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What Are the Best Tips for Teaching Imagery?

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  • Written By: Cynde Gregory
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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One of the tasks that a teacher of literature faces is how to get students to really visualize a story’s characters and action or to understand how a simile or metaphor’s images contribute to the meaning deep within a poem. Teaching imagery to students — whether they are young children who are barely able to see over the tops of their desks or their hulking teenage or college-level siblings — is a matter of helping them identify it in texts, explore it through games and experiment with creating it themselves. Teaching imagery using a little fun coupled with a little imagination will help students rethink the world around them as well as the worlds created in literature.

In literature, an image is simply something that can be visualized. Students often confuse the idea of image with a cliché. In fact, many clichés first came to life as images that were vivid enough to capture the imagination, but through constant use, their visual appeal has become diminished. In the days before home burglar alarms, when many homes had a canine sentry, describing someone’s "bark" as "worse than their bite" was visually evocative, bringing to mind a neighbor’s outwardly ferocious Rottweiler who was just a gentle pup on the inside. Asking students to draw a visual image of a cliché or two helps them recognize that such everyday sayings were once truly images.

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The next step is for students to find vivid and unexpected images in a story or poem that the class is reading or that the students are reading on their own. When students understand that a strong image makes the reader forget that the story is merely words on a page that suddenly, magically transform, teaching imagery by asking students to hunt for its use makes sense. Students might notice that strong images often use unusual verbs and very specific nouns. For example, a torn plastic bag that balloons with a sudden gust of wind and rattles across a parking lot offers an image that suggests impending drama. Had the author simply reported trash getting blown around, the reader could easily not even notice.

Kids like games, and teachers like games that teach kids. One simple game using index cards can be a great way of teaching imagery. A teacher and his or her students can brainstorm a long list of vivid verbs, ignoring standbys such as "talk," "sit" or "walk" in favor of "mutter," "slouch," "strut" and dozens of other verbs that suggest a picture.

The list should be at least 50 words, which is actually not as difficult as it might sound. Each verb is printed on a blue index card. Another set of 50 objects are printed on white cards.

Students can be organized into teams or partnered. The object is for the students to find as many unusual combinations that make sense — and create a visual image — as possible. For example, a leafless tree’s shadow might seem to stagger through moonlight, or a rollerblade artist might dangle in the air. After they’ve had the chance to work with others to create these images, students can try creating images on their own.

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browncoat
Post 3

@pastanaga - Just don't do that and then leave it in isolation. Students need to be active in processing new information, and that means trying their own hands at creating images.

You aren't going to want to spend an entire book stopping and pointing out every technique the author has used or they won't enjoy it. So just pick out one or two, mention them and then return to them later during the writing lesson.

I think it's a mistake to completely pick apart every book they read, because you want students to learn to love reading and not see it as a chore.

pastanaga
Post 2

@clintflint - I'm not sure if using cliches is actually the best way to go. Children are always quite eager to work around examples, rather than thinking of something original and if they think the teacher is just looking for phrases that everyone uses they might miss the point of imagery.

If a student mentions a cliche, that should be celebrated, because it means they are putting different aspects of their life together and really understand what they are learning about.

But imagery should be taught through reading, from the very beginning of school. Whenever you're reading a book to the class, you can stop at a good image and ask them what they think the author intended.

It gets them to think critically about the words, teaches them about imagery (and other techniques) and also helps them to start thinking about writing as something deliberate, and done with the audience in mind.

clintflint
Post 1

It's definitely a good idea to introduce the idea of imagery by using cliches, because they are statements that kids will have heard and instinctively understood, but probably haven't ever really thought about.

Even something as simple as being told "sweet dreams" by their parents might be a good thing to discuss. Do parents literally mean they want their children to dream of cookies or candy? It will introduce the idea that people might say one thing to create an image in their head, even though they don't mean it to be exactly true.

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