Helping Students Notice and Make Good Use of Graphics as They Read by Kathryn Roberts and colleagues

Helping Students Notice and Make Good Use of Graphics as They Read

In this article in The Reading Teacher, Kathryn Roberts (Wayne State University) and five colleagues suggest how elementary teachers can foster graphical literacy in their students, following the emphasis on this in the Common Core standards:

Help children see that good readers pay attention to graphics. Some parents and teachers inadvertently encourage students to focus more on the words than the pictures. Teachers should seize every opportunity to get students to use graphics as they read. 

Talk about graphics during read-alouds and shared reading. A teacher might say, “Hmm. I’m noticing that the person who made this book put a diagram here. I’m learning something from the picture that I couldn’t learn from the words.” 

Emphasize the concepts of importance and extension. The teacher might make a deliberate mistake (pretending to be an “uninformed reader”) and say it’s not necessary to look at a picture or diagram, inviting students to correct the error.

Have students create their own graphics. For example, primary-grade students make detailed diagrams of animals’ body parts as they create a field guide for the city zoo.

Use books with clear, persuasive, and engaging graphics. For example, the flowchart and surface diagram in Honeybees (Heiligman, 2002) grab the reader’s attention and convey the meaning through their details. 

Discuss why the illustrator chose to include some graphical devices and not others. For example, reading Scary Creatures: Wolves (Clarke, 2004), the teacher might ask why there’s a cross-sectional diagram of the inside of a wolf. 

Have students plan the graphics in their own compositions. Students might be guided to create tables of the information they want to convey and decide on the most appropriate way to illustrate each piece of information.

Give students opportunities to give and receive feedback on the graphics they create

When students share their writing from the “author’s chair,” other students can comment on the appropriateness, clarity, and impact of graphics.

Pair students to read texts that include rich graphical devices. “Partner reading, in which children discuss text with others and engage in asking and answering questions, leads to the social construction of meanings that are more in depth than any one reader could construct alone…” say Roberts et al. “A logical extension of this practice is to include discussion of graphical elements.”

Group children by their graphical development needs. Some students may need more-intensive instruction to see and use graphics in texts.

Fill the classroom with high-quality graphics. The graphics could include steps to getting ready for recess and a chart of outside temperatures and appropriate clothing.

Develop a schoolwide plan for teaching students to understand and compose graphics. For example, some teachers might refer to a chart while others call it a table; the school should decide on consistent terms. 

“Diagrams, Timelines, and Tables – Oh, My!” by Kathryn Roberts, Rebecca Norman, Nell Duke, Paul Morsink, Nicole Martin, and Jennifer Knight in The Reading Teacher, September 2013 (Vol. 67, #1, p. 12-23),; Roberts can be reached at


From the Marshall Memo #504

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