Monday / April 22

Using Art as a Way Into Reading and Writing

Using Art as a Way Into Reading and Writing

My new favorite teaching move is using visual artwork of all kinds to introduce the concepts and strategies I am teaching my students.

What’s the itch and where’s the scratch?

What’s the itch? That my very diverse students, including underserved populations like refugee and LFS (limited formal schooling) kids and many struggling readers, can find it challenging to get started with understanding and practicing new strategies of reading—and of composing.

What’s the scratch? When given a concrete text like a painting or photograph, the immediacy of the visual engages them and gives access to understanding how texts work to express meaning and effect. It’s easy to see how the key details are made to stand out using rules of notice, and are organized into patterns through genre and text structure to express a topic-comment, i.e. a main idea about a particular topic of conversation. The composing-reading transaction becomes transparent to students.

And then it’s easy to move from purely visual texts to those that use words like memes, cartoons, political cartoons, picture books, and illustrated stories of all kinds, and from there to more traditional texts. This process is hugely supportive of students in learning expert strategies and developing motivation and competence.

Why am I so excited?

This teaching move excites me because 1) it works! It provides a gateway to my students to see the inner workings of texts and how they make use of “rules of notice” to guide the viewer/reader to make meaning.

2) It’s quick and kids can get lots of practice with a rule of notice and with building background knowledge about a topic by looking at several related pictures.

3) It’s democratic—activities with visuals immediately include all of my students no matter if they are learning English, struggle with reading, or lack background knowledge—and provides a prosthetic addressing these areas where they need support.

4) Using visuals is highly engaging for inducting students into understanding how texts work, and what composers expect you to notice and unpack in a work. This helps my students not only to read with more strategic awareness and conscious competence, but helps them to compose and write in the same way, understanding how they must code their text with meaning so that readers can navigate and understand their composition.

5) When students analyze visuals from popular culture they become more critical of how visuals are used to manipulate and inform.

6) This process introduces students to great fine art and photography. And…

7) Almost everything I teach, both conceptually and strategically, can be usefully introduced and practiced with visual texts.

The Instructional Path

In our intervention research and instructional practice into assisting students to read with the stances and strategies of experts (reported on in the book Diving Deep Into Nonfiction), Michael Smith and I began with visuals and then proceeded to work with think alouds, then composing and questioning activities that continued to model and mentor students into using rules of notice. We found that going through this sequence led to deep understanding of how texts help us understand the conversational topics they are taking up, the key details they express about that topic, the deep meanings expressed through topic-comments, and how these ideas are organized to express that meaning by structuring tools offered by genres and text structures.  We also found visuals a perfect entry point for introducing the four kinds of rules of notice that we found operate in texts of all kinds to help readers (and viewers) navigate these texts and make meaning of them: Direct statements/generalizations, Calls to Attention, Ruptures/Surprises, and Readers’ Rules of Notice.

An example of visuals in action

We introduced students to several visuals at the beginning of an inquiry unit into identity framed with the question: What makes me me?

The first painting was Breugel’s famous Children’s Games.

We began by introducing a “See Think Wonder” Activity that students complete on their own using this guide:

See think wonder

Using Art as a Way Into Reading and Writing

I’m seeing . . . (what is an important concrete fact of the painting that I can point at)

And I know to notice this specific detail because . . .  (how can we name this rule of notice so we can transfer it and use it again – so it will guide future noticing?)

I’m thinking . . .  (how do I make sense of the noticed cues by “figuring forth” – by unpacking and interpreting them?)

What more can I infer by adding details together? Adding my life or world knowledge to the picture?

I’m Wondering . . .  (how do I go beyond the text to evaluate, critique, accept, apply, resist; extrapolate or more forward with my inquiry?)

We then asked small groups to discuss: How does Bruegel feel about children and childhood 1-10? What makes you say so? What does he think childhood is for? Look at specific details and explain how they work to establish Bruegel’s meaning and what effect they were designed to have on his audience.

This process requires students to notice specific details, to name how they noticed, to name how details relate to a topic (the nature of childhood and how it shapes human identity), and how the details work through various structuring devices to express meaning about a topic.

We then viewed a related painting: van der Borcht’s The Cobbler’s Unruly Family, composed within a year of Children’s Games and ask students to consider what conversation must have been going on about children and the nature of childhood at this time. Students do a See/Think/Wonder on this painting, and consider what position van der Borcht is taking in contrast to Breugel. Later we show more modern paintings and photographs about childhood (Picasso has several good ones) and ask students how the conversation continues to this day, and what positions we take on this issue of what childhood should be like and how the experience of childhood informs identity.

A Classroom Episode

Teacher: How does van der Borcht’s attitude towards childhood compare to that of Bruegel?

Student: He’s way less positive about it.

T: What makes you say so?

S: The kids are swarming everywhere. I mean, it’s overkill. That’s a call to attention.

S2: Look at the wife. She’s ready to start crying. That’s a call to attention, too, but it’s also a rule of readers’ response for me. I am feeling her pain.

S3: And the guy, he’s trying to work but the kids are everywhere in the way. It’s kind of a direct statement: kids just get in the way.

T: How does that compare to Bruegel?

S4: The kids are all outside playing, having fun. They are not in the way. There is so much repetition of the games—that’s a call to attention.

S5: You can’t even see the adults really—it’s like childhood is a separate thing. Maybe that’s a rule of rupture—kids outside playing—adults inside working.

S3: That’s a text structure of comparing!

S6: Childhood is about playing. It’s fun.

S7: In the other picture childhood’s a pain for everybody. For the kids too. It’s something to get through. So there’s a contrast between the paintings.

S8: Playing is maybe preparing for being adult—a fun preparation—for Breugel.

T: What makes you say that?

The students in this excerpt are learning how to notice, and to interpret what they notice. As the unit goes on, students think aloud about their reading of visuals and short texts, they seek and find memes about childhood (e.g. Success Kid), then compose their own memes about childhood (reading as a writer/composing with a reader in mind), and often go on to create their own visual artwork about how their childhood contributed to their identity.

Throughout, students are practicing what expert composers do: coding their texts with cues to the topic of the conversation the text takes up, highlighting key details in the conversation, and structuring the details through genre (e.g. student exhibit of a Then/Now collage or symbolic portrait). They are learning that what a composer codes into a text, a reader must notice and interpret to fulfill the composing/reading contract. They learn and practice rules of notice for doing this work. They achieve a rich notion of composing and reading as a way to converse about issues that matter. Those are just more reasons to be more excited about using visuals to teach readers’ rules of notice for reading—and composing!

Written by

Jeffrey Wilhelm is an internationally respected teacher, author, and presenter who has authored or co-authored more than a dozen professional texts and programs that have redefined secondary school literacy instruction. He is the author of Uncommon Core and the upcoming title, Diving Deep into Nonfiction.

Latest comment

  • Couldn’t agree more. Mentor texts have long been used to inspire, teach, and refine student writing. Mentor art can do the same thing with the added benefit of addressing diverse learning styles and providing visual support to language learners. We offer some free lessons and art if you want to give it a try Let us know how the drag and drop jpg handouts work for you. Its one way we are experimenting with spreading the word.

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