Changing Our Thinking: Using Pictures While Reading

Changing Our Thinking: Using Pictures While Reading

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing young readers using pictures in stories as they read.

What We Used to Think

Checking the pictures in stories used to be seen as almost cheating when reading the stories. I remember as a child thinking that looking at the pictures was meant for after reading the words. Recently a parent was in my classroom reading a story but refused to show students the pictures saying they would only pay attention to the pictures and not the words. Not only were the kids disappointed they missed an opportunity to use the pictures to help them build an understanding of the text as the story was read aloud. 

Pictures are in texts for a reason. They support the reader to make meaning as they work through a text. To not allow a student access to pictures is to inhibit their understanding of the text. Let’s explore this shift in thinking even further.

Text Levels and Pictures

When a child begins to read at lower levels the entire story is in the picture. If the line of print says The car is blue, on the page is a picture of a blue car. The next page says the car is orange and a picture of an orange car is on the page. This is because children at this level need the illustration to support them as readers. To not have the illustration would mean that they can’t decode the text. 

As children move up in levels the picture support within text gradually fades away. As students know more and more words they use the pictures for decoding less and less. Sometimes authors may use the illustrations to add in bits of the stories that aren’t being told through the words. Here are a few examples of texts at different levels and a description of the picture support at that level. 

Level A

At a level A kids are just beginning to develop their reading skills. They are learning that books are read from left to right. They are learning that there is a relationship between sounds and letters. You’ll notice that text in a level A is limited. It consists of one line of print that a student would read using the support of their finger moving from word to word. These books often follow a pattern. In the book above the text follows the “Here is the ____” pattern as the students read about making this rabbit craft. You’ll notice that the words on the page match the picture exactly. Level A provides simple text and the narrative is completely told within the pictures. It is at this beginning level that readers are prompted to check the picture when they get stuck. All information included in the text is included in the illustrations. 

Level D

At a level D kids are finding more lines on a page than they were in previous levels. These readers use the pictures to attach meaning to the story and the picture still provides a high level of support to the story. You’ll notice that possible unknown words such as beach or water can be determined using support from the picture and perhaps initial letter sound. Students read a level D at the end of Kindergarten/beginning of first grade.

Level H

Notice how the demand of the reader has shifted from an D to a H. We expect kids to exit grade 1 around a level I/J. Within that first grade year the demands within the text levels change quite drastically. After level E the high level of picture support for a text begins to shift. In a level H there is moderate picture support. The story is mostly told through the text but the pictures help support readers and they decode a text. If a reader at a level H isn’t sure about the word climbed in the last line they can still use the picture to help their understanding. If they aren’t sure about the word stick, there isn’t much picture support to help in the decoding of that word. 

Level K

In a level K the use of pictures begins to shift. Now readers have many decoding strategies and are able to decode a high number of words with high accuracy. In a level K the text will sometimes demand that the reader search for information in the pictures or graphics. Readers who are still relying heavily on picture clues to decode words often get stuck at a level K because of the limited picture support. Prior to this level many other decoding strategies need to be taught to gradually release the reader from relying solely on picture support. A typical student will approach a level K text about half way through second grade. Notice how the pictures are still important and still provide support however the type of support provided has shifted. 

Level N

At approximately a level N the use of pictures in stories shifts again. Now there is little to no picture support for readers as they work through the text. This picture provides a bit of context. I see two people on a beach. I can tell that it is probably cold out and they are looking at something dirty. If you read the text on this page you will find out a lot more details. The pictures don’t provide support for decoding anymore and they don’t provide additional information to add on to the text. Readers at this level are now reliant on the text and the illustrations are there for enjoyment. Readers reach a level N at the beginning of grade 3. 

As you can see, pictures in stories help the reader build meaning or make sense of a story. If we don’t allow students access to pictures then we are taking away an essential coding system that helps readers work through a text. If students aren’t using the pictures as they read this should be a teaching point that is worked on. Text levels gradually release responsibility to the reader similar to the entire balanced literacy framework. We don’t need and shouldn’t cover up pictures as students work to read texts. 

Three Coding Systems- M, S, V

As readers work through text they use three coding systems: meaning, structure, and visual.

Meaning- Does this make sense?

Structure- Does this sound right? 

Visual- Does this look right?

Using Meaning

We want readers to be cross-checking and using all systems of coding but today we’re focused on meaning. When students are using meaning they are connecting the words in the text, noticing relationships and putting the story together. Illustrations in a text are a source of meaning as a reader decodes the text.

When a child makes meaning of a text they are not only using the words and the illustrations, they also draw upon other sources such as background knowledge and life experiences, sense of how a story works, experiences with books and language.

These meaning cues help readers to make sense of the text as they work through it. Students can use meaning to notice errors in a story when the plot no longer makes sense. They can make connections to their life and what they know using meaning. It helps them to hold the sense of story as they work through page after page of text. Meaning helps readers understand the main ideas in a text and the ideas that support those ideas. It helps them to read with fluency and expression. It even helps them swap out words for words that still make sense (mom for mother). Meaning is essential for a reader.


Please check out this post all about using prompts with children. 

As readers we constantly ask ourselves does this make sense? as we move through stories. We want our students to do the same. To do so we prompt our students for these missing skills. This is, of course, after we have already taught and modeled the prompt for them. To learn more about prompting please check out this post. Some prompts for meaning could be

-Did that make sense?

-Look at the pictures.

-What happened in the story when ______?

-What do you think it might be

-Can you reread this?

Additional Professional Reading

The Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum has been my guide for all things literacy for the past 7 years. This year I finally got the new updated version and I could not love it more. 

I know that it may seem costly but you will get your money’s worth out of it. Included in the text are sections about the various components of a balanced literacy framework, the expectations at each grade level, as well as a detailed description of each guided reading text level. These descriptions help me determine how to problem solve points of error amongst students, predict possible areas of struggle and extend the learning within each level. It is worth the investment! There isn’t a single day of teaching that I don’t reference it at least once. 

A preview can be found at the Heinemann link below.

Click here to view on Heinemann, Amazon US, and Amazon UK. None of these links are affiliate links. 

Changing Our Thinking

I hope this small shift in thinking is helpful in your classroom!

Leave a comment below about your shift in thinking, any questions you might have, and how this is working for you within the classroom.

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

The culture of math classrooms is rapidly changing to become more inclusive. The days of math classrooms revolving around the students who understand while letting the students who don’t understand get left behind are fading into the past. THANK GOODNESS! When I was a kid usually Kevin was the only student called on in math class. Kevin was a kid who got answers in math very quickly and always correctly. Kevin was working to complete 90 math problems on a time test in 60 seconds while I couldn’t even solve them all in 3 minutes. The days of only teaching Kevin while the rest of the class strung along are dwindling!

When kids see answer getting as the way math is done they not only miss out on the connections and the value of knowing how answers are formed but they also start to count themselves out of the game. Kids who can’t get answers quickly begin to not identify as a “math person.” On this topic, enough with this I’m not a math person mentality. Once I knew a teacher who referred to herself as a not mathy math teacher. What sort of message is this sending to students? Anyways… I’ve seen kids as young as kindergarten begin to count themselves out of the math game. That is not ok. Math is so much more than arriving at answers quickly. Please listen to Phil Daro’s Answer Getting in Math for further information against an answer-getting mindset.

How are you working to shift the culture of mathematics within your classroom? Let me know in the comments below!

Changing Our Thinking: Alligators in Math Class

Changing Our Thinking: Alligators in Math Class

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing using alligators eating bigger numbers to teach comparison.


The time has come in my class to begin comparing numbers using > and < but guess what? We’re not using alligators or crocodiles and there are no numbers are being eaten. Instead, the symbols are being taught in a way that students can understand. We’re using language to teach the symbols and trust me, it really isn’t too hard!

Why Alligators and Crocodiles?

As teachers we love doing things that are cute. Trust me, I love using cute things with my kids. Its fun, it makes the learning fun and it engages the kids. Cute teaching resources can come in handy. When comparing numbers it can be hard for kids to understand. Especially when we are using symbols that kids haven’t seen and symbols that look very similar.  So we did what we do best as teachers and we made up a cute story for kids to remember. The alligator eats the bigger number. It seems simple enough. The kids can get the answer and they can solve problems comparing numbers. But what if our cute teaching resources are undermining students’ understanding? Maybe not even at our grade level but at grade levels higher than us. 

What's The Problem?

When we tell kids to draw the symbol with the alligator eating the bigger number, we are only focusing on which one is larger. Every time the child draws the symbol in their head their thinking, “12 is bigger so the alligator eats the twelve” while writing 9 < 12. You’ll notice that the symbol drawn was less than but in the child’s mind they were focused on which one was greatest. Many of my students who learned the “alligator trick” will read this as 12 is greater than 9. While not incorrect, 12 is greater than 9, this should read 9 is less than 12. This is very confusing. Yes the answers are correct because they know how to draw the symbol but there is virtually no understanding of the symbol. Most kids don’t even realize that there are two different symbols!

Build Understanding

This year we began saying the words “is the same as” when we saw an equal symbol. Why not just use the word equal? Too often students understand the equal sign to mean the answer is coming next. That isn’t what the symbol means. 

The = symbol means that what is on the left is the same as what is on the right. 

Just shifting our language within the math classroom helped students gain a better understanding of the equal sign. According to the Common Core State Standards students in grade 1 should under the meaning of the equal sign. (1.OA.D.7) How many upper level students don’t realize that the symbol means that the expression on either side is equal, or the same?

We also switched up our equations so that sometimes there were answers that didn’t come after the equal sign. The equations we showed the students had the equal symbol all over from the very beginning of grade 1. Blanks were in different spots and answers were in different spots and the equal sign moved all around. This helps the kids see that equal really means the side on the left is the same as the side on the left.

This work ties in with the mathematical practice standard 6- attend to precision. Attending to precision doesn’t only mean paying attention to the problem and solving it accurately. It also is  using precise language when we talk about math. I highly recommend reading this Think Math! article about this standard. 

Use Language First

When it came time to compare two numbers this year we created three sentence strips.  We have already been using the phrase, “is the same as,” so it was not new to students. Once they had these three sentence strips, I had them build two numbers and choose which strip went in the middle. I reminded them that just like readers, mathematicians read left to right. 

To my surprise and joy they were able to start comparing numbers accurately from the very start. Some of my most struggling mathematicians found success in using the sentence strips. I was very excited to see where this was going to go. They were not only able to compare two numbers but they were also able to use the correct language while doing so! This is just what we want our kids to do! 

As we finished math class on this day, one of my students asked if he could guess what was coming next. Of course! He whispered, “I know there are symbols that go with these words. Is that what the blank space at the start of our sentence strips is for? Are we going to get to use the symbols?” 

Isn’t it a magical moment when kids predict where their learning is going and they are excited about it? Guess what, we were going to learn about the symbols next!

Then Teach Symbols... Relying on the language

After using the sentence strips to build our understanding of the language we use to compare two numbers we introduced the symbols to the class. You’ll notice that I put the symbols on post-it notes. This was done as a scaffold in case students need the symbols removed in order to practice longer without them. 

Before putting the symbols were in place, we had an understanding that in math we use symbols to represent certain words. They already knew the symbol = went with the words “is the same as” so adding two new symbols wasn’t to tricky. 

To introduce the symbols I wrote them on post its and placed them on my sentences strips. Then the class did the same. As they were drawing the symbols on to their post it notes I could hear a small buzz of observations. Many kids noticed that the symbol opens to the side that is greater and is closed on the side that is less. This isn’t a bad realization to have but it wasn’t their only knowledge of the symbols and how they work. 

As we compared numbers that day I noticed most students relying on the language and then matching the symbol with the language. They would look at a problem like 82 __ 45 and say “eighty two is greater than 45. Then they would get their sentences strips and match the strip to the problem. Finally writing the symbol on the line. 


What I've Learned

This is my first year as a grade 1 teacher. In the past I have taught second and third grade and my students have already come to me with the alligator story. Once you learn a trick it is hard to ever go back to reasoning. I wasn’t sure how this approach was going to go when I introduced it to my students. In fact, I waited a long time to even complete this post to see if this method of teaching symbols really even worked. Let me tell you, it did! Right now almost all of my students can compare two numbers using the symbols on their own. They now know which one means greater than and which one means less than. We still have our sentence strips to use in case we need them but the kids have eased themselves off of that scaffolding. 


One Last Word About Tricks

As a former Math Curriculum Leader I have a lot to say about tricks in math. So often we teach kids tricks because we think that the math is difficult and we want to make it easier. Or we learned with a trick and we really aren’t sure about the real math behind it. Math is built on reasoning. If you are able to connect knowledge and reason through a problem you can more than likely solve it. When we teach kids tricks oftentimes it eliminates reasoning. When we take away this reasoning we are limiting our students’ math potential. Mathematicians rely on reasoning more than anything else.

Next time you go to teach a math trick in your classroom can you ask yourself these questions?

-What mathematical properties does this trick rely on? If the trick doesn’t rely on any math but more of magic then it isn’t really teaching math at all.

-Is the mathematical reasoning eliminated through this trick? Math is built around reasoning and we don’t want to take this away from students. They don’t really have the right answer if they can’t reason through a justification.

-Is this trick just getting the right answer? Math is so much more than answer getting. Please check out Phil Daro on Answer Getting


Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Have you ever sat down and written your teaching philosophy? Do you know what your goals as an educator are in the classroom?

The most important skills we can give our students are the sort of skills that transfer outside the walls of our classrooms. Skills like knowing how to enter into a conversation. Noticing when someone isn’t having a great day and asking if you can do anything to help them. Knowing how to disagree with someone respectfully. Being able to work together with a wide variety of people. An understanding of making a compromise. Knowing how to listen to ideas and think critically about them. These are the skills that sometimes get left behind in the race to cover content. Kids won’t remember all the content you taught them but these sort of skills will stick with them for a lifetime.

My greatest goal in the first-grade classroom is independence. I don’t do things for students that they are capable of themselves. They need to problem solve situations before an adult will help them. Creating this independence sets them up for success when they are no longer in my classroom. When they are free to learn on their own time I know they can still achieve great things.

What are your thoughts on this quote? I’d love to hear them!

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom