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Visualizing and Visual Texts

Visualizing and Visual Texts

Visualizing and visual texts help readers make abstract concepts or complex processes more concrete and more comprehensible. Yet inexperienced readers may not know how to use either and so benefit from explicit instruction.

Readers who visualize as they read activate schema prompted by the text but called up from prior knowledge or experience. Some readers naturally visualize as they read, but others may need practice constructing and clarifying images to build stronger understanding of text. Ninth grader LaKeisha, for example, reported earlier that visualization was a strategy she had failed to understand and use. Now, she says, “I’ll question myself. I’m like, ‘When was it? Okay, moonlight, right.’ So I’ll get a picture of nighttime in my mind.” Then she adds, “I didn’t do that before.”

High school humanities teacher Caro Pemberton was more than a little surprised to find that many of her students did not try to visualize as they read. She relates a time when, after reading aloud a particularly evocative passage, she invited her students to describe what they were seeing:

I was startled at the number of kids whose response was, “I didn’t see anything.” It really caught me up short, because to me whether I’m reading fiction or nonfiction, the visual process that goes along with my reading is such an integral part of the experience. When I’m having difficulty reading something, it’s often because I can’t really see what the person is talking about. If I’m having trouble understanding a concept, it’s because I can’t bring into focus what the person means. To me, visual images are a very critical part of understanding what I’m reading.

Consciously trying to picture what an author is describing is one aspect of the visualizing strategy, and students often need help practicing it with various kinds of text—fiction, poetry, accounts, instructions, and so forth.

In science, math, and history, and in many technical fields, reading (and writing) visual texts is key to the literacy practice of the discipline. As naïve readers in these disciplines, students often struggle with the complex images, graphs, and charts that can communicate vital information and concepts.

They often view the visuals embedded in their textbooks as merely art that can be read past and skipped over—and in some cases, they are right! But visual texts can be key to comprehending a text and to understanding the endeavors of a discipline more deeply. When students are inexperienced academic readers, they need support to learn how to make sense of the visual arrays that pepper disciplinary texts.

Students in Ericka Senegar-Mitchell’s high school biology courses enjoy the benefit of their teacher’s own code-breaking experience with visuals—gained when, as a college student, she determinedly deconstructed the complex scientific illustrations that stood between her and her goal of a medical school education. In describing her own experience, Ericka shows students how to tackle seemingly impenetrable illustrations and diagrams:

“Pictures saved my life,” I tell my biology students, and I explain that when I was studying for the medical school exam, I stumbled onto the magic of diagrams. The sheer magnitude of reviewing fifty-five chapters of text in a couple of weeks was just overwhelming. It felt insurmountable. But then I started looking at the diagrams as movies. There is such a story in each one. I took each diagram apart, adding my own labels, and then redrew it. Suddenly whole chapters could be understood in terms that I owned.

For my students, I realized that I could recreate that deconstruction process. When I had simply asked them to look at a diagram and describe what they noticed, in some of my classes, with students who were used to being remediated and just doing what the teacher said, the reply would be “I notice nothing.” But when I came up with some specific questions—“Let’s look at color, shapes, where you are”—students were noticing all kinds of things. [See Box 7.6, Diagram Dialogues.] The questions slowed them down enough to actually find things to notice. And for me, nothing they noticed was too small to be significant. It became an opportunity to respect them for what they already knew, and they love that.

When they felt respected, it also became an opportunity to ask them to tell what about the diagram confused them, to talk about what is missing for them, or what is implied. That’s an awesome conversation, and it leads right into having them redraw the diagram, only including what was left out or what would make it better for students. When we do this, our discussions are richer, there is a tremendous difference in students’ interaction with the text, and what they are learning stays with them. I still hear from students who tell me they are using Diagram Dialogues in their college courses!

Graphs are another visual form that students benefit from working on explicitly and collaboratively. In Classroom Close-Up 7.5, high school biology partners from Muthulakshmi “Bhavani” Balavenkatesan’s class help each other read a graph that represents information they have read about in a related article. Their collaborative cross-walk between the graph and article help them clarify their understanding of both.

In addition to visualizing and reading visual information, students benefit from producing their own visual representations, which will vary with the discipline, text, and purpose for reading. The process of visual note making gives readers in any discipline opportunities to access their own schema, to represent the text in a new form using what they know and what they are learning, and to integrate new knowledge (and sometimes confront misunderstandings) with their existing knowledge through the active construction of meaning. Visual note making can be a powerful way for readers to commit new ideas, information, and concepts to memory.

Although students’ visual notes primarily serve to help them make meaning as they read, they can also be used after reading to demonstrate understanding through spreadsheets, databases, graphics, illustrations, and other forms of textual support that are common in the discipline in which they are working.

As Dorothea Jordan explained in Classroom Close-Up 7.2, her grade 7 pre-algebra students cited visual note making—”drawing”—as the one thing that helped them the most in her class. When students create their own graphic representations of information, the act of manipulating this information means they are seeing it in new ways that result in deeper understanding. (Box 7.7 shows notes and drawings Dorothea’s students make to represent their understanding of a story problem [in Classroom Close-Up 8.4] involving a very busy nurse.) Dorothea was delighted with her students’ excitement about visual note making and remarked on its particular usefulness in the collaborative work that was typical in her class:

I realized that when students draw the problem, they are exposing their metacognition. And then, right away, their partner can see it and whether it’s wrong or right.

In Ericka Senegar-Mitchell’s high school biology courses, she introduces students to the many visuals in their texts with a scaffolding routine for interrogating these complex illustrations. Students work with a partner to Think Aloud or Talk to the Text of a diagram related to a reading assignment and to use a set of questions that she dubs “Diagram Dialogues” to guide their discussion.

  1. Location, location, location! Determine the setting of the diagram; where are you? Explain the overall scene in simple terms. What clues did you use?
  2. Who are the players? What characters, parts, structures, or components are being represented or depicted? How do you know?
  3. Are there special characters, symbols (such as arrows or callouts), or shapes (such as triangles or enlargements)? What do they represent? How do you know?
  4. Are colors used intentionally? What do you think the use of color means? (For example, is the color intended to establish a relationship or distinction with components of the diagram?) How do you know?
  5. What is the diagram intended to illustrate? Is the diagram showing a process, sequence, structure versus function (organization), categories, classification (such as a list or table), or cause and effect?

Having just read an article about how a strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA) has evolved a frightening resistance to one antibiotic after another—including Vancomycin—high school biology partners Cal and Woodrow try to make sense of the following graph.

Source: “Battling bacterial evolution: The work of Carl Bergstrom.” Understanding Evolution. University of California Museum of Paleontology, 7 November 2011 /bergstrom_03. Reproduced with permission.

Cal: The article was talking about it [MRSA] in hospitals and this [graph] shows how it’s grown in the years. I think that right here, where it goes down, is when they tried a new drug, and it might have worked for a little bit, but then it just started getting resistant to it again and just kept going. [Cal’s reading of the graph aligns with the import of the article—the growth of MSRA resistance to a whole series of antibiotics—but his explanation of the graph does not jibe with the particular information in the graph, which shows only the path of MSRA resistance to a single antibiotic, Vancomycin.]

To clarify their understanding of the graph itself, the boys try to define what “percent” means on the y axis. Cal offers “percent of growth.” But Woodrow hews tightly to the text of the graph. His precise definition for “percent” on the graph is “percent of the infection that is resistant to the antibiotic Vancomycin.”

This clarification results in the boys’ understanding the particulars of the graph, so Woodrow summarizes for Cal’s consideration: Woodrow: Well, in the first part where it’s flat for the first five or so years, you can kind of tell that that was when they probably first introduced Vancomycin. Because those first five years, it [MRSA] really didn’t have any defense against it. But you can see that after those five years, it started building up a defense.

Dorothea Jordan’s pre-algebra students equate west, left, and negative on a number line as they use visual note making to figure out how many rooms are on the fourth floor of a hospital when they know the various stops a busy nurse makes to various rooms in the east and west wings.

Reading for Understanding, pp.204-210

DMU Timestamp: December 19, 2018 18:14

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