Picture This: Comprehension

Most children’s books come with brightly colored pictures to go along with the words. This helps stimulate comprehension for little ones whose understanding of the words may need some backup. As students get older, the number of pictures in books diminishes until adults are left with cover art and not much else. The reasoning behind the decreasing pictures is that older readers are expected to make pictures in their heads and depend less on the ones provided to them. For those with weak comprehension, however, looking at the pictures may be their main strategy for understanding the text.

Avi is a first-grader at ALP for visual-verbal integration, phonological processingand visual motor treatment. At first, when we read together, he often had to stop and sound out each word – making it difficult to get meaning from the sentences. He was very dependent on looking at the picture on the page and matching up individual words to the action shown. If a word was particularly difficult, he would stare at the picture and attempt to come up with a word that fit the illustration. His dependence on the picture was interfering with his reading, and his comprehension.

After a few weeks, as his phonological processing began to stabilize, I tried an experiment. When it was time to read, I covered the picture on the page with a blank piece of paper and told Avi we were going to focus on the words.

He pushed at the hand holding the paper down. “But I like the pictures!”

“We can look at the picture as soon as we’ve read the words. Then we can see if the picture looks like the one we made in our heads.”

He seemed unsure, but agreed to give it a try. It was hard at first. He was still struggling to decode words, so the pictures in his head were often unclear – if he had formed one at all. We re-read sentences after the words had been decoded to help form pictures. Often, when the book’s picture was revealed, Avi would light up with an “OH! Now I get it!”

We kept at it, focusing on reading fluently so the sentences made pictures in his head. After a while, Avi quit trying to peek at the picture before we read. He would giggle as he read, sometimes even stopping to tell me what he pictured in his head for the words. His comprehension was becoming more and more automatic.

Then one day, we read a story about a fox, and when the picture was unveiled, Avi frowned.

“They didn’t do it right,” he said in disappointment.


He pointed to the fox. “I pictured the fox being sneakier and hiding like this.” He gave me a quick demonstration of the fox hiding.

I grinned. “So, whose picture do you like better? Yours or the one in the book?”


Mission accomplished.

Imaging content with Avi can still be a struggle, but now that the pictures in his head are getting stronger, I have no doubt he’ll be fine when he moves on to books without pictures.

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