Do You See Visualization as an Effective Reading Comprehension Strategy? And, for Whom?

  • visualization reading comprehension
  • 11 September, 2021

Teacher Question:

I’m a second-grade teacher. Our school has purchased a reading comprehension program that emphasizes visualization. Is that such a good idea?

Shanahan Response:

Great question. This is one that I can answer with a “yes” or “no.”

I’m not answering like a politician, it just sounds like it.

My affirmative and negative isn’t an attempt to be on all sides of an issue. It’s just a recognition that visualization has been a successful instructional strategy… at some grade levels; and not so much at others. That means that program might be a good purchase for some of the teachers, but maybe not for you.

Basically, the idea of visualization is to get students to translate the text information into a mental image. Of course, doing that means the readers have to think about the text ideas (and that’s a plus) and if they are successful in seeing the information in their heads that should improve memory for the information (a second plus).

Visualization was also one of the comprehension strategies that was found to improve reading comprehension. The average effect sizes were not as high as for some of the other strategies evaluated but the results were positive and, truth be told, there are strong theoretical reasons to promote visualizing.

Some reading theories (specifically, dual coding and embodied cognition) maintain that visualization – and the forming of other kinds of sensory representations during reading – are an important part of the comprehension process itself. In other words, visualizing doesn’t help comprehension, it is part of the comprehension process.

There is plenty of evidence showing that better readers are better visualizers.

Authors provide linguistic information through their writing. They create texts. Readers, to comprehend those texts, must translate this information into what the researchers refer to as a “situation model.” This situation model is just a mental representation of the text, and it includes both linguistic info from the text and the reader’s own prior knowledge.

There is strong agreement that these mental representations are not linguistic, or more accurately, not linguistic alone, and that situation models include all modalities (visualization includes mental pictures and sounds and smells and tactile information).

It gets really interesting when you look into the neurological studies of all of this.

These studies look at the localities of brain activation while people are reading or listening to brief texts. With older proficient readers (8-11 yrs.), they activation in the occipital regions of the brain suggesting visual or imaginative processing in the right hemisphere. But this kind of activity is not evident with 5-7-year-olds when they are reading. Instead, their brains appear to be more focused on coordinating the visual representations of the words with phonological processing. On the other hand, when listening to narratives, these younger students evidence active processing in the occipito-temporal regions. This neural activity during listening was even predictive of how well these students would read later.

That means that visualization is evident in reading in grades 3-5, but not so much in grades 1 and 2, at least when it came to reading. There appears to be a shifting of neural activation when reading from ages 5 to 11. (Maybe that’s why illustrations are so important to younger children; the text provides the pictures they can’t or won’t create on their own.)

I mentioned that engaging kids in visualization can lead to improvements in their reading comprehension. The teaching studies are consistent with the brain studies. Basically, visualization improved comprehension in the upper grades but not in the primary grades. Hence, my yes and no answer.

Telling kids to “make a picture in your head” has just not been very effective. When it has worked, it has helped the older kids, not the second graders; and the effects have been relatively modest – it works, just not as well as some of the other strategies.

The versions of visualization that have been most effective have confounded it with an even more effective comprehension strategy, use of text structure. For example, kids are taken through a series of visualization steps that engage them in thinking about the text structure: make a picture in your head of the setting, now see if you can close your eyes and see the character, now see character’s problem, and so on.

So, I ask myself what’s working here? Is it the visualization or the structural guidance? Perhaps both are helpful.

In summary, visualization is a part of the comprehension process, and it is part of how most humans represent information in memory. It becomes part of reading once students have developed sufficient automaticity with the visual/phonological aspects of reading. Personally, I wouldn’t do a lot with visualization for reading in those early years; I’d save that training for when they’re a bit older and more accomplished as readers. With the older kids I would try to link their visualizing to structural properties of text (hedging my bets).


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Horowitz-Kraus, T., Vannest, J.J., & Holland, S.K. (2013). Overlapping neural circuitry for narrative comprehension and proficient reading in children and adolescents. Neuropsychologia, 51, 2651-2662.

Sadoski, M., & Paivio, A. (2001). Imagery and text: A duel coding theory of reading and writing. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sadoski, M., & Paivio, A. (2004). A duel coding theoretical model of reading. In R.R. Ruddell & N.J. Unrah (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed., pp. 1329-1362). Newark, DE: International Reading Associaton.

Sadoski, M., & Paivio, A. (2007). Toward a unified theory of reading. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11, 337-356.

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See what others have to say about this topic.

Alexis Oct 22, 2021 04:51 AM

I found the. perspective of this topic very interesting. I do have to agree with what many people are saying regarding visualization in the lower levels. Illustrations are already play aa hug role in lower levels which I why I don't think this strategy will help them improve. They are already working on this skills. Incorporating visualization in upper levels would be a better idea.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 22, 2021 09:12 PM


That is a very good point. The texts that young children are taught to read from tend to be heavily illustrated and visualizing would not make much sense in that context (why visualize, you already have the illustrator's visualizations?).



Trish Oct 24, 2021 05:31 AM

Really interesting discussion. Since my daughter (now 21) revealed to me that she cannot form "pictures" in her "mind", has very little visual memory, and understands written or verbal descriptions as just that - words that explain an object, concept or effect, I have come to think that there are other children, in fact, some of my own students (I'ma TA), do not understand what visualisation is. This certainly impacts on levels of comprehension, inference, and interpretation.

I'm wondering if there's been much research in this area of what appears to be a functional/neurological gap, especially given the prominence of visualisation as a "reading strategy" and a memory aid.

With kindliness,


Heather Oct 24, 2021 05:38 PM

This discussion has been very thought provoking. I teach Kindergarten and there has been some debate among teachers and administrators about teaching sight words in the primary grades. The curriculum we are currently using does not formally start teaching sight words (in K) until the second half of the school year. This timeline gives students a chance to get a handle on letters vs. words, phonemic awareness and letter sounds before you throw in words that don't follow 'the rules'. However, some teachers have basically thrown out the curriculum's reasons for 'why' the scope and sequence is the way it is and have decided that the number of sight words taught is not rigorous enough so they've started much earlier in the year teaching additional sight words 'just because' they think we should. I have felt for many years that we are asking our youngest readers to do more than what their brains can handle (successfully). Just because some students 'can' doesn't mean all students 'should'. Visualization is a big part of teaching sight words in K because those words don't follow the phonetic patterns we've been teaching. What are your thoughts on teaching sight words in K? How many is too many?

Timothy Shanahan Oct 31, 2021 07:54 PM


Here is my suggestion for numbers of sight words in kindergarten:



Harriett Sep 11, 2021 05:41 PM

This is really interesting on so many levels, and you've given me a lot to think about. I'm wondering what the relationship is between visualizing just in your head vs. on paper. My third graders really enjoy listening to a passage where I stop to allow them to draw and label. My favorite example is having them draw the inventing room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is so rich with sensory detail and action verbs. By using these terms to label, it allows me to introduce the importance of including these elements in their own story writing. Sometimes they draw on their white boards--fast and fleeting--and sometimes they draw slowly and meticulously with paper and color and create, in some cases, impressive illustrations. There's a technique in The Reading Strategies Book called 'Reread and Sketch with More Detail' which combines drawing and labeling with rereading so that students see what they may have missed the first time through. Thanks for raising this issue.

Lynn Atkinson Smolen Sep 11, 2021 05:59 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,

What you have explained about visualization and the differences across grade levels when teaching this strategy is very interesting. Would you recommend teaching visualization to1st and 2nd graders with an interactive read aloud lesson?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2021 06:08 PM

Given that young children naturally visualize when stories are read to them and that beginning reading texts are so heavily illustrated, I would simply not introduce this strategy at all until the kids were a bit older.

Lynn Atkinson Smolen Sep 11, 2021 07:00 PM

Thank you for your response. What you say makes a lot of sense!


Mabel Sep 11, 2021 07:02 PM

Dear Dr. Shanahan,
This is thought provoking. I am basically thinking about English Language Learners in a non-native English Speaking community. These students usually have little to no exposure to English; as their communities mainly use the native language for daily communication. Such students may not connect with or even have any mental representation of what is read to them; that is, if they were lucky enough to get fluent models to read to them.

Dr. Shanahan, do you think that teachers to such students should even consider trying out this strategy?
Thank you.

Lara Handsfield Sep 11, 2021 09:08 PM

Very thoughtful piece—thank you. I’m wondering about mental representations for Braille readers with low vision or blindness. Surely they learn to read, but I would imagine that visualization is either not there or different and that other modes (auditory, touch) might come into play?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2021 10:40 PM

My focus with second language students would be much more on language than on strategies like visualization. For example, using pictures to illustrate vocabulary has proven to be particularly effective with ELs. In other words, instead of trying to get them to imagine (to visualize in their minds), I would focus on trying to connect the language with the concrete and truly visualized (that is visualized with their eyes rather than their minds).
Good luck.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2021 10:44 PM

Clearly, blind students cannot visualize (at least if they are congenitally blind). That may be part of why those students struggle so much with comprehension. However, as my piece makes clear (I hope) visualization is more than just a visual strategy -- it also includes the other sensory systems (sound, smell, touch, taste)... the blind is capable of rendering their memories into those forms as well. Interpreting text is partly verbal and partly sensory.
There is a physician who claims that there is a condition in which people (whose sensory mechanisms are intact) cannot visualize at all. That hasn't been proven -- and to my knowledge hasn't captured much scientific evidence -- but it is certainly possible that the blind aren't the only ones lacking this ability to see things in their mind.



Kamilah Dec 04, 2021 09:25 PM

You mentioned that certain reading strategies have been proven to be effective. Visualization has moderate gains when paired with the teaching of text structure. From your research what are the reading strategies that have been proven to help increase children's comprehension?

Timothy Shanahan Dec 04, 2021 10:06 PM


The following all have multiple studies showing sizable improvements in reading: summarization, self questioning, text structure, monitoring, inferencing/cohesion linking.


Shaina Sep 12, 2021 01:28 AM

This is such a great finding. I teach reading comprehension (grades 1-2) to grad students and just told the dean that I wanted to take visualization out of my presentations...thanks for the science and clear explanation!

Emma Gammon Sep 12, 2021 02:23 AM

What are the nuts and bolts of teaching visualisation? Is it just drawing conscious attention to visual images that are arising spontaneously as students read or listen to text, fleshing them out and actively adding detail? How would we know if it’s working? Does it always rely on drawing? I’m not sure I could draw what I visualise when I’m reading. And equally, how would I know that I have added anything to what the students can already do?

Lisa Sep 12, 2021 12:19 PM

For ELs, there is a great visualization technique that helps with language acquisition. It’s called Picture dictation and there are different ways to do it. I select a descriptive passage of a certain number of words that contains a linguistic construction that needs repetition and and practice. I then give art supplies and read the entire portion over and over again. Students recreate what they hear and then compare and discuss. There are many descriptions of this technique on the web.

Karin Hess Sep 12, 2021 12:34 PM

Thank you for sharing the research. I'd like to support the ideas shared by Harriet and Mabel with my own anecdotal observations. In my work with schools in many parts of the country, teachers have found great success using the strategy of sketch-noting to support both comprehension and the ability to retell or summarize a text with their ELL and K-3 students. I suggest providing a structure for using sketchnotes, such as a graphic organizer with open boxes for sequencing key events, When reading aloud, the teacher stops to give time for students to draw and label something to help them remember each part. Teachers might also brainstorm a few key words to use as labels at each stopping point which has been found to be especially helpful to ELLs.. With silent reading, texts can be "chunked" with an open box after sections that present multisensory images, with a prompt such as, "what can you picture in you mind right now?" Stopping to make a quick sketch allows students one more way to make connections and personalize their understanding what's been read.

Kathy Levy Sep 12, 2021 05:42 PM

Although we don’t teach visualization directly as a strategy for the younger elementary students, we still teach it. When we use the illustrations in a story to discuss what is happening during parts of a story, we are modeling the use of pictures to create understanding. We ask students to visualize as soon as we ask them to draw a picture of their favorite part of a story. We ask them to visualize when they draw a picture of their own choosing and then ask them to tell or write about the picture. It’s just more concrete (actually motor and verbal enhanced) in the beginning, as appropriate for the development of that age group.
The thing that concerns me is when a reading comprehension program strongly teaches visualization. There’s no right or wrong way to visualize and I get concerned that teachers will evaluate students on whether they visualized “correctly.” If you gave Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron the same book to make a movie out of, I bet each one would visualize a totally different movie. When we walk out of a movie and say, “I liked the book better,” it’s because we visualized it differently. We were the directors of our own movie. We need to keep this in mind when we teach visualization strategies.

Camille Knopps Sep 12, 2021 09:11 PM

I teach high schoolers strategies for improving their reading comprehension. I have been using Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down” graphic novel with them. It’s a great story which speaks to my students and the illustrations are beyond wonderful. We’ll move into other works (non graphic novels) as the year progresses.

Jane Marsh Sep 12, 2021 09:20 PM

A program that teaches visualization explicitly is Visualize-Verbalize. It works wonders!

Debbie Drapet Sep 13, 2021 07:31 AM

Hi Tim
You say “Visualization was also one of the comprehension strategies that was found to improve reading comprehension. The average effect sizes were not as high as for some of the other strategies evaluated”.
Can you please point me to the study or studies you refer to that relate to strategy evaluation?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 13, 2021 01:22 PM

The instruction for this varies greatly. For example, in some studies they do little more than tell kids to try to "draw a picture in their mind." The most effective is a more thorough kind of encouragement, getting kids to picture very specific aspects of the text that require them to make a careful inventory of the information (character, setting, specific events that represent the problem and solution). I'm not thrilled with the idea of using picture drawing for this as it slows things down too much, is cumbersome, and even someone with good visualization skills may have real problems translating that to a sketch (which would distract from their thinking about the text--which is the whole point).


Timothy Shanahan Sep 13, 2021 01:24 PM

See my response to Karin. It provides some description of teaching visualization. Remember the point is to get kids to code information from the text into memory, not to end up with a sketch on paper.

good luck.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 13, 2021 01:24 PM

See my response to Karin. It provides some description of teaching visualization. Remember the point is to get kids to code information from the text into memory, not to end up with a sketch on paper.

good luck.


Leah Falkowski Sep 17, 2021 12:51 AM

How would you do visual learning for reading a story as a teacher for young toddlers? Are there other ways besides using objects or pictures?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 18, 2021 09:50 PM

The research that I have read suggests that kids engage in this pretty automatically. Definitely we should read to young children and most books aimed at children at those early ages are heavily illustrated. Reading such books and talking to your children about them (including the pictures) is about all you need to do. For instance, you may read, "Daddy drove the truck." and this line is accompanied by a picture of a truck and a man driving it and other things (like a stop sign or fire hydrant or a girl riding a bike on the sidewalk. The parent reads that line and maybe says, "What did daddy drive?" The child responds, "Truck." Where is the truck? and he/she touches the page. And, where is Daddy and the child touches the page. And there is a girl in that picture, too, what is she doing? and so on.


Mat Sep 19, 2021 10:55 AM

Very interesting post. Is it the age or stage that determines how well the student can visualise?

You mentioned for example that grade 1-2 students cannot visualise so well but what if it was a strong reader in grade 2? If they can already decode very well and have good language comprehension and background knowledge, are they likely to be able to visualise well?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 19, 2021 02:32 PM


I don't know. The neurological research shows those patterns. Any explanations of why included above were my inferences rather than to the research findings themselves. One possibility is that mastering decoding frees up those cognitive resources and allows the readers to devote their visualization to reading comprehension. Another is that this is a developmental phenomenon and that even older readers who struggle with decoding visualize. I know of no data that sorts that out. Sorry.


Tamara Martin Spady Jan 20, 2022 07:27 PM

Thanks for another great blog! Here's my question -- when I try to teach visualization to students, I've had success with asking the students to draw their thoughts about what they've read hoping to move a concrete visual to their minds in order to improve mental visualization skills. What are your thoughts about that?

Also, I have done visualization activities with kindergarten students where I read parts of a story, then pause and ask the students to draw what they have heard. I use this as a form of comprehension assessment. I've had success with this. I'm wondering your thoughts on this idea.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 20, 2022 09:40 PM

With young children there are many options for responding to text to demonstrate comprehension. Certainly one would be to allow them to draw pictures that summarize the text or that answer a particular question. For that, I would encourage you to have the students draw the picture and then have them describe/discuss their response. Research also shows that in K-1, another effective way to respond is to have children act out the story, etc.


Jeri Powers Apr 02, 2024 03:39 PM

Thank you so much for this information! I value your knowledge so much. As a district LETRS trainer, I struggle with some of the information included in the manuals. For example, in Vol 2 the authors address visualization as a "go to" strategy for comprehension. I cannot teach that to our staff as it is not a completely accurate picture of what they need to know. I find myself diverging from their blanket statements so that our teachers receive accurate information. Thank you for providing information that allows me to train teachers.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 02, 2024 10:24 PM

Yes, some of that content is a bit in the weeds. It isn't necessary to know either from the teacher or the student's point of view. Studies show that instruction is more affected by professional development when it is focused on classroom practice (not necessarily separate from theory and content, but also not overwhelmed by it).


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Do You See Visualization as an Effective Reading Comprehension Strategy? And, for Whom?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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