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Strategy lessons:

Sensory imaging

During this unit, students explore using their senses and their connections to reading. Readers learn to visualize events and characters as well as determine emotions and imagine sights, sounds, and smells to assist them with comprehension. Students recall information by referring to their mental images. Students infer what words mean by creating logical mental images for new vocabulary. During this unit, students dramatize, draw, sketch, move, and use all their senses to help them better understand what they are reading.

Learning targets

  1. To help me read, I can act out stories.
  2. I can draw pictures to match the words in the book.
  3. I can visualize what I’m reading to make sense of the text.
  4. I can create a tableau with a partner to demonstrate comprehension of a text.
  5. To repair comprehension confusion, I can visualize.
  6. I can sketch pictures while listening to my teacher read aloud.
  7. I can determine the main idea by comparing sketches.

Getting started: Call on all senses to understand

Engaged readers see pictures in their heads. Adults who cannot visualize report reading slowly, so slowly that it takes them 2 to 3 times longer than readers who do use visualization to aid in comprehension. Imagine high school homework taking 3 times longer to complete. In addition, readers who cannot visualize actually draw out pictures or words to help them make sense of texts. This process slows them down tremendously. Not visualizing is a big problem, one we hope to remedy with the lessons we teach.

Most readers report that the first strategy they try when confronted with an unfamiliar word is to sound it out, as well they should. Decoding is important, but students do not have to read every word correctly to get the main idea of texts. If sounding out fails them or sounding out works but they have difficulty comprehending, they need a bigger box of reading tools. That’s where we intervene and teach strategies like visualization.

For example, the pictures that readers see in their minds are always things they've seen before. If students lack prior knowledge of the details in their reading, they will run into trouble. Teachers show pictures to fill those gaps. Providing video clips, photos, maps, and illustrations helps with that. For instance, to understand that the “monster” in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is actually a submarine, Google a picture of a sub before the students start to read. If the students can see the submarine before reading, they can make sense of the text during reading. Showing students pictures of things they have never seen before is called frontloading. It helps to make up for their lack of experience. With computers, grabbing visuals is so easy and assists all students in comprehending better.

Helping students recall story details in sequence

Readers often have trouble recalling details of a story in sequence. To help, give students opportunities to act so they can view the abstract story as a real play. First, read the story for enjoyment. Then, read it again. For the second reading, choose students to act out the story. Read the text this time as the narrator. Students carry out the narrator's directions while staying in character. This exercise forces learners to pay close attention to what’s going on in the story and even to revise their initial understanding of the text. Observers of the play also develop a clearer understanding of the plot by watching the story come alive. 

Discussing the differences between the read aloud and the acting is an important part of using this technique to improve comprehension. Some questions to ask:

  • What confusion did you have that was cleared up when the story was acted out?
  • How was listening to the reading different than seeing the reading acted out?
  • Actors, explain where you were confused about what to do and then figured out what to do. What did you think about that made you change your mind?
  • Observers, how did watching the acting help you clarify any misunderstanding? Explain what you thought originally, what you think now, and why there's a difference in your comprehension.

Another lesson idea that helps students learn to visualize is a drawing activity. Giving students a small text to illustrate – even just a paragraph – slows the readers down to notice the details of the text. Often when my students illustrated like this, I found that the picture they initially held in their heads was different than the picture the author described. When I did this activity myself, I noticed that I often forgot details as well and had to flip back to the original text again and again to complete my drawing. Sketching like this helps readers to “see” what is happening. 

Dr. Robert Marzano says that students need words and a visual of a concept to truly understand it. Therefore, after discussion, ask learners to draw a symbol to illustrate the most important concept word you are trying to teach. Ask them also to write a definition in their own words. You can assess the drawings. Just by scanning the students' pictures, you can pick out who understands the words and who does not.

Students turn texts into songs or poems

During the sensory imaging unit, provide opportunities for students to use all of their talents. Ask them to work as teams to change a content selection into a song or poem, for example. To do so will require each team to agree on the most important ideas to select as lyrics. Talking and creating gives learners a chance to clear up misconceptions and to think deeply about themes, main ideas and author's purpose. Memory and music are closely tied. The music stays in readers' heads for a long time. As a result, they are more likely to store information where they can find it through activities such as putting the most important points to music.

Chants, raps and mnemonic devices also help students remember information. If you can’t invent them, you have students in your class who can. Let them share their creations so that others can use them, too. Teachers also can Google topics on YouTube and TeacherTube to find songs, videos, and poems to enhance understanding of concepts.

Ask students who are NOT strong visualizers to show their classmates how they take notes and how they remember important ideas. Let them teach the techniques they use and even create to survive in a world where recall and memory are valued. We're used to notes and outlines, but these students can share mind maps, sketches, and songs that others may not have thought to use.

The last proficient reader strategy I studied was sensory imaging. Since I am such a strong visualizer I didn’t realize others weren’t. You, too, may be weak as a teacher of visualization, because you think that what you know is obvious. New research shows we're not auditory or visual learners all the time like we used to think. We adapt the modality we work in to the requirements of the task. Asking all students to share tips for learning will make your readers more well-rounded and more likely to be able to tackle any task. Try the lesson plans I provide to get started.

Other Ideas for The Sensory Imaging Unit

• Interpreting photographs, political cartoons and other visuals

• Drawing symbols to remember vocabulary

• Writing to music of varied tempos to understand mood

• Drawing illustrations from text to reread and check facts to improve comprehension

• Graphic Organizers to sort details from main ideas in predetermined ways

• Mind Mapping requires the brain to make connections, which helps information go into long-term memory

• Rap and song: creating lyrics from story requires rereading and constant checking of facts

• Newscasts or plays: rewriting text as a newscast to explore characters’ dialogue, motivation and perspective

• Changing text to cartoons requires students condense all ideas to the very essence of meaning


Free downloads

Download these free lessons to get started:

Act It Out

To improve comprehension, act out stories

Sketch While Listening

Draw pictures to match the words in the book, "Bear's Toothache"

Reader's Theater

Use all of your senses to comprehend

Visualize To Infer James Bond

Match pictures to match the words in the book, "James Bondl" - older children

Visualize To Verify

Match pictures to words using the book "Snowball"

Visualize To Repair Confusion

Act out "Top Secret" to clarify sequence of events

Visualize Main Idea

Sketch to determine main idea


Create a tableau to demonstrate comprehension of text

Use Symbols To Remember Meaning:

Teach readers to think of a visual that will help them remember meanings



Favorite Books That

Work for Teaching

Sensory Imaging

Good Dog Carl by Alexandra Day - wordless picture book

Big, Big Sea by Martin Waddell (Author), Jennifer Eachus (Illustrator)

Bear's Toothache by David McPhail

Bedhead by Margie Palatini and Jack E. Davis

The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer

The Napping House by Audrey Wood

Red Riding Hood retold by James Marshall (works well for acting out)

Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry G. Allard (Author), James Marshall (Illustrator)

Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, Chapters 9-10

Top Secret by John Reynolds Gardiner, Ch. 7

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Ch. 1

Copyright 2017 by Karen Haag