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Visual Learning: Using Images to Focus Attention, Evoke Emotions, and Enrich Learning [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Michael Lambert and Margaret Carpenter - Posted Sep 1, 2005
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Mike Lambert has been teaching 3rd and 4th grade learners in a combination class at Hong Kong International School for many years. Margaret Carpenter comes as a library media specialist to upper elementary from a background of teaching much older students and has had to adapt to younger learners and ESL students who can't process the amount of text she used to depend upon for content delivery. They use the approaches outlined below to teach a range of learners: gifted students, students with special learning needs, and students learning English as their second language. As they explain, "We are compelled by discoveries in the field of brain-based learning to teach differently than we used to. With the tools that the 21st century offers, we're harnessing the power of images in our teaching." The following article will give you an introduction into how to incorporate the use of visuals as part of your classroom instruction.

Say it with words and you're lucky if they hear it or bother to read it. Tell your story with imagery, and it grabs attention, evokes emotion, and is more instantly processed. Sixty thousand times faster, say some researchers. At Hong Kong International School (HKIS), we have concerns quite similar to those of teachers in the U.S.: We want to engage student interest, we want to efficiently scaffold for students to construct meaning, and we want to motivate and empower them to communicate. Like all educators, we have students who deserve to learn 21st-century media skills and literacy to communicate in ways that are relevant in a new century.

Images of People Get Students to Care

The statement "the brain is social" guides us in how we engage students for learning. We capture students and their peers in learning action and use the images to bridge the learner to content. Consider this example: Students may not be naturally drawn to study a list of vocabulary words, but when the "flash cards" contain visuals of their own classmates in action, they are instantly drawn in. We ask students to "act out" a scenario to depict a vocabulary term. Snap!—photos taken are given captions and arranged in a PowerPoint that can loop continuously on a monitor in the corner of the room (see Figure 1 on page 22). (Alternatively, you can use to incorporate these flashing images into your screensaver.) You can see more of the flashcards kids created online at

Advertise and Promote Reading in a Socially and Visually Engaging Way

In our library, we want to create a culture of reading that gets readers sharing and discussing their favorite books. We've drawn attention to great books by placing student recommendations on bookmarks that feature our young readers' photographs and favorite books (see Figure 2 on page 22). (You're welcome to go online, download this Word document, and do it yourself:

Don't Trip over Vocab! Skip to a Search Engine

A well-equipped classroom needs to have a resource for visual learners, such as Scholastic's Visual Dictionary. The diagrams and pictures instantly relate information and concepts helpful to understanding many curricular topics. Lacking that, it's easy to send kids to an Internet search engine to immediately clarify the meanings of object words. Don't know what a "tidal pool" is? Rapidly access a photo by performing an image search. Pull up graphics of a carburetor, for instance, and you'll quickly see how it fits into the greater scheme of a car's engine when a good diagram is a click away. Concepts such as "the greenhouse effect" or "the water cycle" are taught much more effectively with the visual aid that a diagram provides. If you tab to the "image search" section of, you'll see why it's our favorite image search engine—you can filter out all those family photos that are often randomly associated with search terms.

Construct Better Meaning: Use Graphic Organizers

If you often present information to students by displaying it in graphic organizers, the material will appeal to visual learners, it will demonstrate a new way of organizing and presenting thoughts, and it will scaffold the development of thinking skills such as analysis and categorization. When students observe the use of graphic organizers frequently enough, they are able to make the cognitive leap to apply the suitable diagram to the learning task. Are we brainstorming? We need a concept web. Need to compare and contrast? Try a Venn Diagram. Are we sequencing a process? We need a flow chart. These organizers are not just for students who struggle with material. Gifted learners are especially served by using graphic organizers, which enable them to rein in and organize their expansive thinking.

Inspiration is our favorite software for employing graphic organizers; it comes with a wonderful library of templates that is sure to expand the creativity of even an experienced educator. Using graphic organizers isn't a new idea ... but resources on the Internet might make them easier to employ. Many helpful graphic organizers can be located at these sites:

Digitize ... Then Verbalize

Students can be asked to produce graphics to convey meaning. Trust us, they will then be very motivated to verbalize about their products. For students involved in pre-writing, we encourage them to sketch, to make use of the digital camera, paint programs, and even Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that are quickly turned into charts. Planning and creating an image brings the content under the student's command. It "gets their feet wet" with the material and serves as the springboard for articulately spoken and then written explanations.

To see what we mean, go online and visit our "Go Geo" site at "Go Geo" is an in-house geography Web site that was created to help students learn geography. Students involved in this example of project-based learning were challenged to create images that related the meaning of terminology used to describe landforms (see Figure 3 on page 23). Those images were manipulated into quizzing games, videos touring our school looking for items "analogous" to those landforms, and morning television broadcasts on our school's network. Song was harnessed to aid memorization of the continents that were graphically represented in one of our videos. The hook was getting kids to paint a term. The learning snowballed from there. Getting started, we thought this site from PBS was effective in challenging the students to make images that creatively conveyed their meanings:

Iconize ... Then They'll Memorize

For whatever routines or steps you wish to set up in your classroom for teaching a pattern to students, we encourage you to link the learning to images. Children will remember the parts of a process better if they have a sequence of images or "icons" with which to associate each one. Look at Figure 4 on page 23 to consider how our colleague Clare Peacock taught students to analyze the parts one typically finds in a story's plotline:

1. Story begins with presentation of protagonist

2. Protagonist faces conflict

3. Conflict is resolved

4. Dénouement

These illustrations provide a "shorthand" to bring across these features of a typical plotline.

Use Visual Prompts to Encourage Creativity and Lateral Thinking

We are determined to stimulate creative thinking in the classroom using novel approaches that tap students' visual-spatial abilities. Last year, we found out about "Droodles." According to the definition at, "A droodle is a doodle riddle. Or a riddle doodle. It's this scribble a friend makes up. It doesn't look like anything but you have to guess what it is." The site is loaded with humorous and thought-provoking examples that can be shown to students to start any school day off with creative thinking.

Taking the droodles concept one step further, beyond showing students droodles as a way to get them thinking laterally, we are challenging them to take some original sketches [created by Mike] and expand those simple line figures into something creative and new that can be shared with others. In the field of gifted and talented education, this idea has actually taken the form of a test for creativity (the Test of Creative Thinking-Drawing Production, or TCT-DP). In the TCT-DP, students are given the simple beginnings of a drawing (a few lines sketched inside a "frame"). They are then told to pick up where the artist left off. Highly creative students not only add items to the white space, but also expand the figures provided; they may well move beyond the frame, and sometimes even express the drawing from an unusual perspective: the view from an airplane in the sky, or looking up through a pipe. Get lateral thinking started with the handout, available online at test.htm.

Stimulate Creative Writing with an Image

We know the story of how a photograph launched a novel. Author Cathryn Clinton explains that the creative impetus to her novel A Stone in My Hand came when her writing teacher prompted her with a photograph of a Palestinian girl on a rooftop reaching toward a pigeon. (See You, too, can use a digital image to stimulate your young writers to step beyond their immediate experience to write a story. National Geographic photographers have their images online at

A faster start to writing might stem from a subject closer to home. We can suggest that silly photos of people in the school community can engage students' interest and similarly stimulate creative writing. (We've caught on film our principal in a longhaired wig and our librarian with a frightened face. Our instructional technologist provided us with a self-portrait showing digitally manipulated and out-of-proportion parts of the body.)

Students hush instantly when an overhead of a classic Gary Larson or "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip is used to begin a language arts lesson. You can use these to teach vocabulary, draw inferences, or encourage creative thinking ("supply a new punch line"). Students who analyze the workings of really good comic strips are motivated to try it themselves and realize their power to use well thought-out imagery, irony, and concise language. They also see the value of silence and the words that are not spoken!

Teach the Literacies that Are Relevant to the 21st Century

In the keynote address to the East Asia Council of Overseas Schools conference in Bangkok (April, 2004) Heidi Hayes Jacobs asked educators, "If video is how we are communicating and persuading in this new century, why aren't more students writing screenplays as part of their schoolwork?" And, we wonder, is it possible that old, tired poetry units should be replaced by lessons on storyboarding and screenwriting? After all, out side of school walls, people are choosing media as the most effective way to communicate their ideas. The best presentations at professional conferences use video and digital imagery, charts, and graphs. The PowerPoint presentations that pull an audience in and hold attention are lean on text and abundant in graphics.

Communicating through imagery and video requires attention to certain visual structures that were expertly outlined at NECC in June 2004 by Australian Kym Nade baum, Apple Distinguished Educator. Background, characters, color, gestures, setting, spatial arrangement, dress, perception, light and message are essential elements in digital delivery. Nadebaum has developed rubrics for video products that are posted at

Teacher's Web Pages Extend Learning

When students record learning activities by using digicams and writing short narratives, resulting Web pages can be used to reinforce learning. These pages offer parents an opportunity to "see" what is going in the classroom. Parents often ask their children, "What happened at school today?" only to hear the reply, "Nothing." Now with photos captured on the Web or sent home to parents via an e-mail distribution letter with a photo attachment, the parents can see and ask more specific questions. The images become discussion points for the family and reflection opportunities for the students. Teachers can get "lift-off" on creating Web pages with a template and image folders that the instructional technologist readies for their use.

To conclude, we need to face the reality that many students today choose to watch the movie version of a book rather than to read the book itself. To record memories, they prefer taking a photo to writing in a diary. And they surf the Internet to look at the latest current-event images to "see" the story in full. As teachers, we have the responsibility to look at our instructional toolbox and make changes to keep pace with the way media engages and challenges learners. We can capitalize on technology to create visual learning experiences for our students that will be processed faster, remembered longer, and understood more thoroughly. All this said, it's clearly no longer just a Kodak moment.

Michael Lambert is a grade 3 and 4 teacher and Margaret Carpenter is grades 3-5 library media specialist and extended learning coordinator at the Hong Kong International School. They can be contacted electronically via their respective e-mail addresses: and



Visual Learning Case Studies

Editor's Note: We asked a number of vendors with products that tap into visual learning to point us toward some examples, as a complement to Michael Carpenter's and Margaret Lambert's feature. Here's what they sent.



Children entering kindergarten are often very visually alert, having honed their skills with hours of television watching. Software such as APTE's Photo Kit Junior uses this naturally acquired skill as a tool to teach reading and writing. With Photo Kit Junior, students combine their own photos with words to create authentic reading materials. In Patty Field's kindergarten classroom in Canton, Ill., children use digital cameras, computers, and Photo Kit Junior to document and record class events and activities, to illustrate their own story books, to answers questions, and to demonstrate knowledge.

Field says: "Pictures and photos are the visual bridge to understanding the printed word. I use digital photography to draw on children's own experiences. In our classroom, we use photos to create learning materials of very personal interest to the children. I have watched in amazement as my students work together to complete projects. Casey, who often struggles with traditional reading materials, definitely benefits from having reading content that is personalized with his own photos. I attribute the change I see in his reading, decision-making skills, and ability to prioritize ideas to the technology we include in our daily routine."

For more on Photo Kit Junior and a wide range of other APTE products, visit



Philadelphia's Clara Barton Elementary School is a multi-ethnic, multiracial K-4 school that, with the help of Olympus, introduced digital photography into its Mentally Gifted (MG) program. The benefits of visual learning have since become evident throughout the school's curricular activities, because once they learn how to photograph, the students take their knowledge much further.

The MG students use Olympus digital cameras in a curriculum initially developed by volunteer photography teacher Harris Sklar to learn about the art of photography. "The program uses photography to teach vital life skills," says Sklar. "The children practice writing and speaking about their photographs. They also learn to use photography as a means of documenting an event or location."

The children are also taught how to download the photographs to the computer, save, manipulate the photos using Adobe Photoshop elements, and print them. Using curricular activities similar to the lesson plans included in, an Olympus-sponsored free online curricular program written in association with faculty at Columbia University's Teachers College, students document their family life, their school, and their community. These images are incorporated into PowerPoint presentations that are used to share learning in a visual format (rather than a report) on multiple occasions—from parent-teacher meetings to classroom sharing.

Many of Clara Barton's teachers now also ask their MG students to visit, camera in hand, to document their classroom activities. As the number of visual learning projects at Clara Barton expands, Sklar and the MG teachers continue to focus on the importance of taking a good photograph. That focus has paid off as one of the MG students' photographs received honorable mention at Philadelphia's Manayunk Arts Festival.

For more on Olympus products and programs in support of visual learning, visit And don't miss!

Pinnacle Systems


April Payne, at Highland Ranch Elementary School in San Diego, was looking for a video-editing program that she and her first graders could use to make a movie showcasing the successful reading strategies of beginning readers. She tried Pinnacle Studio over her Christmas break, planning effective ways to teach and use the program. Then, on the first day back in class, she introduced Studio to her students and put them to work creating the movie. Under her guidance, the kids brainstormed ideas, wrote scripts, and filmed, edited, and produced Good Readers over a 5-day period. Students participated in teams that each featured a cinematographer, a director, and a spokesperson. Every student had an opportunity to try each role. As the week progressed, they all wrote scripts highlighting the six strategies of great readers. Next, they memorized their lines, practiced speaking loudly and clearly, filmed scenes, and then edited the footage with Pinnacle Studio DV 8. The following week, they were ready to view the finished product. The students had become not only good readers, but also good filmmakers. "We needed a program that was intuitive and that allowed me to continue teaching the rest of the class while small groups of students worked on a video together at a workstation. Pinnacle Studio 8 was the perfect tool," Payne says.

Although Payne and her students were able to make movie magic using Studio, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Most of the school district's PCs lacked the hardware and storage space necessary to handle video projects. In the end, she and her students found success using a Sony DCR-PC100 camera with a hot-shoe intelligent microphone and a Sony digital camera that her class won through the San Diego County Office of Education's Innovative Video in Education (IVIE) Awards program, as well as an IBM ThinkPad with an external Western Digital hard drive and a Gateway laptop with Firewire that Payne borrowed from a friend in the district's administrative office.

"After the hardware issues were settled, we were able to get into Studio. After creating the movie, I noticed that my students were far more aware of the strategies good readers use, and they applied them as they read new materials. Making this movie helped my students see these reading strategies through a new visual filter. Evidently, it was just what they needed."

For more information on Pinnacle Systems' products, visit And check out Payne's kids' video via the links from



At McElwain Elementary School in Denver, teachers are using Canvastic's graphics/text publishing tool for K-8 students to address the needs of their second language learners. They use pictures in their teaching to help students with comprehension and to enhance learning. The library media center has 16 eMacs that can be used by students cooperatively or independently, so for many projects, a class is divided and half of the students work on the computer while the other half works with the teacher-librarian doing research with books or an interactive writing or editing lesson.

This year, third graders studying the water cycle as part of their unit on weather created colorful diagrams to show the cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation—required learning as one of the Colorado state science standards. The diagrams created using Canvastic were displayed on bulletin boards in the hallways of the school, enabling many students in other grades to read the labels and learn about the water cycle.

For more on Canvastic's publishing tool, visit Head straight for the Community/Idea Exchange at to see lesson plans from teachers and examples from both students and teachers that press Canvastic's software into the service of visual learning.



In Canby, Ore., kindergartners are writing their own books and taking them home to read to their parents! Sounds impossible for kids so young, but a visual learning software tool is helping the students use pictures and symbols to paraphrase the stories their teacher reads in class, so they can "read" them to their parents after school.

"To help students learn to read and write, we need to get them excited and help them make a personal connection with the story," says Jennifer Gingerich, district technology trainer for the Canby School District. The youngsters are getting extra reading and writing help from Kidspiration, a software program that students in grades K-5 use to place pictures in web diagrams and to organize information and build strong thinking skills.

For example, in Pattie Monte's kindergarten classroom, the students listen to Monte read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Then Monte has the children mimic Brown Bear, asking them to name the animals they see, just like the bear. She then takes them to the computer lab, where each student uses Kidspiration to create a web diagram to represent what they saw.

First, the students write their names at the center of the web. Next, the children each select a picture of a child to represent themselves. Then they add pictures from the program's library of animal symbols, using the picture-to-topic options to label each animal. Finally, Monte prints the paraphrased stories so the kindergartners can take them home to read to their families.

Gingerich says the students love using Kidspiration to visually repeat what they've learned. "This activity helps to reinforce what the kids have read and to bring a part of themselves into what they are reading," she says.

For more on Inspiration's Kidspiration software, as well as its flagship Inspiration program, visit And try this link to learn more about what district technology trainer for the Canby School District Jennifer Gingerich has accomplished with Kidspiration:

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