of prerevolutionary Boston. To meet this objective, she will have students create a photographic storyboard of a primary source that describes the Boston Tea Party. She believes this activity will encourage a more detailed visualization and interpretation of the text by all of her students.

Ms. Flynn is designing this activity (and similar activities) in a way that ensures her students meet the ELA Common Cores State Standards, especially:

  • CCSS.ELA.RI.5.3(opens in a new window) Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.
  • CCSS.ELA.RI.5.7(opens in a new window) Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.
  • CCSS.ELA.SL.5.5(opens in a new window) Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, sound) and visual displays in presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.

In her lesson, Ms. Flynn will draw on a range of technology tools. She plans to use cameras to take staged photographs for the storyboard, and she will use her interactive whiteboard to display text and images for class interpretation. She will also use Google Docs(opens in a new window) to create and share images, text, and hypertext.

To assess her students during and after the lesson, she will review the images created for the storyboard and ask her students to explain the process they used to plan the images. After the lesson, she will hold peer conferences to review the students’ reflections in conjunction with the images themselves. The section below outlines Ms. Flynn’s lesson plan, including the instructional steps she will take before, during, and after reading.

Lesson Plan

Before Reading

  • Read aloud a short, vivid passage from Johnny Tremain and have students listen and visualize with closed eyes.
  • Ask students to sketch their visualizations.
  • Divide the class into groups of three and have each group share their drawings and discuss how their visualizations were similar and different.
  • Photograph student drawings and add them to the class website.

During Reading

  • Explain how visualization techniques can be applied to social studies readings.
  • Review the historical context of the Boston Tea Party.
  • Share and display an engraving of the Boston Tea Party.
  • Instruct students to examine the image and write down everything they see, noticing as many details as possible.
  • Compile a list of students’ observations about the engraving, explaining the connection to the descriptive caption.
  • Present a simplified excerpt from an eyewitness’s account of the Boston Tea Party.
  • Have students practice visualizing the descriptions in the excerpt and discuss their mental images.
  • Circulate to provide feedback and guiding questions as needed.

After Reading

  • Have the class work together to turn the excerpt into a photographic storyboard for a short movie.
  • Distribute cameras and have groups stage and photograph their images.
  • Lead a discussion about how visualizing the descriptions in the excerpt helped the students to create the photographs.
  • Assemble the photographs into a slide show and publish it on the class website.

Online Teacher Resources on Visualizing

This article draws from the PowerUp WHAT WORKS(opens in a new window) website, particularly the Visualizing Instructional Strategy Guide(opens in a new window). PowerUp is a free, teacher-friendly website that requires no log-in or registration. The Instructional Strategy Guide on visualizing includes a brief overview that defines visualizing and an accompanying slide show; a list of the relevant ELA Common Core State Standards; evidence-based teaching strategies to differentiate instruction using technology; another case story; short videos; and links to resources that will help you use technology to support instruction in visualizing. If you are responsible for professional development, the PD Support Materials(opens in a new window) provide helpful ideas and materials for using the visualizing resources. Want more information? See in a new window).

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