Main Idea with Pictures: A reading comprehension strategy

By Arwyn Moore

Are you having a tough time determining whether your learner’s struggle with understanding what they read is a result of a decoding issue, or a comprehension issue? As a literacy specialist, one low-pressure and often fun strategy I’ve employed is using pictures to check for comprehension.

The ability to identify and express the main idea of a text is a critical component to reading comprehension, regardless of the text's level of complexity. 

Take this example below. Most folks should be able read this text and "get the gist" with no problems:

"Tom cooked two eggs. He poured orange juice into a glass. He put cereal into a bowl. He poured milk into a bowl." The main idea of this passage is: Tom made breakfast. (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997, p. 249) 

Seems straight forward, right? But if your learner lists the things Tom did when you ask for the main idea--giving details rather than summarizing the point--this is a red flag that they did not understand the overarching idea of the text.

Using Pictures to Get to the Point

Using pictures instead of text is particularly useful if your learner is also struggling with decoding, because it removes the written word as a stumbling block so they can focus on grasping key concepts. (By the way, I recommend this strategy for learners who seem not to “get it” even if they are proficient decoders.)  

The task gives you some insight into how well a learner is able to organize and verbalize what they see. Let the learner choose a picture from a variety of interesting, but not overly complex or abstract pictures. Having a choice offers built in investment because they selected an image that’s captured their attention. Give them a minute or two to study it, then ask them what it’s about. This one question seeks to answer multiple questions: Can they summarize the main idea of a picture, or do they get distracted by more minor details? Are they able to make inferences based on what they see? These skills are precursors to being able to summarize text.

Consider the image on this page. If you asked your learner, "What is this picture about?" and they said something like, "I see people in a boat watching a dolphin leaping out of the water," then they have successfully identified the main idea of the image. However, if their response was closer to: "There's a lady in a pink shirt, and a man in a blue shirt..." etc., or even, "There's an ocean, and some people on a boat..." then they are having trouble generalizing the details into the central concept of the image.

One way to help your learner begin to discern what is most important about an image is to ask, "What do you think the photographer was taking a picture of? Is it the woman in the pink shirt?" or "Is it the ocean?" depending upon how they responded to the original question. If they do give an answer like one above, it’s helpful to dig a little deeper into their rationale by asking follow-up questions: “Oh, okay, why do you think the subject is the lady in the pink shirt?” Gathering clues about how they’re thinking about the picture will aid your investigation into what’s tripping up their comprehension.

I like to model the type of thinking that leads to the main idea by thinking aloud: "To me it looks like the photographer wanted to capture the dolphin jumping, because that's a pretty rare event. I bet the people are on a special trip to watch for dolphins." This not only identifies the main idea, but involves inferencing, or "reading between the lines." (This is a more sophisticated skill practiced later and explicitly; I only included it here as an example.) Using a questioning and discussion technique sparks critical thinking and avoids the "wrong answer" spiral that can negatively impact self-confidence and your learner's willingness to take chances with their learning. 

Oh, look, honey, a shark!











What Types of Pictures Are Appropriate?

I’ve found the most effective images are those involving people or animals, as they are easy to relate to. After your learner chooses an image, ask why they chose it, to get their thoughts percolating. I always enjoy this part because it often leads to interesting conversation and can relieve some of the anxiety associated with the learning process. On the other hand, avoid pictures containing too much visual information, where it may be difficult to identify the subject. Also, stay away from images that are too stark, like landscapes, or too abstract, like swatches of color or geometric figures.

What Happens Next?

Once your learner begins to regularly identify what information is most important about an image, you can incorporate other reading comprehension strategies using written text, namely, systematic activities involving identifying details versus main idea. It can begin as simply as the example of Tom above, where the details are the specific actions Tom is taking, and the purpose of those actions is to make breakfast. From there, you can introduce more complex texts based on the learner's interests and goals.