Another Perspective on VTS: The Image as Text

The Image as Text: Using Art Images and VTS to Teach Developmental Reading Skills in College

By Margot Edlin, Assistant Professor, Queensborough Community College


Much has been written recently regarding the low success rates of students in community colleges, especially those enrolled in developmental courses. The question of how to improve the reading skills of under-prepared college freshmen has been a particularly difficult one, due to the unique needs and learning styles of this population of students.  At Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY), these students are placed into non-credit bearing developmental reading courses on the basis of their performance on a reading placement test.  There is also an expectation that, in addition to passing the course, they will pass a university-mandated exam in reading.  Students often languish in these classes. They suffer from a lack of engagement with the curricular materials, become bored and either withdraw before the semester is over or fail the class. It is imperative, therefore, for faculty who teach these students to look for engaging and empowering pedagogical techniques that will help these students acquire the academic reading skills they need to be successful in college.

A discussion about the teaching of reading in a VTS© newsletter may have one thinking to oneself: “how can visual literacy help?”  However, the Visual Thinking Strategies© method makes teaching reading a high-impact strategy that makes a direct connection to text by asking questions about art images that asks viewers to think critically about what they see and to ground their thinking in the “art/text” by asking them to explain what made them come to a particular opinion or conclusion about the piece. By engaging in conversation, the link between visual literacy and literacy is made. Art becomes the “text” and the discussion surrounding the art demonstrates the viewer’s comprehension of that text. The question “what is going on in this picture?”  requires the viewer to tell a story or provide an inventory of what they see. This is akin to providing a summary of a text or piece of literature. By paraphrasing what the viewer has seen in the work of art, the facilitator is validating their ideas, but also providing them with new or alternate vocabulary to describe what they have seen. By then asking what do you see that makes you say that?” the viewer is being asked to think critically about what they saw and discussed and provide an explanation of their view by basing it in the text, which in this case is a work of art. This “close looking” at a work of art is similar to asking students to refer back to the text in order to support their conclusions. Finally, when the facilitator asks “what more can you find?” it suggests that the “art/text” is open to ongoing interpretation, re-reading and re-thinking. There is the suggestion that with each “read” new information or interpretations can be found in the same way new information or insights can be gained upon each re-reading of a written text.

Paul D'Amato, Girl Reaching for a Rose

In my upper-level developmental reading class, I have used VTS© sessions as a lead-in to reading a particular text. I found the VTS© images and questions to be an excellent pre-reading exercise. By pairing images with carefully selected texts, I was able to provide a scaffold for the students to read and comprehend the text. One of the image/text pairings I utilized was the Paul D’Amato photo Girl Reaching for Rose, Boston and a selection from the novel The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. In the eponymous first chapter of the book, the young girl at the heart of the novel describes her new home in comparison to the places they lived before. Although the new house is not as nice as others in the area, she is proud of her home and is happy to live there. Similarly, the girl in the D’Amato photo seems quite happy in her home, although the signs of benign neglect show in her house and the one neighboring it. By engaging in a discussion of the photo first, the students make observations about the young girl, her appearance, her surroundings, and her reasons for trying to grab the rose. After bringing the conversation to a close, I ask students to read the first chapter of the novel, The House on Mango Street. I do not make any comparisons to the image we just discussed other than to ask them to think about the questions as they read and be prepared to discuss the story after they have finished reading. I also ask them to write a summary of the text using reformatted versions of the VTS© questions, substituting the words “read” and “text” where appropriate to frame their responses. What transpires is always wonderful to observe. Students almost always make comparisons between the text and the photographic image, even without prompting. When they make observations about what they read, I ask them “what did you read that makes you say that?” That question helps them go back into the text to find the specific sentence or sentences that helped them draw their conclusions. It also helps me, as their instructor, to gain insight into their thinking, thus making it easier for me to correct their errors and to redirect their thinking. I am, thus, able to assist them in their comprehension of a text.

I had another positive experience pairing an image of the painting Chinese civilization: Women’s occupations with the short story The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin. In the story, a young woman, Mrs. Mallard believes that her husband has died in a train wreck. She grieves briefly, but gradually grows aware of the freedom she will have as a widow and begins to celebrate her newfound freedom. Her happiness and freedom are snatched from her as her husband enters through the front door, having missed the train that was reported to have crashed and killed him. She, of weak heart, dies immediately at the sight of him. The students have a great deal of difficulty understanding this story, as it forces them to make many inferences and think critically about a woman’s role in society at the turn of the century. By first engaging in a VTS© session about the painting, the students gain insight into the story. They make many comparisons between the serious, and possibly forlorn woman in the painting. They liken the woman’s posture and expression as she sits before a mirror to the posture Mrs. Mallard had sitting in her room mourning her presumably deceased husband. More importantly, the picture allowed students to share prior knowledge that their classmates and I may not have known they possessed. Students of Chinese descent stated that the woman in the painting was married based on her dress and hairstyle. They described arranged marriages and how woman were often placed in a subservient role to their husbands. This helped all the students to make sense of Mrs. Mallard’s joy at the notion that she would be free of her husband and be able to live for herself, despite her sadness at his passing. It also helped to illuminate for them the reason she died when seeing him walk through the door. Without having facilitated a VTS© discussion prior to reading this story, I would have had to engage in a lecture about many of the concepts students discovered on their own during the discussion.

By the end of the term, after having engaged in ten of these art/text pairings in addition to traditional reading instruction and practice, students reported that they “heard” me asking the VTS© questions while they were reading the passages on their exit exam. This method was so promising, that I plan to do it again with my reading class in the fall term.

Little and Felten argue that, as educators, helping students make sense of visual images is an important part of our work in the classroom. They state that “just as we continue to cultivate students’ reading and writing skills, we also need to help our students become proficient at… analyzing …visual forms” (6).  They also state that visual literacy encourages habits of mind such as “the ability to think critically, and even to think deeply and deliberately, about the images and information they receive from a myriad of sources,” (46).  In short, they argue that visual literacy is an essential 21st century skill that every person should possess and one that “functions as disciplinary training, as an introduction to the ways experts in a field look at a particular image, graph or photograph” (47).  In other words, visual literacy functions as a skill that will provide students with a variety of the forms of literacy skills they will need to sustain themselves throughout their lives. I think that pairing the VTS© method with a variety of texts has a tremendous impact for teaching the reading and critical thinking skills that college students need to be successful.



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