National Writing Project

They Have to See It to Write It: Visualization and the Reading-Writing Connection

By: Elizabeth Dinkins
Date: November 1, 2007

Summary: Frustrated by her students’ reluctance to write, a seventh-grade teacher shows them how to “see” what they’re reading and draw what they want to write about—and they begin to think like writers.


"Good readers make good writers" was a mantra my seventh-graders knew by heart. It was my official position on independent reading in my writing-centered classroom, plus it was a one-line extinguisher to any grumble about the daily silent reading requirement. But last year, teaching block classes for the first time, I was confronted with a first period filled with struggling readers. And my students made me put my money where my mouth is.

"Hey, Ms. Dinkins, is this enough?" asked Robby, shoving his writer's notebook at me.

"No, Robby, it's not," I said looking at his three-line entry. "You need to explore your idea more. Explain it, describe it, say everything you can think of about it." With a heavy sigh that included an "oh man," Robby trudged back to his desk.

The entry had almost doubled to a grand size of five lines and my heart sank.

"How 'bout now?" he asked only two minutes later. The entry had almost doubled to a grand size of five lines and my heart sank. I know length is not a telltale sign of good writing, but how could I expect students to produce developed final pieces if I couldn't get them to freewrite more than a few lines at a time? I looked around the room. Lots of pages looked like Robby's—mostly blank. It was clear that he and I weren't the only ones frustrated. This isn't going to work, I thought, and went back to the drawing board.

My students faced independent reading texts with the same dread they met blank pages in their writer's notebooks. They didn't like to read and they didn't like to write; dealing with words made them uncomfortable and they didn't believe they had the ideas already inside of themselves to fill volumes of blank pages. I knew if I wanted them to become better writers, I'd have to help them become better readers too. I'd have to help make words less scary.

But we didn't have time to push writing aside to focus on reading skills; writing is assessed in the seventh grade and my students were expected to produce a portfolio filled with five finished pieces from various genres. I had to find a way to make the reading-writing connection real to them; to show them that words were just a vehicle for the ideas they wanted to share.

After reading what Jeffrey Wilhelm wrote, in You Gotta BE the Book (2007), about students entering the "story world" and how seeing a story take place in our minds is the first step toward being a proficient reader, I was left with a series of questions: Are my students visualizing as they read? Probably not. And if my students aren't visualizing while they read, are they visualizing what they want to write about? Probably not. And if they can't see the ideas they want to write about, how could they write more than a few lines about them?

Thinking about how good writers paint pictures with words and good readers create those pictures and fill in gaps with their own experiences as they read, I came up with a theory. If I could help students visualize the words they read and then visualize the ideas they want to express, the words to communicate those ideas would come. In other words, if they see their ideas, they'll be able to write about them. So we pushed words aside for a while and began to draw.

The Movie in Our Heads

Wilhelm explains that visualizing is the first step in getting struggling readers to activate their thinking skills.

Before I could get students visualizing as writers, I had to get them visualizing as readers. Wilhelm explains that visualizing is the first step in getting struggling readers to activate their thinking skills and that they must visualize before they can move to higher levels of understanding.

I began by teaching visualization through a series of read-alouds/think-alouds. I talked about how when I read a book I love, it's like seeing a movie in my mind, that the words become pictures and characters take the shape of people I know and care about. Letting the students hear how my brain visualized The Outsiders (Hinton 1997), our common text, and talking about how visualizing is the first step in getting your brain to use the words you read, I shared a secret that proficient readers already know about and do automatically.

We began class discussions by describing the movie we saw in our heads while we read.

"I picture a white church alone on a hill, with flames coming out the windows," one student said after reading the climactic rescue scene.

"I picture the church all rickety and broken down 'cause it hasn't been used in a long time."

"There couldn't be flames coming out the windows when that's how they get the kid out."

"Well maybe it's just smoke."

"Or flames could be coming out one side and the other side not caught on fire yet, 'cause the kid isn't dead, he's alive. So the whole church couldn't be burning up yet."

From discussions like this one, students began drawing what they visualized in their reading response journals, then talking about their visualizations in small groups or with the whole class. Through this process of sharing and comparing images, my students began to understand how readers are partially responsible for creating the text they read and their response journals reflected this.

One student wrote,

Reading is like doing a puzzle that is halfway finished,

and commented that when she reads her brain is

alive and bouncing.

Another wrote in his reading journal,

I see a picture show going on in my head. The people and the words come alive. Like I was at the movies.

A third explained,

a reader might think something different from the author's ideas and explanations, so every thought stands for itself.

My students began to take ownership of what they read and to realize that what they see in their own mind is as much a part of reading as the words on the page; they began to understand that reading itself is an act of creation.

During our study of The Outsiders, all students saw the climactic scene of the burning church and frightened children, but how the scene looked was different to each student. Having students compare and discuss their visualizations led to an understanding of how good readers make connections to texts, because all readers automatically use and build on visual references they already have.

Becoming Active Thinkers

The realization that no two students will have the exact same image illustrates what Louise Rosenblatt (2005) called the transaction of reading. Good readers take ownership of texts they read, and practicing visualizations helped my struggling readers become active thinkers instead of passive receivers of information. Written words weren't so scary and foreign anymore; they were tools to be picked up and used.

Written words weren't so scary and foreign anymore; they were tools to be picked up and used.

When we talked as a class about how visualization was affecting their reading, my students did something that surprised me—they began to think like writers without even realizing it.

"Authors give out important details so we get a picture in our heads. . . . they don't give you the whole thing. You can't just leave empty spaces in your head because they didn't finish putting all the people together," one student explained to her discussion group when she had to defend why her visualization had "lots of added stuff."

"Well what you add has to fit," said a challenger, unconvinced.

"Yeah, they put in details you need to know so that you know what is going on, but they leave out the non-important stuff like the sky is blue when the story is about a gang. So people can focus on the topic and not the sky unless the topic has to do with the sky," added another group member.

An added benefit of these discussions is increased textual awareness. Middle-schoolers are evaluative by nature and in their desire to analyze their partners' images my students wound up looking back at the text and ferreting out the exact details the author included. This led to discussions of how writers make specific decisions about which details to include and which to leave up to the reader to fill in.

As part of the natural learning progression, my students' discussion of visualization and why readers do it led to a contact point in the reading/writing connection. Though unaware of it yet, they had begun to think like writers. Now they were ready to grapple with ideas and words of their own.

No More Blank Pages

Instead of using a series of webs, or outlines, or even the freewriting that had frustrated us so acutely before, my students began writing with drawing. I wanted students to really get a hold of the ideas they wanted to communicate, see them come alive in their minds before putting them into words. After we had studied genres and discussed topic possibilities, I asked students to focus on an image they wanted to communicate to their audience; a picture they wanted the audience to see. Then I would break out the crayons and colored pencils and ask students to draw the image they wanted to share. This made some students uncomfortable at first.

"But I can't draw," a nervous face looked up at me. "I'm no good at it!" I had to explain that this wasn't an art show, simply an activity to help us figure out what it was we wanted to communicate and why.

"The drawing is only for you. This is not something you have to share with the class if you don't want to and I'm not putting an art grade on it or anything. I just want you to draw out the image you want to communicate to your audience. Put down what you want them to see and while you are doing it, think about why you want them to see it." No more than a few minutes passed before the entire class was busy sketching away. This was quite a difference from the previous writing invitations I'd given them.

Our first writing assignment was a personal piece. As I walked around the room I saw images of grandmothers, tree houses, and dogs in backyards. Robby was engrossed in creating an image of himself and his best friend from elementary school. What was interesting about these drawings was that they weren't portraits of a dog, or relative, but more like live action scenes that communicated something about the relationship between the topic and the writer.

The only requirement I'd given was that the picture had to contain the writer as well as the idea they were writing about. Our next step was to turn the pictures into words. I asked students to write about what they drew; to describe the scene and share the emotions and thoughts that went with it. And without hesitation, students wrote. Blank pages were filled with personal stories, and my students were using words to share what they saw in their imaginations and memories. This was the beginning of our prewriting and drafting process, and I found that once students got started with the writing, they were comfortable building on it and revising it.

In several cases these initial images are what students used to create the leads for their memoirs. After revision time, Kaylen's picture of pumpkin carving with her cousin became a great first paragraph:

It was fall and the leaves were blowing like crazy. My strawberry blonde hair was blowing around like a raging tornado and my little hands kept getting stuck in my jacket cuffs. It was time to cut the pumpkin, and boy was I ready. As I grabbed the pumpkin and it started to roll off the porch, a rough, slightly nail bitten hand flew into focus. The hand guided the pumpkin back to me. I looked up and saw my cousin . . . His warm, brown eyes were like pools of slushy mud that somehow comforted me and at the same time his goofy but straight smile made me giggle. His chestnut hair was somewhat messy like a tangle of spaghetti noodles. But forever would I hold that picture in my heart, for he'd only be with me for a short amount of time.

Other students used their pictures to help remember specific characteristics about their topics that they wanted the reader to see. Kris wanted readers to know what her doll looked and felt like:

She is my lost doll. Pretty brown glittery eyes with blonde hair she was a white doll and she had a soft stomach.

While Derrick wanted to draw attention to his stuffed dog's distinguishing feature:

He had a jet black and chestnut brown spot.

Jana decided the best way for her to begin was to combine a clear picture of her topic (a favorite pair of jeans) with some similes to give a more emotional picture of what the pants meant to her.

They were as pretty as a bundle of roses when I first got them. They stayed that way for a while, but ended up getting torn and were as worn as an old teddy bear. They were a steel blue color with a mult-colored psychedelic stripe down the side. They would hang over the tops of my shoes. You probably don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm talking about a pair of jeans.

Regardless of where the drawing showed itself in a student's final piece, or how developed it was when transferred to writing, the initial images became the anchor idea for the piece. They were proof that students had something important to say. The blank page wasn't so scary, descriptions became more deliberate, and they wrote thinking about what they wanted the audience to see.

From Crayons to Articulating the Reader-Writer Connection

I used this drawing strategy throughout the school year to help my students start writing in their comfort zone and feel free with the beginning creative process. As my students grew comfortable with using pictures, they began to automatically see what they were writing and to feel confident putting their images into words.

Sometimes the pictures translated directly into a text, other times the pictures were left behind and used only as part of a larger brainstorming session. But this way of thinking about words as communicators of images really impacted how my students looked at their own writing from the perspective of the audience, which was an added bonus beyond improving student writing fluency.

When students and I would conference about their writing pieces they often spoke in terms of what they wanted the audience to see and think about. "I really remember my cousin helping me carve the pumpkin so I thought it was the best image to start with, 'cause it's the first memory, or close to it, that I have," said Kaylen about the lead to her piece.

Learning descriptive skills and thinking about what the audience was seeing was something my students wrote about in their reflective end-of-the-year piece. Derrick wanted his writing to

show the reader everything that has happened, So the reader can get a mental picture in the mind.

Kris wrote that snapshots and sensory details

help the reader know what I'm talking about.

Throughout the year, our class discussions about reading and writing would pull from the vocabulary of visualizing and focus on what the writer wanted the audience to see. This also proved an excellent starting point for students who had trouble focusing their work or found they'd lost the main idea somewhere along the way. "What do you want the audience to see?" I would ask during writing conferences, or "What do you want to stick in the audience's mind when they're done reading it?" And we would talk about what they had drawn in their original prewriting picture to get back to the main focus of the piece. Using this visualization framework, students also learned to evaluate each other's work and offer critical questions and suggestions for improvement.

"You keep talking about this red shirt he has on and I don't see why that part is so important," Robby's partner asked in a peer conference.

"Well, I don't know, that's just how I always remember him. He was always wearing that red shirt." Robby explained.

"You should say that then, it would make it fit better and show why it's important."

"You think I should? Okay." Robby responded and put a note on his draft.

Teaching my students to visualize as readers and include visualization as the first part of the writing process helped them become more than just comfortable with writing, it helped them learn to think like writers—a skill I hope they carry with them from now on.


Hinton, S.E. 1997. The Outsiders. New York: Puffin (Orig. pub. Viking Press 1967).

Rosenblatt, Louise. 2005. Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Available at

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. 2007. You Gotta BE the Book, 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press. Available at

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