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V.3 #1 Literacy - How Does Sketching Enhance Students’ Understanding of Text?

Time and again, students ask, "Can we draw a picture after we read?" Whether they approve or not, most teachers give a sympathetic nod. Their lesson plans may have included illustration activities, though probably as an extension or as enrichment. In some cases it isn’t planned at all, but is welcomed as busy work for those who have finished reading while others "catch up". In many classrooms, especially in the upper grades, drawing about reading isn’t regarded as highly as writing about reading. Sketching may be synonymous with doodling. Students are permitted to draw only "if they have time" at the end of the period. Rarely do students get the opportunity to sketch before or while they read.

I assert that drawing can be a useful and motivating way for students to better understand text. Of course, there are many ways in which teachers can incorporate sketching into their reading lessons. In this column I’ll detail two specific strategies that encourage drawing: Talking Drawings and Sketch to Stretch.

Talking Drawings

The Talking Drawings Strategy (McConnell, 1993) is best used with expository text. It capitalizes on students’ ability to envision a concept as it is being introduced. Let’s say you’re getting ready to read a book about ladybugs. Before you even pick up the book, distribute paper and ask students to draw what they think they know about ladybugs. It is important that teachers model the sketching process to show just how quick it is. Depending on students’ prior knowledge, some drawings will be more elaborate than others. Remind them that this is not an exercise in creativity, nor is it an art lesson. The drawings are simply meant to demonstrate their knowledge about a particular topic. Though they may not accurately portray the facts, invite students to share their drawings with their partners and explain them. After the sharing, they can either be displayed or filed in their reading folders. Either way, they will be revisited after the book is read.

Next, they will read (or listen to) the text. Then, redistribute their drawings and encourage students to modify them based on what they’ve learned. They may either change their existing illustrations or create new ones. Attention should be paid to the differences in detail and accuracy while the post-reading drawings are shared with partners.


  • Teachers can glean students’ prior knowledge of a topic from their drawings;

  • This strategy can be highly motivating, by giving readers a chance to illustrate and interact with peers; and

  • It allows teachers to differentiate for those who struggle by encouraging them to communicate what they know in a way other than writing (Paquette, K.R., Fello, S.E., & Renck Jalongo, M., 2007).

Sketch to Stretch

The Sketch to Stretch Strategy (Harste, Short, & Burke, 1988) can be used with both literature-based and content area reading. It allows students to interpret and comprehend text through drawing. They s-t-r-e-t-c-h their thinking and their understanding of concepts by sketching before, during, and after they read. For example, before reading about the life cycle of a frog, students would sketch the stages of a frog’s life. They might even sketch a frog’s habitat. They have now conjured up or activated prior knowledge and made connections. Again, this is not an artistic endeavor. During reading, students may modify their sketches, sequence them, or write captions and/or phrases near them. After reading, they should highlight key ideas, share their sketches, and explain them to a partner.

There are many Sketch to Stretch templates available online and in teacher resource books. However, no special materials are required—a simple piece of paper will do!


  • This strategy activates prior knowledge and builds vocabulary. It also helps readers identify main ideas and details, summarize what they know, and synthesize information (Dennis-Shaw, n.d);

  • It can be done individually, with the whole class, or in small groups; and

  • Students get the chance to share their thinking with a partner, as well as interpret drawings from classmates.

Visualizing text is an important reading skill. However, many at-risk readers don’t hold onto their mental images long enough to connect to or question text. As a consequence, their comprehension is interrupted. Drawing before, during, and after reading allows students to create pictorial evidence of the snapshots in their minds. Understanding is enhanced through revisiting, revising, sharing, and discussing. Not to mention the invaluable insight these sketches give to teachers! Remember the old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words".


Dennis-Shaw, S. (n.d.). Guided comprehension: Visualizing using the sketch-to-stretch strategy. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from

Harste, J., Short, K., & Burke, C. (1988). Creating classrooms for authors. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McConnell, S. (1993). Talking drawings: A strategy for assisting learners. Journal of Reading, 36(4), 260–269.

Paquette, K.R., Fello, S.E., & Renck Jalongo, M. (2007). The talking drawings strategy: Using primary children’s illustrations and oral language to improve comprehension of expository text. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(1).

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Karen Russo, Ed. D. is an Assistant Professor in the Child Study Department of St. Joseph’s College in New York. There, she teaches both undergraduate and graduate level courses related to elementary education and literacy instruction. Before joining the college faculty, she was an Assistant Principal of a New York City elementary school, a literacy specialist, teacher mentor, and staff developer. Dr. Russo has presented at local, national and international conferences and has published articles on differentiating instruction, enhancing motivation of struggling readers and writers, and effective professional development for teachers. She is an Editor for Insights on Learning Disabilities and has served as a Consulting Editor for Reading Writing Quarterly.

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