Cognitive tools: Images

What kind of images do you mean?

The main point is that by “images” we do not mean pictures. Rather, we mean those constructs we form in our minds in response to things we hear or read––images in the mind generated by words. Consider:

Jean arrived home after a long day in the office, exhausted by the dreary drive along the freeway. She made some tea and walked down the lawn past the flowerbeds to the Japanese garden. She sat on the steps of the teahouse, delighting in the curve of the tall bamboo as it bent gracefully over the pond, and counted three new yellow water-lily flowers that had opening during the sunny day. The koi swam towards her, mouths opening and closing, demanding food. She tossed a handful on the water, and sipped her tea, watching the stream wind through the stones and fall with water’s irregular music into the pond.

We seem unable not to form, however fleetingly, images in our minds in response to such words: a flash of a crowded freeway, a lawn through flowerbeds, the pond and its water lilies, pass easily through our minds. The images are not simply quasi-pictures, as you may also have formed an image of the sound of water falling. The images formed while listening to or reading a passage like the above will be different for each of us. When we provide a physical picture, we limit greatly this construction of our unique images, and provide the same one for everyone, and, in school, for each student.


This is not to say that we should avoid pictures! But it is to say that constantly providing pictures and allowing little practice for this generation of our own unique mental images is likely to discourage this aspect of the development of the imagination. TV and video games constantly provide children with stereotypical and somewhat clichéd pictures. We are not running a campaign against such things, but do want to emphasize the alternative form of image generation to which we may give too little attention.

Below is a picture of a place that could have been referred to in the above description, without Jean sitting on the steps looking into the pond with her cup of tea. The specific image is likely quite different from what you may have formed in your mind—unfortunately perhaps you may have looked at the picture before or as you read the words above, and the picture tends to constrain what you imagine. So it is the sense of “image” that is tied up with the imagination that we want to discuss here, and explore its potential for literacy teaching.

Making mental images from words can be of immense emotional importance, influencing us throughout our lives. In societies saturated by visual images, such as those of all western and most eastern countries today, it is perhaps increasingly important to allow students space to learn to generate their own mental images. We can easily forget the potency of our unique images generated from words. Often the image can carry more imaginative and memorable force than can the concept. Together they can be even more potent. Attention to the use of mental images (as distinct from external pictures) should play a large role in teaching and learning.

Give me a couple of quick example of how I might easily teach about, and help students practice using, images in literacy classes.

1. How can images help us teach students to distinguish homophones, like “to,” “two,” and “too,” and learn to spell each correctly? In this case we can invent three friends, whose names are To, Two, and Too. We can invent a game in which each of the friends’ personalities is somehow captured by their name. The children can be engaged in thinking about how the different forms of the words might capture their personalities.

Introducing “Too”

Too is clearly very big, because he eats “too” much, he is also “too” tall, is clearly hyperactive, and always going beyond what is sensible. Unlike everyone else in his group, even when he includes the letter “o” in his name, he has to include two “o”s. (Deriving a personality from a name may seem a little bizarre, but it is a task which relies on an energetic use of metaphor and children can usually do this more easily than adults. Try this task with young students; you’ll likely be surprised!)

Introducing “Two”

Two obviously does everything in pairs when she can—she has two cell-phones, two bikes, and is obviously over careful, in case she loses one thing she always has a backup. It is clear from the spelling of her name that she really wishes she were a twin, as she’s managed to put a “w” in her name, which is half way to “twin,” even though there is nothing in her name that the “w” sounds like.

Introducing “To”

To is constantly on her way elsewhere, or pointing to different things and places. She’s clearly never satisfied with where she is or what she’s got: a bit of a complainer. She’s in so much of a hurry that, unlike the other two, she’s dropped the third letter from her name, and is the slimmest from all her hurrying.

Students can be encouraged to imagine characters based on the meaning of the word, in such a way that they will likely remember them easily thereafter. They might makes sketches of Too, Two, and To that reflect their characteristics. To see a more elaborate version of this idea, dealing with “There,” “Their,” and “They’re,”.

Once the class has developed three distinct characters who capture something about the differences between “To,” “Two,” and “Too,” the teacher can begin to explore these differences in composing, perhaps with the students, a story in which all three figure. The trick would be to try to build into the story the deeper understanding of language and literacy that can come from grasping how the same sound can perform three different linguistic roles, depending on context, and how literacy enables the eye to see immediately which of the three is intended. Part of the plot could involve the three characters’ irritation at constantly being confused, even though they think the differences among them are obvious if people only knew them.

2. Some years ago, Sylvia Ashton-Warner developed educational ideas for children that built on the idea that each child had her or his own particular concerns at any one time, and one could find “key words” that would reflect these concerns (1972).  She was very successful in encouraging learning, and particularly literacy-based activities, by building them around the students’ key words. Likewise, we can draw on images that are important for students—powerful images from their own experience, or of loved relations, or important events, or from stories they have heard about princesses and kings, magic lands, monsters, witches, or whatever.

Nearly always, vividly recalled images are connected with emotions. Throughout the first few weeks of school, teachers should find a few minutes to spend with each student, one-on-one, and discuss images that are particularly powerful for them. The teacher and student might identify key words that help capture the images to some degree. These words can then be written down for the student as their special words that evoke their special images.

Further work on literacy skills might be based on those key words as long as they remain powerful for the student, elaborating them by searching for synonyms, adding prefixes and suffixes that add to their flexibility in usage, ordering them alphabetically, and so on.  Children’s own keywords, derived from their own powerful images, provide a motivational factor and meaning often absent in contextless exercises. Many of our teachers began the first writing exercises by drawing on these engaging images and their  “keywords”.

How else can we employ images in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “images” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

Some concluding words about images

In pre-service programs for teachers, considerable time is spent on equipping students with techniques for organizing content, and helping them to clarify concepts. Very little time is spent discussing the power of images in communicating and teaching, and there are few techniques for systematically using images in teaching. Guided Imagery is one such. This usually involves the teacher, or a recorded voice, taking the students verbally to some different time and place and describing the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations. Guided Imagery can be a powerfully effective technique in many circumstances. What we mean by the use of images here, however, is on a much smaller scale. It does not require relatively elaborate preparations or set-piece performances. Rather it requires the teacher to be more consistently conscious of the array of vivid images that are a part of every topic and to draw on them consistently in vivifying knowledge and concepts.

If teaching about the earthworm, for example, the teacher can augment the facts about its senses and structure by evoking for students images of what it would be like to slither and push through the soil, hesitantly exploring in one direction then another, looking for easier passages, contracting and expanding our sequence of muscles, segment by segment, sensing moisture, scents, grubs or whatever. That is, as we learn about the anatomy of earthworms we can also feel something of their existence by means of images that evoke analogs of their senses. If teaching about flowers, images of emerging from the cold ground, away from the dark and heavy earth, pushing towards light, bursting with a kind of ecstasy in the warmer air, turning with passion towards the sun, the rush of sap, the horror of returning cold, the shriveling back to underground. Constantly evoking affective images will help both to make the content memorable and, relatedly, meaningful in terms with which children are familiar.

Early understanding, then, is significantly more imagistic than is common for forms of understanding built on literacy. As such, because of the affective charge associated with images, it is in some ways more vivid and more closely tied in with emotions. When teaching young children, then, we would obviously be prudent to bear in mind this powerful imagistic and affective capacity for grasping the world.

So we might find it useful in our planning for teaching to spend time reflecting on what vivid and emotionally charged images are crucial to the topic. By “emotionally charged” we don’t mean that they should be pulse-pounding, heart-throbbing images all the time, especially when what you’re trying to teach is proper comma use. Rather, the emotional component of the image should be such as to engage our feelings, even if in only a small degree.