Teaching Reading Comprehension Skills Using Visual Arts

Tara Carpenter
Jayme Gandara


The authors, an associate professor in art education and a school facilitator, explain how teaching with visual images can make literacy skills easier for students who struggle with reading or with learning the English language. They include illustrated lesson plans for teaching students how to identify a main idea with supporting details and how to form inferences.

How can a teacher effectively teach reading comprehension skills to students who can't yet read? There are many comprehension skills that children need to be taught, but because they are filtered through the written word, not all student can access them. Students who are slow in learning to read or are English language learners struggle to learn comprehension skills with written texts. This article shares two examples of lesson ideas that utilize visual texts rather than written texts in literacy lessons.

Visual texts are integral to everyday life for today's youth. "Youth live in visually saturated environments, and . . . visual texts are not just useful tools for learning about the world; increasingly they are the social world and need to be treated as subject matter in the classroom" (Werner, 2002, p. 401). Because visuals are a familiar symbol system and don't require language decoding or translation skills, they are readily accessible to most students. We suggest that teachers separate the skills they are teaching from natural barriers like reading fluency levels by using a medium that most students can easily access¾like visual images. Once students reach a basic understanding of the skill, they may extend the practice to include leveled texts in small groups.

Providing Alternative Expression

After a particularly challenging beginning to the school year, with students who performed far below grade level and acted out due to frustration, Jayme turned to alternative measures to reach her troubled learners. She dedicated teaching time to basic drawing skills, incorporated simple art projects, and let her students annotate their notes with pictures. The changes were simple but the results were dramatic. Suddenly her students were totally engaged. They were being assigned a task they could do competently, and they were excited. The confidence boost they gained from this experience extended into other subjects. "I was good at that, so maybe I'll be good at this, too" was the reasoning process. Students worked harder and thus achieved more positive results.

A boy who had been non-verbal until the year before and could barely write started drawing pictures to illustrate entire science lessons. He would then explain his drawings to Jayme after the lesson. Another boy, the most active, aggressive kid in the class, became one of the most attentive students. This trend continued throughout the year. Jayme's students became better behaved, worked harder, and made unanticipated progress when taught skills in the context of visual art. They found a new confidence in themselves and grew exponentially.

The power of arts integration is not limited to enjoyable creative add-on lesson accessories to entertain students. Arts integration can be the only way to reach some students with major challenges, as it translates concepts and skills into a language they can understand.

The lessons that follow utilize visual images to teach the literacy skills (a) finding the main idea and (b) making inferences. Each has suggestions of specific visual texts that can be used. However, the lessons could also be adapted for use with a variety of other visuals. Though geared towards students in grades 3-5, they could easily be adapted for younger or older students.

Identifying Main Ideas and Supporting Details

"One strategy learners can use to overcome [challenges in comprehension] is to identify the topic and main ideas discussed in the reading, which will enable them to distinguish the important information from the unimportant" (Naidu, Briewin, & Embi, 2013, p. 60).

Students can be introduced to main ideas and details with visual texts. To begin learning this skill, students will explore big ideas supported by details in a painting by Norman Rockwell. Rockwell paintings are effective for this lesson because his images, most of which were magazine covers, were meant to easily communicate big ideas well developed (supported) with purposeful details.

Sample Lesson: Personal Statement in Visual Form

Learning Goals

  • Students will identify the main idea and supporting details in a visual text.
  • Students will identify messages communicated by an image.

Core Standards

Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

Determine messages communicated by an image.

This painting by famed painter and illustrator Normal Rockwell is titled Tripple Self Portrait. Because it communicates so many aspects of his character, it was chosen for the cover of the book Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait, pictured above.

1. Show students the image and have them look at it for only 30 seconds.

2. Hide the image, then ask, "What was that a picture of?" Have students describe what they saw in 10 words or less.

3. Explain to the students that the main idea is what a picture or a written text is mostly about: what can be seen and understood by looking quickly at the overall picture. It's the BIG Idea. In the example of Triple Self Portrait, the big idea, or main idea, of the work is that the artist is looking in a mirror and painting a picture of himself.

4. Have students look at the picture again, and this time leave it visible while discussing it. Ask students to list as many details as they can.

For example, students might notice that there are several other self-portraits from other artists on the side of his easel. He also has several small practice sketches. They might notice that Rockwell is painting himself younger than he appears to be in the mirror. They could also notice that he has paints and brushes scattered on the floor.

5. Explain, "These are the details¾ the smaller parts that make up the bigger picture or story. Specify what those detail show:

These are the facts, statements, examples, explanations¾anything that adds to the main idea but isn't quite as important. They help explain and describe the main idea. In the details that we notice in Rockwell's self-portrait, we learn a lot more about him as an artist. We learn that he thinks it's important to look at the work of other artists, that he tries out compositions before making a big one, that he wants to represent himself as younger, and that he's messy. There are many other details that students could find and explore in this image.

6. To reinforce the skill of finding main ideas and supporting details in a text, you may show and explore additional images.. This guided practice allows students to further develop their skills.

Sample Lesson: History Told Through Visual Text

In 1962, six-year-old Ruby Bridges, enrolled by her parents, walked into a segregated school in New Orleans, Louisiana, accompanied by U.S. Marshalls. In doing so, she walked into an arena of bitter prejudice, ethnic hatred, and unrestrained human emotion¾and eventually into the history of American Civil Rights. Psychiatrist Robert Coles, who counseled Ruby throughout that traumatic year, wrote her story in a book for children. His illustrator, George Ford, created this cover photo to help other children understand what Ruby experienced. Invite the students to look at Mr. Ford's picture and see what he is telling us about Ruby's challenges and her attitude.

  1. Have them look at the image for only 10 seconds.
  2. Hide the image and have the children describe what they saw in 10 words or less. Remind them that this is the main idea or "big idea" the artist wants all children to know.
  3. Have them group-list details that convey (support) this idea. Discuss how each detail helps viewers to better understand the main idea.

They might notice the expression on Ruby's face and on the faces of people in the crowd, the U.S. Marshalls straining to hold the people back, the size and obvious weight of the doors, the sign to keep this a white school. When they mention that Ruby was carrying a book bag, you might ask what this shows about Ruby's attitude toward going to school. You might mention that the lunch box was significant because threats had been made to poison Ruby if she went to the school, so she was not allowed to eat anything at school that she hadn't brought from home.

Photographs show that Ruby was not wearing a white dress on that day, yet this illustrator (and some others who have drawn or painted the scene) chose to put her in a white dress. You could ask the children why they think the artists might have done this.

Making Inferences

In a longitudinal study, Oakhill and Cain (2012) found that "early inference skills are causally related to the development of reading comprehension" (p. 111). Inferencing is an abstract concept that can be difficult for students to grasp when applied to written text. It is, however, something that is done regularly as they interact with the world. Visual text can help students connect the skills they already have to a new medium. 

Lesson: Images That Take You Beyond What You See

Learning Goals

  • Students will identify the positive and negative spaces in an artwork.
  • Students will solve riddles using inferences.

Core Standards

Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

Interpret art by referring to contextual information and analyzing relevant subject matter, form characteristics, and media use.

  1. Show the students the image on this book cover. Ask students leading questions:

What do you think this book is about? What is the boy looking at? How do you think the window was broken? How do you think he feels?

These questions should lead students from making observations to adding information based on their own experiences and other clues (i.e., making inferences). It can be particularly helpful to ask students why they came up with the answers they did.

2. Explore the idea of information that is given and information that has to be inferred¾or figured out from clues.

3. Help children understand that inferencing occurs when they notice the difference between positive and negative space in a visual image. Positive space makes statements; negative space requires viewers to focus on what they cannot see. Have students practice identifying the positive and negative space in simple examples as shown below. 

Explain to children that many items emphasizing negative space consist of only two colors. The positive space is the dominant color—the negative space is the other. This can result in a silhouette effect, as in the computer privacy symbol. The positive space shows the figure of the man seated at his computer; the negative space is the gold background that emphasizes the shape of his figure.

Point out to children how sometimes positive and negative space are blended in a complex artistic design, as in this cover of a book on design. Focusing on the positive space (the white) makes you see one design, and focusing on the negative space (the black) brings out another—just as interesting and pleasing, but entirely different. Help them understand that this is like inferencing: They must look beyond the obvious.

4. Once that basic concept is mastered, show students the above drawing, from the cover of another book in which an artist describes his work. It consists of sketchy outlines with a lot of negative space. Ask the children if they can figure out what kind of place the artist is drawing. Ask them how they can tell. The process of making inferences involves the viewer more personally in the artist's experience.

Show students the above version of the picture. The artist has filled in some of the negative space to give a clearer view of the scene. Ask them to share which details now make the picture easier to interpret. Ask them which picture they like better—assuring them that there is no correct answer.

5. Review with the students that what they have done as they have examined these pictures is inferencing: combining what you know with what you see to make a good guess about something the text doesn't tell you.

You may give students a sentence structure to follow when crafting their answers: For example, "Because I see ___________ and I know___________________I can infer______________________."

Extension into Reading

Once students are comfortable making inferences based on visual information, transition into written text. Beginning with riddles allows students to interact with a simple text that is less overwhelming than a full passage.

Suggest that students use the sentence structure you gave them as they figure not their answer.

Continue with more riddles, then increase the length and complexity of the text until students are reading and making inferences on grade-level texts.

Extension into art making

Have students write a short paragraph about an extreme fictitious event (such as an elephant breaking into a school). Then have them create an overall image of its aftermath, including some of the details. Afterward have students trade images and try to infer what the extreme event was.


Literacy skills can be effectively taught to a wide variety of students through visual texts. This is especially helpful for those who are behind their peers in reading ability or are still learning English. As Jayme has experienced in her own fourth grade class, when instruction is integrated with visual images, students become more engaged and are able to grasp concepts that may elude them with other teaching methods. Incorporating visual texts in lessons and allowing students to respond in visual ways can make important core literary concepts accessible to all students.


The sample lesson plans may be adapted to teach different literacy skills (for example, comparing and contrasting) or may be adapted with different imagery. A set of free image posters is available for educators at the Springville Museum of Art. Also many images are available online. Google Image Search is readily available and can be filtered for high quality images. ArtsEdge from the Kennedy Center also has a wealth of images along with other education resources.  

Tara Carpenter is an assistant professor teaching art education at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Jayme Gandara is the facilitator at Canyon Crest Elementary School in Provo, Utah. She previously taught the fourth and fifth grades.


Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2017). Preparing America's students for success. English language arts standards, reading: Literature, Grade 4, 1. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RL/4/1/

Naidu, B., Briewin, M., & Embi, M. (2013). Reading strategy: Tackling reading through topic and main ideas. English Language Teaching, 6(11), 60-64.

National Coalition for Core ArtsStandards. (2014). National core arts stamdards. Retrieved from http://www.nationalartsstandards.org/

Oakhill, J. V., & Cain, K. (2012). The precursors of reading ability in young readers: Evidence from a four-year longitudinal study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 16(2), 91-121.

Werner, W. (2002). Reading visual texts. Theory & Research in Social Education, 30(3), 401-428.

Cover Images

Adams, N. (Director). (1996). Norman Rockwell: An American portrait [Video documentary cover]. USA: View Video.

Bothwell, D., & Mayfield, M. (1968). Notan: The dark-light principle of design. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Burnham, G. (Illustrated by M. Williams). Broken glass. Alpharetta, GA: Booklogix.

Coles, R. (Illustrated by G. Ford). (1995). The story of Ruby Bridges. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Watson E. W. (1983). Creative perspectives for artists and illustrators. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.