Visual Thinking Strategies for Improved Comprehension

"Our opinions do not really blossom into fruition until we have expressed them to someone else."

Mark Twain, U.S. humorist, novelist, and short story author (1835 - 1910)

I had a black and white picture of a poor miner's room on the overhead projector. In the picture the walls were covered with cardboard and the room was sparsely furnished. I was doing professional development for teachers and I did not give them any background information about the picture. I asked for some opinions about what they saw, then I asked the teachers, "Do you think a man or a woman lives here?" In unison they responded, "A man!" That was very interesting to me so I asked a follow-up question, "What makes you say that?" Although the response had been unanimous, the reasoning was varied. One teacher said, "You can tell it's a man's room because there aren't any decorations — a woman would put something nice in there even if she were poor." Another teacher said, "That rocking chair doesn't look very feminine." When I asked for more detail she said, "It looks big, and there is no cushion or anything on it." Yet another teacher answered, "I think if it were a woman's room there would be something to remind her of family — either a picture or there would be children's items in the room." The teachers had noticed details that I hadn't and had also drawn on their own beliefs to bring a deeper perspective to the picture.

This is the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) method. It is a very simple activity designed to build students' background knowledge and develop thinking skills that use detail to enhance understanding. Many educators have used this method as a precursor to working on a literary passage because the thinking skills used to analyze artwork can be transferred to literature as well. The Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) method was created by Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. VTS is targeted at developing creativity and thinking skills. It also presents a very effective method for tapping into students' background knowledge.


  1. The teacher selects an interesting picture or painting, one that relates to the topic of the story to be read, in this case the picture above.
  2. A copy of this picture is placed on the overhead projector. There are many sources of pictures on the Internet, including museum and library websites. (See the Hot Links section).
  3. The students are asked, "Please look at the picture silently for a minute and think about what you see. What's going on in the picture?"
  4. After a minute the teacher opens up the question to the room, "What do you see in the picture?" The students' responses often start out with the obvious — "There's a man walking a dog and another man riding a bike. The picture looks old. I think it was taken in a city."
  5. When a student offers a qualitative statement, the teacher asks for more information. "You said the picture looks old. What makes you say that?"

    The students justify their answers by providing evidence from the picture. They may say, "It's in black and white, and the cars in the back all look like they were made a long time ago."
  6. Next the teacher asks students to share differing opinions and provide justification. One student may say, "The man on the bike is wearing a suit. I think he is going to work on his bike because he doesn't have a car." The teacher then asks, "Does everyone agree? Is that why this man is riding his bike in a suit?" Another student might say, "I don't think so. I think he just likes riding his bike. Maybe they didn't make clothes for riding a bike then."
  7. The discussion goes on until students have shared all they can about the picture.
  8. The teacher summarizes what the students said. "So, after looking at this picture we think that, maybe relatives — who lived a long time ago. We can tell this because of what they are wearing and because the picture is black and white."
  9. For the next activity, the teacher can either have the students write a few sentences about what they discovered, or read a text related to the picture.


Let's say students are reading about New York in the 1900s. The teacher points out that the same creativity and way of thinking that the students used to look at the picture will be used to understand the reading.

When students share about their reading, the teacher asks the same kind of VTS questions about the text. "What is happening? How do you know that?" The teacher makes a point of showing the students how sharing their ideas about the story are the same as when they discussed the picture earlier.


A variation of VTS was offered as a Bright Idea from Gemma De Vita, a teacher from Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. In her Picture Description activity, she makes copies of an interesting picture and has the students glue it to a page in their notebook. The students write three to six sentences or questions about the picture and then share them. This allows the students to have a picture book with their own notes to remind them of what they are learning and thinking. Gemma says she likes to use the Picture Description activity in her classroom because, "Once I thought maybe I would try another strategy to introduce a selection, and my students asked where the picture was. They said they love doing Picture Preview and would I please do it more. They said, 'It's fun!' It also helps with all Language Arts domains: Speaking, Listening, Writing, and Reading. Students can also work at their own levels and challenge themselves as they hear higher level questions that they can use as models after their next reading selection. It also helps them compose questions, which they often need practice with."

The Visual Thinking Strategies method offers an easy, interactive and non-threatening way to get students thinking. There are no right or wrong answers, and anything that students believe can be justified by details in the picture. This opens up students' minds to the fact that, even in reading, people come away with different impressions and thoughts. These should be shared and discussed to further develop understanding for everyone. To me — this is the richest lesson of all!

Picture Description

Here you can find a short picture description lesson that highlights relevant grammar structures and provides lists of words that are useful for talking and writing about pictures.

National Geographic Photography

This site offers many intriguing photos, including a photo of the day, news photos, photo gallery, and short video clips. These can be useful for supporting content instruction, fostering dialogue with emerging English speakers, and creating writing prompts.


Minneapolis Institute of Arts: Art Adventures

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' Art Adventure program is an example of a collaborative effort between the museum and the public schools. The program's volunteers visit classrooms with art posters related to a specific theme, such as animals or celebrations. The site offers samples of some of the posters used.



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This is very similar to the reading and writing strategies adopted by the CSU, California Reading and Literature Project. Illicting student prior knowledge is referred to as the "Into" segment, checking for compreehnsion during the reading is the "Through" segment and "Beyond" is an extension of the learning at which time students apply the learning to their personal lives. Great way of approaching teaching and learning with tremendous results.

Wow, these are great exercises to enhance visual learning. I have to admit that I'm not a visual person in some aspects, I'm going to look more into the details and mix my imagination. Thanks for this simple, yet, useful examples.

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