The Stenhouse Blog

Using Art to Deepen Comprehension

Posted by admin on Jan 8, 2019 10:50:19 AM

“Using images to unlock new possibilities affords a powerful stepping-stone to words in a meaning-making merger that deepens understanding.” –Dr. Mary Howard

Most books about teaching comprehension address the role that pictures play in helping children understand a text, but few authors have looked at visual literacy as systematically as Trevor Bryan has. In his new book, The Art of Comprehension: Exploring Visual Texts to Foster Comprehension, Conversation, and Confidence, Bryan introduces an innovative framework for deepening comprehension, which he calls Access Lenses. The Lenses provide a scaffold for helping students of all ages interpret both print and visual texts and lead powerful conversations about them.

Here’s how it works.

The Method

“With the Access Lenses in hand, students became active explorers and meaning-makers, instead of passive question answerers. Students jumped into texts and felt like explorers, always on the brink of discovery,” (Bryan 2019).

The Access Lenses are at the heart of the Art of Comprehension (AoC). It’s a method that will make it easier for teachers and students to enter into visual texts (and eventually written texts) and to think about and discuss them deeply and meaningfully. If practiced regularly, the Lenses will eventually help student so dissect and discuss texts in increasingly sophisticated ways as texts become more complicated across the grades.


The Access Lenses are made up of nine lenses. When used concurrently this method enables students to discover information within visual and written texts, independently or with partners, which makes them more likely to synthesize the information they find in unique and surprising ways.

  • Lens 1: Facial Expressions: Facial expressions reveal a lot about a character’s moods and are generally easy for even young children to understand. The facial expressions lens can help many students enter a text and begin to use textual evidence to support their thinking.
  • Lens 2: Body Language, Action/Inaction: As with facial expressions, most students are capable of making inferences based on reading either a character’s body language or a character’s action or inaction. Pairing information delivered through faces and bodies is also another straightforward way to introduce students to patterns: when the pattern changes, it usually indicates an important part or key moment of the story.
  • Lens 3: Colors: Colors are often used to convey moods, and even very young children can grasp this idea. Getting students accustomed to thinking about how colors are used to reflect moods is a simple way to promote deeper thinking about images, texts, and performances, as well as symbolism and metaphors.
  • Lens 4: Close Together, Far Apart Lens: Using this lens, students think about how characters’ proximity to, or distance from, people, places, or objects can indicate how they are feeling, what they want, or the predicament they are in. It’s not just physical proximity that can be considered, however, students can also think about emotional proximity.
  • Lens 5: Alone: As with the close together, far apart lens, the alone lens can relate to both physical and emotional aloneness. Either way, when characters are alone in visual or in written texts, their isolation needs to be considered regarding the mood or moods the artist or writer is crafting.
  • Lens 6: Words or No Words/Sounds or Silence: The words that characters say, as well as other sounds expressed within a text, often reveal much about what is happening. What characters say and how they say it provides important information about thoughts, feelings, and motivations.
  • Lens 7: Big Things and Little Things: Awareness of the physical size of a character or a setting often helps readers comprehend the dynamics of a story. The big and little things lens can also be applied to the emotional state or symbolic nature of characters.
  • Lens 8: Zooming In or Out: Artists and authors will often zoom in or zoom out on scenes. What they choose to zoom in on frequently provides a key detail that they want their audience to notice.
  • Lens 9: Symbols and Metaphors: Every story that has a problem has symbols of obstruction or destruction, and nearly all stories, if not every story that gets resolved, has at least one symbol of hope and support. Making connections (through symbols and moods) helps students to understand how stories work.

The Access Lenses are a set of tools that help to give teachers and students initial access to texts of all kinds. The Art of Comprehension can show you how to effectively and efficiently use these tools in the classroom allowing students to gain an understanding of texts in both content and craft. To learn more, check it our on the Stenhouse Publishers website.


John Frederick Kensett, Lake George, ca.. 1870. Bequest of Elaine King in memory of her husband, Col. Herbert G. King, Princeton University Art Museum. 


Bryan, Trevor. 2019. The Art of Comprehension: Exploring Visual Texts to Foster Comprehension, Conversation, and Confidence. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

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