Teachers Connect
Jul 11, 2017


How might Visual Thinking Strategies support close reading of science, social studies, mathematics or language arts texts?


  1. Rachael B says:

    Visual thinking strategies could be used with analyzing primary source material in a social studies class. For example if the source was a diary from a settlers life, students could extend their thinking past what is being told to them and into the paper type and writing instrument used and what that may tell them. Or about items the author is using and what clues about general life that could give.

    • Cynthia L. says:

      I think Dorothea Lange would work well with this strategy. I used something similar to coordinate with a history class. “White Angel Breadline” evoked a lot of interesting storytelling and conversation based off of my colleague’s discussion of the Great Depression.

  2. Angie C. says:

    I really like the VTS idea of making a comment or inference, supporting the idea with examples from the picture, and listening to other’s interpretations, in an open ended format. That, to me, is also something that can work very well in science lessons and in reading responses.

  3. Cynthia L. says:

    You might use excerpts or short readings of great characterization such as “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” by Alice Walker. Allow students to silently explore a text. I might use the term composition instead of story to connect the strategies.

    • Kristin R says:

      I think it’s really interesting to consider using VTS to think about written words, not just images / objects. I can see how it would really strengthen students’ reading skills.

    • Emily S says:

      While I think this is a good idea, I don’t know if reading excerpts would fall under VISUAL thinking. I don’t know if you could find rich enough book jackets to analyze instead or maybe a photograph that has the same feeling or mood as the text.

  4. Ashley L. says:

    In prek, I’m imagining that we might use the VTS questions and procedure to talk about social/emotional situations. For example, we might look at a picture of a child who is upset and use VTS to hear children’s ideas about why the child might be upset and what they and others can do to help the subject calm down.

    • James Proctor says:

      I really like this idea. I think it’s simple and allows room for students to used their real world experiences to express their views of the social/emotional situations.

    • Alicia R. says:

      This would also be a useful application of this tool for older children who have challenges with understanding or connecting with facial expressions or social situations. cool ideal :)!

    • Rachael B says:

      Using VTS in this way could also be adapted for older students. These questions could be asked to help build empathy towards a character (in history or in a novel, etc) that they otherwise may have dismissed or disliked. Or for understanding the motivations of a characters actions.

      • Jennifer M. says:

        I wonder about extending this to conversations around bullying, bystander, victim–powerful images could be used to generate conversations about what might have happened right before and after the image. This could lead to groups doing a role play, writing a script, staging the next photo, or even making a video of various outcomes that might be considered helpful/ productive. Could do this upper ele-HS???

        • Emily S says:

          Wow this whole thread is fascinating. How about using VTS to teach students about cleaning up the classroom? “What’s going on in this picture?” There are supplies on the table, chairs not pushed in, students standing at the door…

    • Kathy A. says:

      I think this is a great idea. If we were using “pure” VTS it may be good to make sure that there was enough information in the picture to indicate why the child might be upset. It might also be good to look for pictures that include a possible resolution to the problem. I think I for one, might otherwise be tempted to continue on to inquire as to ways that a problem could be resolved even if it weren’t in the picture. I know that wouldn’t be strictly VTS. However, if VTS were used on a regular basis in other capacities in the classroom, I think that children would be learning to speak about pictures including pictures of social/emotional situations in a meaningful way regardless of whether “pure” VTS was being used.

  5. Alicia R. says:

    You could use this idea of discussion focused around the three basic questions in almost any subject area. In math you can present a number (or equation) written in various ways (or that show relationships between numbers) and ask them to reflect on what they see ( there is a book called number talks that I use that is very closely connected to the VTS format). Learning to explain and talk about numbers is not always taught, but holds a great deal of value with the depth associated with common core math standards. I use this as a hook into many math lessons over the course of the year.
    The students ability to talk about how or why they solved a problem a certain way has improved exponentially.

    • Alison Y. says:

      I hadn’t thought of the VTS method being used to teach higher level thinking in math class before, but your explanation makes a lot of sense. I know math talk is becoming the norm in all grade levels, starting at kindergarten, if not before. This is a new idea for me- thanks!

    • Lynn W says:

      There are a lot of artists who work with multiples, repeating an element over and over. The Wonder exhibit at the Renwick last year had a lot of artists creating work this way. This is a very natural math/art combo. It also works very well to have students create their own multiple art works, individually or collaboratively.

      • Jen S. says:

        Putting numbers or an equation on the board and talking, VTS style is something I would like to see. Is it very much the same? Are there any wrong answers? As the librarian, I always want to integrate more math into my lessons/projects/storytimes, but I find it challenging to do anything ‘outside the box.’

  6. James Proctor says:

    I think VTS lends itself perfectly to social studies. I teach Virginia State history and we examine a ton of documents, paintings, illustrations and maps. VTS supports the close reading or viewing of primary source documents in that the 3 questions provided students with the opportunity to experience each piece and to share their interpretations of the pieces as we move through history.

    • Debbie S. says:

      It might also be interesting to think about how a painting or other piece of art reflects the perspective of the creator or might reveal stereotypical notions. This might happen after using a painting with VTS and then following up with a reading that revealed a different perspective or by using two different pieces of art with VTS and then reflecting on them both following a VTS analysis.

    • Jen S. says:

      Yes! James did you ever take the Library of Congress course on primary docs? I did years ago, and I have some of their materials. I have though of them a lot this week. I need to dig them out and see how/who I could try a VTS discussion w/ using some of those primary sources. I also have the most beautiful collection of American artwork from a grant a teacher did, called Picturing America. I hang them in the library, they’re meant to be checked out but as I’m discovering, art is not often the starting point for many teachers. I think this (VTS w/ primary docs or artwork) is something I will offer to model at the start of units next year.

  7. Alison Y. says:

    In language arts, I’ve seen it used in this way: Picture book illustrations are copied by the teacher in advance of a read aloud with no text showing; a few selected images (important to the plot) are projected and discussed whole group using a variation of VTS; all picture book images are copied in color and used as a manipulative for students- they sit in a circle to pass the images around and discuss what they see/notice/think in pairs; teacher brings the class back whole group and the class assembles a timeline (or few) for what they predict will happen in the story book; the book is finally read whole group; revisions and comparing/contrasting are made whole group. It’s a deeper way to enjoy picture books, even as an adult!

    • Kristin R says:

      Yes, I have seen and tried this too. I think its particularly useful for very early readers, since one of the first skills we teach in formal reading instruction is to look at the pictures for meaning and clues about the words in the text. I also appreciate that closely observing illustrations helps students at all language levels access and understand a story.

    • Kathy A. says:

      I agree language arts/literacy seems like a great way to use VTS for early childhood classes, particularly preschool. I have seen a teacher use a big book on an easel and put butcher paper over the front of the cover illustration. Then each day she would tear a bit of the butcher paper away and the children would tell what they thought was going on in the section that they saw. Perhaps it wasn’t “pure” VTS because they also made predictions about the story, but they did tell what in the picture or section of picture made them think a certain way. After a few days the entire cover was revealed. I believe that with or without the butcher paper over the cover, teachers could use VTS to discuss the cover illustration of a book in a meaningful way.

    • Ashley L. says:

      That sounds awesome, and I’m excited to try it this year!

      I’m curious now how this format fits in, or not, with the ideal use of VTS. Do students (in pure VTS) learn about the artist’s intent after their considerations (like children will learn about the author/illustrator’s intent in the reading), or is intent “supposed” to remain a mystery?

  8. Emily S says:

    I agree with James, VTS is perfect for Social Studies. So many historical events are portrayed in paintings and illustrations and they would really lend themselves to close analysis. A painting such as the battle of Ft McHenry or even Washington crossing the Delaware, are full of details significant as well as symbolic. It would give a class a lot of visual meat to chew on.

    • I agree with both James and Emily S. VTS is highly adaptable and applicable for social studies and or a collaboration between Art and Social Studies, a large number of historical events are portrayed in paintings, illustrations, and also photographs. The portraits and sketches that Elaine de Kooning created of John F. Kennedy in 1963 reflect the abstract Expressionistic style and there are over 500 works – I think students would be surprised and excited by these works as they are nontraditional depiction of a US President.

  9. Kristin R says:

    I can think of lots of ways to use VTS strategies in ELA, social studies, and science: in all of these areas, students can look at images or objects and use close observation skills to communicate what they know, develop questions, and make inferences about a topic at any point during the course of studying it. But I am not as easily able to see how VTS would fit into math. At times I have shown students, e.g., a set of objects representing an equation, or a new tool, such as a ruler, and asked “what do you notice?” So perhaps that is the connection: asking students the 3 VTS questions about a math concept represented visually , either with numbers or objects.

    Besides doing VTS with objects or images that come directly from or relate directly to a content area, I am interested in how I might find works of art that fit within a content area or topic of study. Where would I begin if I wanted to research and find art works to use for, say, a particular science or math lesson?

    • Jennifer M. says:

      For math perhaps Fibonacci images, architecture/ construction/ engineering. For science, images of the natural world, maybe side by side or before & after images (e.g., Mt St Helens before the eruption & Mt St Helens now), there are lots of great physics videos For Next Generation Science Standards, here’s a great phenomena collection. The images (stills, gifs,short videos) are super compelling: https://www.ngssphenomena.com/

  10. Jennifer M. says:

    After students were familiar with “traditional” VTS—In a lab situation where the goal was to really focus students on procedure and observation, the initial question might be What’s going on here/in this reaction/in this trial? This could be followed by the second question, no modification. The facilitator could guide the comments to help participants gain clarity on the difference between observation and inference. In science we like to observe and provide concrete evidence, so this could be followed by additional trials (more trials, better data!). After several trials, the third question might turn into something like What more can we discover?–leading to exploration of variables, controls, replicability, etc.

    • Shellie M. says:

      I like how you changed the three questions used in VTS to fit within a scientific framework. This is a great example of how the type of thinking that can develop through using VTS can be applied to science. I see many connections between science and art. VTS can help students move beyond linear thinking to explore the various possibilities and outcomes of a scientific experiment.

  11. Jen S. says:

    I would use VTS to introduce and practice using evidence to support an opinion, whether it is a hypothesis in science or analysis of the effects of an historic event or proving how one came to calculate an answer for a math problem. Students need to realize that just because you say it (or read it on the Internet) does not make it true. VTS aligns with our Lucy Calkins writing units on literary analysis, where students are expected to support their opinions about a text by finding specific examples of evidence from the text. This year our 5th graders were to carry out a science experiment, and for the first time I did not work with them on the research step to support building a hypothesis. Unfortunately, this was evident in their presentations. Many of the students presented a guess rather than a hypothesis grounded in facts. I would explain to the team what VTS is and how it can support learning experiences such as this. VTS gives practice in providing statements that are supported by evidence they can provide by practicing with something more concrete, if still subjective, artwork. As visual learners, I think many students will enjoy this alternative exercise in challenging their critical thinking skills.

    • Janice M. says:

      Jen–it sounds like the 5th graders missed you. The hypothesis waters get muddy in art class as well. Students who don’t yet understand how to read a visual image sometimes panic and they start stringing together art vocabulary into some very imaginative sentences hoping that somehow, it will be the “right” answer. Once the student understands that the “answer” is right in front of them, they enjoy searching for clues and interpreting evidence they cite from close observation of an image. It becomes a game. Then the students are ready to transfer these skills.

      • Jen S. says:

        Ok, thank you for that explanation, Janice. I wish I could visit everyone’s classrooms and see all these amazing ideas in action! 🙂

  12. Debbie S. says:

    I can easily see a connection between VTS and close reading. One of the biggest emphases in Third Grade (as in others) is articulating text evidence. VTS questions clearly support these efforts. Using the same questions for looking at art and then looking at texts will also support a visualization strategy and may support students thinking about words as images and deepen comprehension. I also think the questions and then practice of VTS will support work on things like Socratic Seminar which we use in many subject areas. VTS would support this as students get accustomed to speaking about their ideas, listening to others, and supporting their thinking.

    • Janice M. says:

      I like to use picture books when I teach art. I usually find a simple story with pictures that illustrate a particular element of art that I’ll be discussing. We talk about which element to look out for in the pictures as I read, but we also go back after I finish the story. We talk about how the illustrator visually translates the words. Why a particular color was used, why the composition was arranged just so. How do we know what is most important in a picture and ways to tell the viewer–what is a focal point and how to create one.

      • Debbie C. says:

        Janice, wow, I did not think of picture books! What a great idea to use VTS. As simple as picture books may be, I can see using them with 5th grade and introduce color theory and expressionism. I know abstract art can be tricky but I would like to try it with a careful selection of artworks.

    • Andrea G. says:

      The Visual Thinking Strategies could definitely be used during close reading to facilitate the discussion with accountable talk and support student understanding of a text, as discussed in class this morning. It could also be used to teach specific comprehension strategies, such as inferring, during an Intentional Read Aloud. When you mentioned using the strategies during Socratic Seminar, I thought of other practices and curriculums that would work with VTS in the elementary classroom. It could be used along with the Junior Great Books program and Shared Reading. Even the Eureka Math program used in DCPS provides opportunities to practice VTS. At a Math professional development training at my school, a specialist explained how to hook and engage students at the start of a Math lesson by projecting a visual (for example, a picture of 2 kids and a pizza sliced evenly into 8 equal slices) and asking the students to create a “Math Story” about the picture to review and reinforce Math skills that were previously taught. Therefore, I can see VTS being useful across the curriculum, as well as an effective way to hook and engage students in all subject areas.

      • Mary Louise D says:


        I never thought to use art to hook students into a new math concept. The idea of the pizza picture is a great connection to our fraction units. I often use food as an example to get students to better understand fractions. Instead of creating a math story, we could have a VTS discussion around how they see math used in the visual.

    • Jon B. says:

      Hi Debbie,

      I completely agree with your connection between VTS and the need for students to provide evidence from texts they’ve read. In second grade, we begin challenging students to do this not only verbally, but also in their writing. At the beginning of the year, this is often difficult for many students. I often begin by teaching them how to make a claim and then provide examples of how they could support their claim with evidence. VTS provides a framework that allows students to think through this process and share it orally. Once students become comfortable with this routine, it is only a matter of helping them transfer it to their writing.

  13. Jon B. says:

    I believe Visual Thinking Strategies would provide a helpful framework when using pictures (both photographs and illustrations) to introduce students to a new topic in social studies. In my second grade classroom, we begin many of our units by exploring pictures (including our Civil Rights and Native American units). For example, I introduce different Native American tribes using old photographs and illustrations of families and other groups of people. These photos often come with little supplied context, but allow us to compare different styles of clothing, home structures and other daily objects. In the past, our conversations have often been facilitated as a group discussion, where I ask students to share what they notice. Using VTS to study these pictures would help my students begin to create a narrative to support the facts they are learning, providing the necessary connections to truly understand how each tribe adapted to a specific climate and survived off the land.

  14. Janice M. says:

    VTS would readily lend itself to social studies. I have worked with the social studies teacher when he has taught about change in society and the activists who were catalysts for change. The portraits of the activists are shown and discussed–looking for symbols and clues about the person’s political leanings beliefs. Science is another subject ripe for VTS. Science is based on close observation. The pair of paintings done by Maria Sibylla Merian on the insect life cycle was simply an exercise in close observation. I think in terms of geometry for math and VTS. I do origami and the shapes would be examined to see how the form fits together. Equipment flown to Mars was packaged based on origami folds and how shapes could be broken down and reassembled; again, close observation and critical thinking skills.

    • Jon B. says:

      Hi Janice,

      I love the idea of using VTS strategies to study the portraits of activists and other change leaders. I also teach about activism in two of my second grade units and include historical figures like Harvey Milk (LGBTQ Rights), The Greensboro Four (Civil Rights), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Women’s Suffrage) and Cesar Chavez (Immigrant/Farm Worker Rights).

      I hope to find either photographs or painted portraits of these activists (or both) so that I can incorporate a VTS lesson about each during the coming school year. I think these lessons will captivate my second graders (even more so), as they learn about how these people worked to change the world for the better.

    • Mary Louise D says:


      I did not know that about the equipment flown to Mars. That sounds like it would be a great STEAM project to implement into our science/geometry units. I would love to use VTS with the equipment as a starting point into that project.

  15. Natalie Wagner says:

    The VTS questioning and discussion format is perfect for discussing texts in language arts. In my classroom, I observe that many young readers often focus on finishing quickly or reading aloud correctly, but do not often go back to push their comprehension of a text. The VTS method of looking for “what more is there” is a great way to encourage students to pick out the details in a narrative and take away a deeper meaning than what they may have gotten from a first read through. Also, affirming all of their observations about what a text has and not keying in on “correct” answers helps all students, even those who struggle with finding a deeper meaning, successful in this activity which builds their confidence in rereading and text analysis as they advance.

  16. Debbie C. says:

    I could see using VTS in social studies using paintings or even sculpture depicting moments in history. I feel if you purposely choose artworks to work with your lessons and use the VTS strategy student dialogue would be richer.

  17. Lynn W says:

    It seems like the intentions of Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine were specific to facilitating interaction and discussion of works of art. Aesthetics, defined as a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art, is the foundation of Housen’s research. The interviews she conducted being called, Aesthetic Development Interviews (ADI). The question then is not so much How might Visual Thinking Strategies support close reading of science, social studies, mathematics or language arts texts? but, How might encountering art support close reading of science, social studies, mathematics or language art texts? The conviction that art brings deeper meaning to all subject matter must first be present in the educator. VTS is a strategy or method the educator can use to nurture aesthetic and other forms of development in students. This invites educators of all disciplines to act as life time learners and continue to deepen their personal knowledge of art. In so doing, it will be obvious that art enhances and has natural connections with all areas of study. For example, if I am familiar with the work of muralists Diego Rivera and Ben Shahn, I see immediately that artists address social and political issues. If I am introduced to the work of sculptor Kendall Buster, I am aware that there are artists that deal explicitly and eloquently with scientific subject matter. We as educators must be the conduits for highlighting these marvelous connections, first for ourselves, and then for our students.

  18. Mary Louise D says:

    The VTS strategy provides a great way for students to connect on a deeper level to the content. I see this easily connecting in social studies as history is so often depicted in art. When I taught the Civil Rights Movement in VA, this would have been a great strategy for them to gain a deeper understanding of what Jim Crow laws did to people’s understanding of each other. However, as a math teacher with a scripted curriculum, I really struggle to see how I can connect the VTS strategy in my classroom. The majority of our year is spent on multiplication and division and I am not sure how to incorporate VTS into that structure and content.

  19. Hiromi says:

    My Aha moment was that
    VTS strategy can be adopted acquiring English language for HILT students. A Philosopher Giving A Lecture b Joseph Wright of Derby can be adopted for science and history of understanding Enlightenment movement. Wanderer Above the sea of Fog can be adopted for English literature, and history to learn about Romanticism. The Slave Ship by J . M.W. Turner can be adopted for history, Social justice and I believe it can be great starting point for writing poem.

  20. Shellie M. says:

    I think that VTS is a great way to get students to make inferences and go beyond the source material. I think it can be very difficult for students to make that leap from reading/seeing and understanding to synthesizing and inferring. Those skills are key to understanding science and moving beyond simple understanding to making meaning and allowing for breakthroughs. Scientists have to move beyond simple facts to synthesis and VTS helps students develop those connections.

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