Visual Thinking: The Benefits of Including Art in Reading and Writing

Multimodal strategies for literacy teachers

Teaching writing has always been difficult, particularly when students get a tough case of writer’s block. Reading, too, is tough to teach when students struggle with language and their eyes wander with their minds. However, multimodal writing — any writing that includes audio, visual or video content — is an excellent tool for teaching literacy and writing.

Teachers have long known that picture books are helpful for emerging readers to create contextual clues as they develop literacy skills, but in the past it was generally accepted that as children aged, the pictures disappeared from their books.

Left with dense text, some readers are pleased with the chance to combine text with their imagination, but reluctant or struggling readers tend to lose interest in reading. Fortunately, there are several multimodal approaches teachers can use to enhance engagement in reading and writing.

Graphic novels introduce young readers to multimodal text

The popularity of graphic novels like “Bone” and books that combine text with cartoons, like the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, means that there are an increasing number of books that use both art and words to tell stories. This format is respected within academic communities, as evidenced by Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” earning the National Book Award in 2007.

Programs like Denver’s Comic Book Classroom seek to increase literacy engagement specifically through the introduction of graphic novels; these programs have had great success. Contextual clues remain in these texts; for some reluctant readers, the attached images help them maintain attention.

Mind mapping helps readers and writers organize ideas

Mind mapping can increase student engagement with more traditional books. Using mind maps allows students to visually organize information and make it more memorable as well. This tool can also help students see thematic connections between two or more texts they are reading or discover the major themes of a single book.

Because people tend to remember images more easily than words, taking handwritten notes on their reading, combined with doodles, pictures and various colors, increases the likelihood that students have higher content recall. As teachers adopt visual texts in teaching students how to read, it can also be incredibly helpful to learn visual strategies for writing; mind mapping is one great way to organize brainstorming and help writers develop and expand their ideas.

Doodling in class: Giving students freedom to create

One excellent way to encourage writing is to provide students with writing strategies that appeal to their specific learning styles and then give them freedom from evaluation. At Oak Knoll Elementary in Menlo Park, California, students are given such freedom. With free-writing notebooks and dedicated time set aside each day during which they can write, doodle or create cartoon panels, students are allowed privacy and freedom in which to create.

Student writer’s block is often driven not by a lack of ideas, but a lack of perceived perfection or anxiety about grading. With these fears set aside, students are able to embrace writing. Author Marissa Moss, known for combining art with writing in her book “Amelia’s Notebook,” has several suggestions for these writing journals on her website.

Visual writing prompts can ignite imaginations and hone detective skills

Visual writing prompts can give students something exciting to write about. The New York Times posts a visual writing prompt to its education blog every Monday during the school year. Titled “What’s Going On in This Picture?”, the images are posted without captions; students are invited to guess what’s happening in the comments.

On Tuesdays, the story behind the prompt is revealed. Teachers can use the unexplained picture to drive students’ creativity, then deepen their learning by discussing information about the image.

Because literacy and writing are skills based in practice, one of the key challenges to both is ensuring that students are engaged and excited about them. The marriage of visual literacy and art with traditional reading and writing can encourage student engagement as well as content retention. Teachers know that images are powerful; they can use that power to increase student interest and practice, thus making them strong multimodal readers and writers for the future.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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If you’re searching for resources on how to promote reading and literacy, you’ve come to the right place. We offer practical advice and guidance that help teachers, parents, and the community at large work together to achieve higher success in reading and literacy rates. We also examine shifts in the definition of reading and literacy in the 21st century, with an emphasis on how technological developments impact the need for a more holistic view of the terms.

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