Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Behind the Books: Getting Ready to Research, Part 3

Because it’s difficult to create authentic, self-driven research experiences for early elementary students, I’m in the midst of sharing a series of activities that will allow K-2 students to develop research skills, such as visual literacy and information literacy, without actually doing research. As a result, they’ll be ready to start doing authentic research in third grade.

Last week, I focused on using reading alouds as a foundation for teaching visual literacy. You can scroll down and read that post if you like. Today, I’m going to continue my discussion.

A few years ago, I attended a summer seminar at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA. The instructor introduced us to Visual Teaching Strategies, a method developed by the museum community to help children think critically about fine art.
The Carle’s workshop emphasized using the method to explore the illustrations in fiction picture books, but I’ve discovered that the method works equally well with nonfiction picture books.
When I work with students, I like to use art from four books I’ve written--A Place for Turtles, Feathers: Not Just for Flying, When Rain Falls, and Under the Snow. Here are some suggestions for implementing the method in your classroom or library.
After selecting a few illustrations to share with the class, cover the words, as shown below, so that students’ minds can roam free. When the class is settled on the rug, show the first image and encourage students to look at it closely. Then ask: “What do you think is happening in this picture?” When a child has answered, follow up with: “What do you see that makes you say that?”
As you guide an active class discussion with these two simple questions (and possibly adding "What more do you see?" if students are having trouble digging in), students build observation and communication skills while developing confidence in their ability to construct meaning from visuals. To facilitate the conversation and promote full-class engagement, help students stay focused on the topic, restate students’ comments and ideas, and encourage the class to give students the time they need to formulate and express their ideas.
As students discuss this image, they say the bird could be hunting or taking a bath or getting a drink of water or taking off or landing. And they're all right. Any of these  things could be true. Without the words, we just can’t tell.
This is where the Visual Teaching Strategies method ends, but I’ve added another step that I think makes the activity even more powerful. As the class discussion winds down, I reveal the text, as shown below, and read it aloud.
Then I ask the children a key question to tap into students critical thinking skills: “Would you have drawn something different if you were the illustrator?” The students usually make some great suggestions.
If time is limited, I move on to the next illustration, but if possible, I invite students to create the illustration they envision. Here are some samples:
This child thinks the fish and frog should be in the image. Good idea!

This child wants to see the bird actually eating its prey. She also added the sun, so it's more obvious that the dark green area in the foreground is a shadow rather than pollution. Another good idea. 

Visual literacy and critical thinking are two important skills that students need to conduct research, and this fun activity is a great way to help them start evaluating the words and pictures in the books they read.

What’s next in getting ready for research? Now the students have a background in visual literacy and critical thinking, next week I’ll discuss helping students learn to extract key content-area information as they read fiction and nonfiction picture books. Stay tuned.


  1. This is a great idea! Thanks for sharing, Melissa.

  2. I love it! Love the active discussion and conversation skills that the students are able to build along the way!