Picture This! Understanding reading texts via visualization


(courtesy of teachingmyfriends.blogspot.com)


Have you ever felt like you’re watching a movie in your head while reading a book? I feel that way all the time. In fact, when the the pace increases, I find my eyes racing through the words, aspiring to keep up with the rapid-movie in my head. Interestingly, I realized that the movie never fails to help me understand the story line.

I thought of drawing from this experience while planning a reading lesson for my Business English students, and little did I know that visualization was actually one of the 6 reading strategies. Apparently, “proficient readers spontaneously and purposely create mental images while and after reading” (Keene and Zimmerman, Mosaic of Thought). As an avid reader myself, I wouldn’t say that I purposefully create mental images, but rather, it just happens! (and I remember how excited I got when the Hippogriff (Harry Potter) I visualized looked exactly the same in the movie!) . If you’d like to try it out in the classroom, literacy consultant, Cathy Puett Miller, has suggested 5 simple steps on how visualization techniques can be nurtured (You can read more about it here).

I found many resources on the internet on visualization as a reading strategy, but every article focused on General English. The question is, can we use visualization as a reading strategy for Business English articles?

Before proceeding further, let me give you an overview of my learners and the challenges they face when transitioning from secondary school to college / university. These challenges were the basis for me to design this lesson.


Module Taught : Academic Reading and Writing in Business English

Learner Background : 90% of the learners came from Malay medium government schools in Malaysia, which plainly means that the English language that they’re accustomed to in school is a far cry from what they’re currently being exposed to / expected of at the university. Yes, of course they’d be familiar with simple genres of academic writing ( argumentative, compare and contrast) but nothing compared to what is expected of them now (350 words vs 800 to 1000 words.  Get the drift?) I’ve more than often, observed their looks of distress, intense concentration and wrinkled foreheads while poring over their complex reading materials. Not to mention the looks of exasperation when they ask me “Ms, what does this mean? Why is it so difficult to understand? What do they mean when they say…….” and I can’t help feeling sorry for them. The complexity of the text, the corpora of vocabulary as well as business and corporate concepts can take months, or even years, to grasp. And it doesn’t help that, although Malaysians have the highest literacy rates in South East Asia, only 3% of the reading population read books compared to newspapers which yielded a whopping 77%! (published in The Star tabloid, 18th April 2009).

Their challenges: Within a length of 3 months, learners are expected to understand, master and produce different forms of academic writing (argumentative, summary, literature reviews, research reports) which incorporate appropriate lexis and well-developed ideas, read pages and pages of articles and research papers brimming with difficult jargon from the world of business, finance and economy. The challenge increases when this is expected within a set time limit. Such injustice from an education system that sets unrealistic high evaluative standards!

So that’s when it probably struck me : if I can show them a way in visualizing their text, they might be able to understand it better.

Again, this lesson might seem a little too easy for a Business English level, but it was a deliberate attempt to show learners that making meaning out of academic text isn’t as daunting as it may seem. All they need to do is practice visualizing it in their minds! The basis of this lesson was to get learners to draw their representation of the summary of each paragraph.



Pre-Reading Activity 

1. Display the following Powerpoint Slide. In groups of 3 : a) guess the title of the text   b) what might the content of text be about? Why do you think so?

2. Get two groups to exchange and compare the answers from their group discussion.

During Reading activity

3. In pairs, get learners to, first, read the entire text to get a general idea. The text can be found here.

4. Next, for each paragraph, get learners to draw a picture (in the given space) that best represents the paragraph.

5. Request learners to cut the pictures out carefully, and exchange their set of pictures with that of another pair.

6. With partners, request them to match the new set of pictures to the paragraphs.

7. Request learners to check their answers with the pair whom they exchanged their pictures with. Discuss the reasons for both correctly and wrongly matched pictures, as well as the reasons for doing so.

Post-Reading Activity

7.  Request 2 pairs to get into a single group, and discuss the following questions together.



My learners liked the little change in activity. It helped them wind down, and also realize that reading can be fun, even if it’s a Business English text. The text I selected for this activity was easier than the ones they’re usually exposed to in class.  Again, this was preplanned, as I wanted them to start simple when visualizing text. If they consistently practiced text visualization, I believe they’d be able transfer this skill to texts that are more difficult.

Another important point to note is that text visualization helps learners to shift from the paradigm of reading word to word and sentence to sentence to a more holistic reading practice, as they’re compelled to visualize the overall idea of the text. Learners comprehend better when they employ visualization to interpret the bigger picture (Cubukcu & Eylul, 2007).

I also think that visualizing the bigger pictures facilitates when the text needs to be read within a time limit (and this especially helps when tasks require learners to provide a critical discussion on specific concepts within the text).

And to end the discussion….

One of my learners posted this as her facebook status : “Today we did drawing in our English class”, followed by a snapshot of the activity.



I found the following resources very useful and informative for further reading (click on the titles below):

Curious about reading strategies?

Visual Imagery in Reading

An Investigation of Reading Strategies

A comparison of metacognitive reading strategies used by EFL and ESL learners

A study on the use of cognitive reading strategies