Reading Visually: Part 1

Friday, May 29, 2009.

This here is part 1 of a post on reading visually.  I’ll post the second part on Monday, June 1, 2009.

I regularly assign daily reading assignments in my literature and writing courses that require students to read a short text (an essay, article, book chapter, short story, or poem) and then compose a brief one-page typed response.  They bring these to class, share them in small groups, and then we go at it.  And by “go at it,” I mean we talk about the text and our responses and why we are responding in the ways that we do.

I provide students with guidelines for their responses; for example, I sometimes ask for a three-paragraph response in which they summarize the reading, explain what they take to be the most compelling idea, and then ask a question about what they’ve read.  

Over the last several years, I’ve also offered students the option of responding visually.  Here below from a literature course I taught this last spring semester is one student’s visual response to an episode in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind

Student Visual on Shadow of the Wind

Pretty good, huh?  I like providing students with this creative option, and I’ve received a wide range of excellent illustrations from students. 

Lately, however, I’ve begun to think about how I might include more visual presentations in my teaching, as well as offer my students additional creative ways of responding to texts. After reading Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin, I believe I’ve discovered some of these interesting “additional ways.”


I came across Dan Roam and his book after noodling about on the Internet, taking a look at some TED conference videos, and then coming across a 40 minute video presentation by Dan on visual thinking called “The Way of the Whiteboard: Persuading with Pictures” that he delivered at the MIX 09 conference.

I immediately ordered his book, and even though it is directed at an audience of business folk looking for more effective ways to analyze problems and discover solutions, I was intrigued by his take on visual cognition and the power of images to communicate and persuade.

I was particularly struck by his chapter “The Six Ways of Seeing” and his illustration of “The 6X6″ Rule” that captures not only 6 ways of seeing, but the corresponding 6 ways of showing.

6 by 6 rule dan roam

About this same time in my literature course, I was reviewing some response strategies with my students in preparation for a literary analysis essay they would be writing. 

Aside: In a later post, I will explain how I have used visuals in my teaching [1] to help students reflect on their learning and [2] to explain reading as a process.  Meanwhile, here’s an article on the latter from 2005.

In this essay assignment, they were to use 5 response strategies: personal, formal, topical, interpretive, and ethical.  While I had presented these strategies (and others) earlier in the term, I had just listed them on the board as I introduced them in a brief lecture.  I had also provided students with a handout of these strategies. 

But after reading Roam’s book, I decided to create a list of reading strategies that included images or icons to represent the strategies.  In helping my students prepare for writing their analysis essays, I drew this codex on the board and reviewed each strategy one by one.   Here below is a version of that codex.

Reading Response Codex

This “Reading Response Codex” includes the 9 strategies of response I generally teach in my introductory literature courses, and these icons as a graphic vocabulary provide what I think are effective visual support for teaching and for learning these strategies.

In part 2, I will describe 14 formats I’ve developed for visual reading responses with some examples from a text I’ll be teaching this fall.