Ask teachers what many students do when they encounter a map, a chart, or a graph in printed or digital text, and they will likely say, "They skip it." But visual graphic aids often contain important information essential for an extended understanding of the content under study. Authors include these devices to condense, expand, or elaborate on key concepts. In fact, the Common Core State Standards include the need to help students "integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts" (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010, RH.6-8.7).
The ability to gain knowledge from information that is observed and not "read" in the conventional sense is termed visual literacy, and it is one of the five communication processes: reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing. Here we examine visual literacy as it relates to the types of graphic aids most prevalent in both digital and traditional texts. We include a review of the research on visual displays in informational text, and then we visit an eighth grade social studies classroom in which the teacher, Ms. Kelly, uses the "reading road map" (Wood, Lapp, Flood, & Taylor, 2008) to help students develop strategic reading skills and the use of graphic aids in textbook and online sources in social studies.
How strategy guides help teachers and students
Strategy guides are designed by teachers to help guide students through the reading of multiple sources of material related to the topic studied. They can consist of combinations of activities such as questions, statements, or manipulatives and may require students to write, chart, or draw their responses individually, with partners, or as groups. Well-designed strategy guides can serve as "tutors in print form," directing students to multiple sources of information while simultaneously guiding them to the most important content. The reading road map strategy guide (Wood, et al., 2008) takes students on a journey through a text using a road map format, directing them to slow down, speed up, or skip certain textual sites along the way.
Teachers can develop strategy guides with a creative flair to entice students to want to read the material and engage in the task. Teachers with whom we have worked have designed guides with a racetrack theme, in the shapes of countries or parts of the body (e.g., the heart and its valves, the digestive system, the circulatory system), or even in the form of characters from a story. We have also shown how a teacher can use a perspective strategy guide that asks students to role-play and take on the perspective of a character by first selecting and personalizing an avatar from www.voki.com (Wood, Lapp, Stover, & Yearta, in press). Here, students in the primary grades use the koala bear avatar and record their voices as they become a character in Mem Fox's (1988) story, Koala Lou. We can use strategy guides to teach a number of skills including perspective-taking, summarizing, retelling, predicting, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and, in this case, how to focus students' attention on the visual aids in text.
Research on visual displays in informational text
Text structure and informational text have received a lot of attention from teachers and researchers since Duke (2000) explained the importance of including informational text in the classroom and of exposing children to this genre as early as possible. Proficiency with informational text is especially important when you consider that informational texts represent the majority of texts adults read (Moss, 2004) and 70-80% of text in standardized tests (Daniels, 2002).
One of the key differences between narrative and informational texts is the use of visual displays. Maps, tables, graphs, and diagrams are commonly found in informational texts to further explain or clarify concepts. To develop students' understanding of informational text, they must learn how to read and interpret these visual displays. …