Reading Comprehension Strategy Series: How To Teach Visualizing in the Upper Elementary Classroom


As adults, it’s hard to imagine NOT visualizing while we read, since it comes so naturally to a seasoned reader. But, for kids, they may not have been taught to focus their mind in that way. That’s where clear reading comprehension strategy instruction on visualizing, or picturing as some teacher refer to it as, comes into the…well, picture (pun intended)!

What is: Visualizing

One of the most common ways to teach students visualizing is to describe it as creating a picture or movie in our mind.  We want students to constantly be adding to, changing, tweaking, and revising their mental images just like a movie is constantly evolving.  In fictional texts, readers should visualize the settings, characters, and even the actions of those characters.  In doing so, readers will have a better understanding of the story as a whole.  In nonfiction texts, we want our readers to visualize the details about the topic, or the event in history in order to fully grasp the concept.  Visualizing isn’t something that readers should be doing periodically, it’s something that should be ongoing for the entire length of the story.

Although the strategy is called “visualizing,” we should also encourage students to use all 5 of their senses, when appropriate, to really get the best mental image.  For example, we don’t want students to just picture what a character looks like, but also what they sound like.  If that character is eating their favorite food, we want students to imagine what that food smells and tastes like, too.

One of the best things about the visualizing strategy is that there is really no right or wrong answer.  When readers visualize as they read, they rely on information from the text as well as their own prior knowledge to create mental images of what is happening in the story. Each reader may create unique images, as prior knowledge will differ between each reader.

Introducing the Visualizing strategy to students

When introducing visualizing, ask students to draw a specific object or scene as they imagine it in their mind. Then, allow students to share their drawing with a partner. This will help illustrate the idea that we all visualize something different because our experiences are different.

The concept of visualizing is typically easy for students to understand. Introducing visualizing can be done through a simple drawing activity. Give students a specific thing to draw, but do not offer any specific details about what it should look like.  For example, you may ask students to draw a clown, a beach scene, or a house.  Allow students to draw the object or scene as they imagine it in their mind. Then, allow students to share their drawings with a partner.  This will help illustrate the idea that we all visualize something different because our experiences are different. Someone who has been to a circus might have a different image than a student who has only seen clowns on TV or in books. Our experiences inform our mental images.

Modeling how to Visualize

Teaching reading strategies usually starts with modeling through a read-aloud. Choose a text to share and be sure to pre-read that book and prepare for places that you will stop to model the mental images that you are creating. You may want to have a whiteboard or chart paper available to actually draw, or have the drawings prepared ahead of time, to show your students when explaining your mental images. You can also draw your mental images on post-it notes and place them on the actual page in the story that sparked the mental image.  Again, these images can be drawn in real time with students or prepared ahead of time to share with the students as you get to that part in the story.  Be sure to showcase all 5 senses when describing your mental picture.

As students become familiarized with this strategy, invite them to create their own images using all 5 senses during a read-aloud. Have students share their drawings with a partner. Continue to remind students how our mental images vary because each of our experiences vary.


When teaching readers to visualize, it is crucial to choose a text that will support this strategy.  Be sure to choose a book that is full of descriptive language and details. Here are some of my favorites: (affiliate links)

PRACTICING Visualizing:


Students will need ample time to practice this strategy with you in guided reading or strategy groups as well as with their independent books. In all settings, students will need simple visuals to help them remember to use this strategy often. For example, a bookmark highlighting the strategy will help remind students to visualize while independent reading, or while reading in small groups.

Likewise, a colorful classroom poster to refer to is also a friendly reminder to keep creating mental images while reading. Create a bulletin board set where you begin to highlight each reading strategy as you introduce them to your students. Students can refer to the bulletin board all year long!

Create on-going anchor charts of the mental images that you are creating during read-aloud modeling. These mental images, along with any written descriptions that you include with them will serve as great examples for students when creating their own mental images.


download a FREE bookmark:

I have a free resource that I made just for you! Download a FREE “Visualizing” student bookmark in our Member’s Resource Library.

If you’re already a member, the bookmark is waiting for you under the READING RESOURCES section.


Teachers - if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times - Link & Think digital learning guides are WHERE. IT’S. AT!

They are especially handy for providing students with concrete examples in a variety of ways! And - they are PERFECT for teaching reading strategies.

In the visualizing Link & Think, students first watch a short animated video clip that quickly catches their attention with fun doodles and images. The clip introduces what the strategy is and how readers use it. Click below to watch a sample of the video!

From there they read alongside their “virtual reading buddy” to see the strategy applied to a text. While clicking through the digital book, each time the student comes across a thought bubble, they click on it and are brought to a new slide in the Link & Think guide to see what their reading buddy is thinking!


Then, to take their learning to the next level, students read 3 additional high-interest reading passages to practice the strategy on their own. In a similar fashion as they did with their reading buddy, students click through the digital storybook and stop to visualizing along the way. The students can record their mental images on a recording sheet that goes along with the Link & Think.



Having students draw their mental images not only helps keep them accountable while reading, but it also helps them to to become better at applying the strateg. When drawing, encourage students to add details using all 5 of their senses. When explaining their images to someone else, students can rely on these 5 senses to help describe their thinking.

Encourage students to include written descriptions of their mental images. This will help them articulate their thinking and will help you to assess their application of the strategy.

Assessing Your Students on Visualizing

Assessment informs instruction. Keep notes of when you observe students using the strategy in whole-group, small-group, and individual settings. Here are some things to make note of when assessing a students’ ability to visualize:

  • How detailed are their descriptions are?

  • Do they use all 5 senses?

  • Do the details they describe accurately portray what the text says?

  • Do they visualize the most important parts of the story, or are their mental images not relevant?

  • Do they need you to prompt them to use the strategy, or are they using it without assistance?

When it comes time to see how a student is performing with this reading strategy, use a rubric to help give you an understanding of how they are doing. Providing this same rubric to students in kid-friendly language will also help students know how they are doing as well and areas where they need to improve.

Ready to dive in?

I’ve got what you need, friend.

A WHOOOOLE set of resources JUST for teaching visualizing to your students including:

  • a teacher guide

  • a student Link & Think

  • a student recording sheet

  • a student bookmark

  • a classroom poster

  • a student-friendly rubric

  • teacher observation sheets for individual conferences and small groups (3 formats for varied instruction)

This resource is part of a growing bundle on the 7 major reading strategies. See the growing bundle below:

The images below show the reading strategies available to date in the growing bundle. New strategies are released monthly (estimated date for bundle to be completed: February 2020)