During-Reading Response: Visual Response or Drawing through the Text

Ideas for helping readers visualize text to promote comprehension at deeper levels

Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing: writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase comprehension of texts—fiction and nonfiction—in all disciplines. Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the sixth in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

Good readers visualize as they read a text. They use the words from the text, in combination with background knowledge and prior experiences, connections from their lives and other texts, and inferences made, to construct mental images. When readers create images in their minds that reflect or represent the ideas in the text, they comprehend text at deeper levels and they retain more information and understanding.

The most effective way to teach students to visualize is to teach readers to draw images as they read a text as a during-reading response strategy—visual response or “drawing through the text.” When drawing through text, readers draw the important details, images, people, places, and events they are reading, noting the words from the text that helped them, as readers, form the image.

Advantages for Readers

There are a variety of advantages to guiding readers to create sketches of what they read as they read. All these advantages lead to an improvement in comprehension for struggling to proficient readers.

  1. Readers read more slowly and carefully. In “The Bad Habits of Good Readers,” (https://www.hmhco.com/blog/the-bad-habits-of-good-readers) Carol Jago writes that avid readers often “value speed over reflection.” Readers who read too quickly often miss key words, details, or even plot events. When they stop to not only draw but to contemplate what they should draw or to plan a drawing, readers slow down their reading.
  2. Readers need to read all of the text. Jago also points out that good readers “Skip anything they find boring.” When they are choosing what to draw, readers need to read everything and weigh the relative importance of parts of the text. During an exciting plot development, is the description of the “haunted” house actually important to what occurs? Does the physical description of a character influence her personality and future decisions? Is the scientific theory that was described in the article as being disproved actually more important to the meaning of the article than the theory that was eventually proven? Was the scientist’s background important to understanding his motivations?
  3. Generating an image while reading requires the reader to be actively engaged with the text. Readers must engage critically with text to make judgments about what and how to draw. When drawing, readers are interpreting text and analyzing the ways in which texts represent ideas. Engagement is necessary for evaluation, synthesis, and higher-order thinking skills.
  4. Readers look for meaning in words. One can’t illustrate a scene or event unless one understands what the author is saying. Some readers will draw literal representations, and others will draw symbolic representations. One student drew a simple 2-dimensional square to represent Charlie at the beginning of the short story Flowers for Algernon. As Charlie’s IQ increased, the square became 3-dimensional and more elaborate in this reader’s illustrations.
  5. Readers determine what is important in the article. Readers cannot depict everything, so they must distinguish what is significant rather than merely interesting. The teacher may want to limit the number of drawings for an article or text to engender the use of this strategy to develop more discerning readers.
  6. Readers access prior knowledge or make connections to their experiences in life and through other texts to create the drawings. Sometimes readers will conduct a little on-the-spot (authentic) research to consider how to draw something in the text. Students were reading a text about animal dads. In one section it talked about emperor penguins. A student asked if he could use his computer to find out if and how emperor penguins looked different from regular penguins.
  7. Drawing makes abstract concepts in text more concrete and personal. Through their sketches, many times readers will represent abstract concepts and complex ideas in a way that is easier to understand, a real-world skill that often becomes necessary in explaining concepts to others.
  8. Readers will retain more information from their reading. Cognitive research shows that visual is more memorable than verbal. Creating an image while reading requires the reader to be actively engaged with the text while reading, which not only improves comprehension, but improves recall of what was read. According to Haig Kouyoumdjian, Ph.D. in “Learning Through Visuals: Visual Imagery in the Classroom,” “A large body of research indicates that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/get-psyched/201207/learning-through-visuals).

Directions for Drawing through the Text

This during-reading response strategy is a very simple technique as long as students connect what they draw to what they are reading and realize that they do not have to be artists. Students can be encouraged to draw people as stick figures and not to worry about how elaborately they draw.

  1. Teachers give students an article, short text, book chapter, or poem to read.
  2. As they are reading, every few paragraphs or stanzas, readers should underline or highlight key words or phrases and draw what they are picturing in the margin. Readers can be encouraged to draw arrows from the words to parts of the drawing.
  3. When they finish reading the text, readers read vertically down the column to review a summary of the text they read and ascertain if they left out any key details or plot elements. When artists review their own drawings, they can literally see if they have omitted any essential information or lost the sequencing of events.
  4. When teachers read down the column, they will realize their readers’ understanding of the text.
  5. If they are reading a common text, readers can compare their depictions with a partner, noting there are no correct “answers.” When they compare, images most likely will be different. Readers may focus on different parts of the text, or readers may have different prior/background knowledge or experience. As with any reader response, responses should be unique and personal.
  6. Afterwards, ask the students to write a few sentences about how “drawing through the article” helped them understand what they were reading.
A 6th grade student draws through an article in Social Studies class.

Students commented on the advantages of trying this response method:

Drawing through the article is a lot of help to me because it shows how it happened. I can comprehend the information better by illustrating it. Not only does it help me understand it a bit more, but it helps me figure out what happened based on key terms and details.

Sketching through the article helped me visualize what was happening in the article. It was a good reading strategy because not only can it help me visualize an image, but you can use a picture to help you comprehend or understand the meaning of a word. This helped me because there were words in the article that I didn’t know.

A 6th grade student draws through an article in Social Studies class.

Their teacher commented, “This assignment allowed me to check what my students knew from reading the article. It was beneficial for the students as a reading strategy because they were able to form images in their minds. They were able to replace written annotations that we typically use, with illustrations. As the students drew, they used their margins as a miniature storyboard to explain the information from the text.”

In lieu of drawing on a photocopied article, an adaptation of the double-entry journal form [see April 2018 AMLE Magazine for an article on double-entry journals] can be substituted. Teachers can direct readers to copy words, phrases, or sentences that are important to the understanding of the novel or textbook they are reading on the left side of the journal and sketch what they visualize on the right side.

Advantages for Teachers

7th grade English-Language Arts students create visual responses to NEWSELA articles. Page 2 of each article is shown.

The purpose of during-reader response in general and drawing through the text specifically are twofold: (1) readers increase comprehension, especially of complex text and (2) teachers can “see” how their readers comprehend text. Readers’ pictorial response is as varied as their verbal reflections, which gives the teacher more information about students as readers. Using drawings to retell a story, a chapter, or a section of a book—whether fiction or nonfiction—is more than a simple summary of events. It is synthesis, and from the drawings the teacher can recognize and evaluate how and if the reader comprehends the text.

7th grade English-Language Arts students create visual responses to NEWSELA articles. Page 2 of each article is shown.

A teacher can observe when readers have difficulty making inferences or misinterpret what they read. For example, in Jewell Parker Rhodes’ novel Ghost Boys, if a reader draws Jerome as a traditional ghost connected with hauntings rather than his invisible (to most) 12-year-old self, the teacher might question whether he comprehended the role of the character and the other ghost boys as black boys who were killed but haven’t left, maybe fulfilling a purpose for the living.

A reader may not realize that a word has multiple meanings. If a reader reads that a character was “intoxicated with power” and draws a figure that appears drunk, the teacher knows he does not realize there are multiple meanings for the word intoxicated.

Teachers can note miscues. Readers may misread actual words or miss parts of phrases. One student drew a casket for a character’s funeral when the text actually said, “James felt like he had died.” Likewise some students, especially non-native English speakers, may take idioms or metaphors literally, which become apparent through their depictions.


Reader response ensures that reading becomes an interactive activity; constructing meaning from text begins with readers’ unique connections with text. Visual response, or drawing through the text, is yet another form of during-reading response that expands readers’ writing-to-learn toolboxes so that response becomes effective for each individual reader and each reading experience.