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Why visualizing images is so important for young readers, and how to foster the skill

Educators share ways, including asking questions while reading aloud, to help kids create rich inner world through words

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My 5-year-old and I are lying on the couch, our bare summer legs in a tangle, faces pushed into our books. He’s teaching himself how to read, beginning with “Dog Man,” the Dav Pilkey graphic novel about a half-dog half-man superhero. I’m binge-reading “Firekeeper’s Daughter,” gulping words greedily in the five minutes of quiet time he’ll give me. “Mama, how can you read that long book without pictures?” asks my son, pity in his voice for my thick novel that does not include brightly colored illustrations.

That’s when I realize with a jolt: I’ve never told another person what happens in my mind when I read. It’s mystical and intimate, like sharing how I pray or dream.

I try to explain that my brain lifts off in flight. With “Firekeeper’s Daughter,” I become an avatar of the main character, Daunis Fontaine, an 18-year-old Ojibwe woman, sprinting through the damp reservation woods in Michigan, chest heaving, trying to bust up a local drug ring. It feels so real, and I am so focused on trying to understand and respect her world, which is so unlike mine, that when I am interrupted mid-paragraph, it takes me seconds to land back on the couch, into my 41-year-old mom body, gripping my son’s emptied yogurt pouch in one hand.

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How do our brains take us to other realms like that? Are there ways to help my child learn to visualize and create his own rich inner world through words? And beyond being the closest thing we have to teleportation, why is this skill important?

How it works

Peter Mendelsund set out to decipher how people abstractly visualize literature with “What We See When We Read,” a poetic book presented through design, art and text. Speaking to me from a Vermont barn, he explained that “reading is a co-creation between author and reader”: Writers give us clues to a character’s appearance, habits and setting, and our reader brains interpret key details from those prompts. And because no author, not even Tolstoy, can describe every last thing, we are left to fill in whole patches on our own and each end up seeing something unique.

Clara Bernstein, a 13-year-old from D.C., has repeatedly reread Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor fantasy series and lets in more details each time. She has teleported to the eponymous magical city, watching the characters from the corner of a room like a spy. Only she’s never the main protagonist, Morrigan Crow, an 11-year-old girl cursed to die on her 12th birthday. She thinks that is because “the book isn’t from one character’s point of view. We can hear Morrigan’s thoughts, but it’s written in the third person.” Clara says that even when she is assigned a book she does not connect with as deeply, she can’t help imagining herself inside it, although “sometimes the visualization is less vivid.”

Children’s literacy educator Timothy Shanahan explains how such visual imagery works: “The most basic theories in reading comprehension would claim that we take verbal information and we translate it into some kind of a [multisensory] form.” It’s those sensory images that help us to recall something we’ve read.

Being able to visualize is a skill young readers build over time. The more children read, the more they will be able to imagine and understand. In fact, it is impossible to deeply comprehend a text without the ability to visualize, says Shanahan, who is based in Chicago. This skill is indispensable later in life. Think about what surgeons learn to do by studying textbooks. They must visualize pathways and know where in the body to make an incision before they see their patient on the table.

Helping early readers

Until age 8, Shanahan says, kids are so focused on mastering the mechanics of reading — recognizing words and lacing them together into sentences with meaning — that they do not begin to imagine plots or characters. “It’s all pretty verbal and phonemic,” he says, “and anything visual seems to be tied specifically to just recognizing the words and trying to make sense of it.”

Shanahan explains: “It’s not uncommon for young kids to assume that the pictures carry the story, and the adult reader is actually making it up on the basis of the picture.” He advises grown-ups to point to the text as they read aloud and pause their reading if a toddler puts their fingers over the print, to show that the story cannot continue without the author’s words.

Kamilah Hayes-Lewis, a tutor with the Literacy Lab, which provides reading support for pre-kindergarteners to third-graders from low-income families, works with the youngest students in D.C.-area public and charter schools. To ensure comprehension, her pre-K kids spend an entire week reading one book, and each day, they are introduced to three new vocabulary words. Grown-ups who want to help young readers with visual imagery should ask questions while turning the pages, she suggests: “Prediction questions get the wheels turning: What do you think is going to happen on the next page? What does that look like?” This cues children to place themselves in the story’s setting.

The Literacy Lab’s tutors stress comprehension of vocabulary to help with visualization, says Jax Chaudhry, the organization’s regional director. She cites “rye bread” and “Super Soaker” as examples of terms they have helped young readers imagine and contextualize: “The vocabulary really allows them to build out this larger world in their minds.” The tutors paste an image of a word on one side of an index card and spell out the word on the other side. Parents can do the same at home.

The approach is working. “Beep-bop-boop!” Elias Gahagan, 7, reads over Zoom from his kitchen in D.C. Elias, a Literacy Lab student who was not too interested in books until he began receiving support, looks up proudly from “Star Wars: I Am a Droid” and tells me, “I become R2-D2. I like him because he is small.”

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Helping readers age 8 and up

For kids age 8 and older, visualization training can improve their comprehension, Shanahan tells me, citing a 2013 study from the Netherlands. Adults can support this by pausing their reading to ask questions. “You might say things like, ‘I want you to try to get a picture of the setting in your mind. Where is this, and what do you see there? How does the main character look, and what is her greatest problem?’ ” Shanahan recommends. “Essentially, what you’re doing is taking kids through the structure of the story.”

Can watching a screen adaptation of a book help children learn to do this? They are not all bad, Shanahan says, but they can get in the way of improving visualization skills if kids decide they do not need to read the original too: “It can become a distraction from the print. You can say, ‘I already know that story. I saw it on Netflix, so I don’t have to look at the words.’ ” That is where the danger lies. If we don’t read, we don’t visualize, and we don’t comprehend. We lose the skill set: Our imaginations — and the future talent pool of architects and surgeons — diminish, or worse, dry up.

Chaudhry is passionate about making sure Literacy Lab students have access to books with diverse protagonists. One reason is her experience with visually interpreting a beloved story. “As a child, I remember reading Harry Potter and thinking Hermione Granger looked like me. Then the movie came out, and I was like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like me.’ ” Chaudhry says one young reader in the program recently read a story with a Black female protagonist with her tutor and was told, “She’s the boss.” Now when the girl reads on her own, she visualizes the main protagonists as Black and always tells her dad, “See, she’s the boss.” It is clear this student is beginning to visualize herself as a leader, too.

Danna Lorch is a freelance writer covering parenting, the visual arts, design and architecture from Brookline, Mass.

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