“Look. Listen. Open all your senses.” Who could resist?
The following is an excerpt from Reading with Meaning, Second Edition by Debbie Miller.
A favorite book for thinking aloud about creating mental images is Night Sounds, Morning Colors by Rosemary Wells. The inside flap issues an invitation: “Look. Listen. Open all your senses.” Who could resist? Violets laugh and sing in Mama’s garden, a father hums “Danny Boy” as he tucks his little boy into bed, a train whistles through the darkness of the night.
“When I read those words, vivid images, or pictures, come into my mind."
“Listen again to the words about the faraway train and its whistle,” I say to the children during the read-aloud. “When I read those words, vivid images, or pictures, come into my mind. I have an image of my mother, brother, and me streaking across the flatlands of Kansas on a train called the El Capitán. I see us looking up at the night sky through the skylights above us, my brother and I thinking we could count the stars. I hear the rumble of the wheels on the tracks, and the porters in their fancy red and black outfits talking in whispers outside our compartment.
"And the cinnamon rolls! My image of them fills an entire plate, with yummy white frosting slowly oozing down into little puddles at the bottom."
“Even now I can feel the excitement of going to the dining car for breakfast. I have images of starched white tablecloths, deep red napkins the size of my mother’s silk scarves, fragrant fresh flowers in silver vases, and more knives, forks, and spoons at each setting than one little girl could possibly use. And the cinnamon rolls! My image of them fills an entire plate, with yummy white frosting slowly oozing down into little puddles at the bottom.
“Girls and boys, did you notice how creating mental images seemed to make the text come alive for me? It’s like I was back on the El Capitán, streaking across the countryside, looking up at the stars, sitting down in that fancy dining car, and eating those yummy cinnamon rolls all over again. The page about the train will always be important to me—I’ll always remember it—because of my connections to it and the images they create in my mind. Someone else reading the book would have different images, because that person’s schema is different. No one else, not even my mother or brother, would remember those train rides the same way I do.”
“Lie down, close your eyes, and listen to the words as I read. Pay attention to the images that come alive in your mind. Put your thumb up when an image comes into your head.”
I take a couple of days with the Wells book, sharing one or two pages each day and talking about how the images I create enhance my reading and understanding of the text. On day three, I say to the children, “Lie down, close your eyes, and listen to the words as I read. Pay attention to the images that come alive in your mind. Put your thumb up when an image comes into your head.”
Flat on the floor, eyes scrunched shut, they wait with anticipation. I read the fish page, and one tiny thumb after another shoots up, vying for attention.
They’re into it. Flat on the floor, eyes scrunched shut, they wait with anticipation. I read the fish page, and one tiny thumb after another shoots up, vying for attention. Not only do they see fish weaving in and out of pagodas, as in the book, but they become fish right before my eyes! Big fish with bulging eyes, puckered lips, and swishing tails squirm (swim?) around the meeting area.
A fish named Frank stops midstream and says, “Wait a minute, guys. What’s a pagoda?” And before I know it, four children try to fashion one with their bodies. Emily says, “Look, Frank, see? It’s one of those tall Chinese-like houses—you know, the ones with the curvy roofs? I have one in my fish tank, and the fish really do swim in and out of the windows and the doors. Swim through this door right here!” Frank swishes right through.
“Wait! Listen to this! I see an angel food cake with white frosting and pink and red hearts all over it, and seven purple candles, and it tastes delicious!”
I think, Well, Debbie, this isn’t quite what you expected, but what’s happening
is a good thing, right? Uh . . . right. I’m grateful it wasn’t a page full of
The page with the birthday cake sends thumbs flying once again.
They can see that birthday cake! “How many candles are on your cake?” I ask. “Seven! And they’re burning hot and bright! Ouch! I just touched one!”
“My cake has just one candle, but it’s a big red number three right in the
middle. It’s my baby brother’s cake.”
“The cake in my head is big and round and it has a soccer player on it.
There are words. Let’s see . . . They say [eyes closing tight]—oh! I see them
now! They say, ‘Happy Birthday, Paige’ and ‘You’re Number One!’”
Next I ask, “What kind of cake is in your image?”
“No! Mine’s white with lemon filling, my favorite!”
“Wait! Listen to this! I see an angel food cake with white frosting and pink
and red hearts all over it, and seven purple candles, and it tastes delicious!”
“Oohs” and “aahs” and “Are we going to have snack?” and “When’s
lunch?” (two long hours from now) let me know it’s time for a change of pace.
“Wow, you created some very vivid mental images—I loved all the details you included,” I tell them. “What did you notice about your images of the birthday cakes?”
“Everybody saw a different kind of birthday cake!”
“You’re right. They were all different. Why do you suppose that is?”
Several of them say, “Because our schema is different!”
“Good thinking. I can tell you’re going to be really good at this. One last thing. Before you go to read, I’m interested in knowing what you’re thinking about creating mental images so far. Any thoughts? Ideas? Questions?”
“It’s so much fun!” and “I love making mental images!” and “Can we practice again tomorrow?” are typical responses, but Kenta’s thoughts take my breath away.
My pencil and notebook are ready. “It’s so much fun!” and “I love making mental images!” and “Can we practice again tomorrow?” are typical responses, but Kenta’s thoughts take my breath away. “Well, here’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking mental images are sort of like connections, only a lot bigger. Say a connection is like a kernel of corn. But when you put it in the microwave and it pops up big and hot, now that’s a mental image. You hear it and see it and smell it and taste it and love it. That’s what I’m thinking.”
The room is silent; the only sound is that of my pencil furiously writing
to catch every word. Madison asks, “Did you get that exactly, Mrs. Miller? We
should put it up in the room somewhere.” Kenta knows just the spot.
Focusing on just a snippet or two from a picture book or poem allows children time to practice developing an image completely. Asking questions like “How many candles are on your cake?” and “What kind is it?” gives children permission to add details that personalize their images and make them unique.
Books such as Night in the Country by Cynthia Rylant, The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer, The Napping House by Audrey Wood, Creatures of Earth, Sea, and Sky by Georgia Heard, and anything by Joanne Ryder also offer rich snippets of text for thinking aloud, thinking through text together, and getting eye-to-eye and knee-to-knee to talk about sensory images.
Short, thought-provoking, and full of images, poetry allows even early readers to navigate the text once it’s been read aloud several times.
In addition to picture books, what type of text is best when children begin to become more adept at making mental images on their own? What type of text bridges whole-group work and independence? One answer is poetry. Short, thought-provoking, and full of images, poetry allows even early readers to navigate the text once it’s been read aloud several times. I’ve learned that the best decoders aren’t necessarily the most thoughtful readers, nor are the most thoughtful readers necessarily the best decoders. Asking children to read and respond to the same text creates additional opportunities for children with different strengths to listen and learn from each other.
About the Author
Debbie Miller taught and learned from children in the Denver Public Schools for thirty years. She now presents workshops across the country and internationally, and works extensively with schools and districts on long-range planning and development of literacy programs