Using Images as Scaffolds for Reading Complex Text

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Nov_coverApril at School Library Connection has been all about inquiry—but we’ve got inquiry on the brain all year long! In case you missed it, check out this great article from our November 2015 issue by Nicole Waskie-Laura and Susan LeBlanc on using images to scaffold learning as we move students toward the goal of reading complex texts.

Picture this: a class of students with a wide range of reading levels and abilities engaging deeply with the same introductory text. The topic and text are unfamiliar, yet the students that typically struggle to read are leading the text-based conversations. As the lesson progresses, the room buzzes with conversation as students grapple with the information in the text, ask inquisitive questions of their peers, and provide evidence-based answers.

How is it possible that all students across reading levels are independently accessing the same text? Because the introductory text is an image, allowing for the engagement of all learners. Visual texts sustain interest and help build understanding, scaffolding the reading of complex, printed text.

Defining Text

Text has long been defined as words printed on a page, and as school librarians, we believe this definition is far too narrow. By expanding and shifting the definition of text to encompass its purpose—the delivery of information—a whole world of sources opens up: photographs, ephemera, videos, works of art, websites and infographics, to name a few. Strategically selecting and implementing these additional sources allows students to use their inherent powers of observation, coupled with literacy strategies, to glean information and build background knowledge around a topic regardless of reading proficiency.

The Goal: Reading Complex Text

Images are an excellent source of information on their own, but they are doubly powerful as introductions to complex, printed texts. Students simply cannot be successful without the ability to read and understand the printed word. The Common Core standards require it and post-secondary life demands it. The ability to read, comprehend, and use information across formats is a crucial life skill.

In our state, the state education department has focused educators’ attention on research that has significant implications for teaching literacy. In a recent presentation, David Liben, senior content specialist of the Literacy and English Language Arts Team at Student Achievement Partners, summarized and shared research asserting that non-proficient readers struggle not for lack of critical thinking or comprehension strategies, but because of failure in vocabulary acquisition, the development of background knowledge, and fluency. By helping students read widely, as well as through thoughtful curriculum and instruction, we have the opportunity to deliberately address and develop vocabulary and knowledge. According to Liben, “reading a number of texts within a topic grows knowledge and vocabulary far more than any other way” (Liben 2014).

School librarians already masterfully introduce students to a wide variety of genres and resources, and promote pleasure reading to build background knowledge. Another effective way librarians can apply this research is by creating sets of authentic texts focused on a topic, theme, concept, or question (Cappiello and Dawes 2013, 21). For us, the text sets in the Odell Reading Closely for Textual Details units first inspired our specific use of images as introductory texts. (This curriculum can be downloaded for free at Each of the Odell units has images or visuals as their first text, allowing students to closely explore and orient themselves to the topic. With those first images, students are also taught the skill of reading closely for details, a skill they subsequently apply to printed texts.

Images as Scaffolds

Unlike a page of printed text, which can be daunting even for proficient readers, images are immediately accessible and user-friendly. Students who struggle to read print will likely have a much easier time noticing details in a visual text, and may be able to execute that skill as well as, or better than, their reading-proficient peers. Further, an image can be used to introduce vocabulary and topic knowledge that students can subsequently call upon and further develop when reading additional printed texts on the same topic. Like the bottom rung of a ladder, introducing a topic with an image allows all students to enter on the ground floor, build knowledge and confidence, and engage in thoughtful, evidence-based discussion.

Images for Inquiry

The power of using images as introductory, informational texts is grounded in instructional design. One way to approach reading images is to invite students to “think like detectives,” an analogy sometimes used in the context of Common Core literacy instruction (Fisher, Frey, and Lapp 2011; Odell Education). This comparison is particularly useful for guiding the close reading of an image: the same skill set of noticing details, asking questions, and proposing inferences based on evidence in a visual text can then be applied to printed text. Further, images are a great way to spark genuine student curiosity and develop momentum for inquiry. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Images provide rich information and opportunities to explore and discover discrepancies, make connections, resolve questions with new information, and otherwise build an understanding of the information presented.

Moreover, this type of investigative thinking crosses disciplines. Historians perform close-reading through the analysis and interpretation of primary source documents. Scientists learn about the world through observation and experimentation. Across fields of study and real-world situations, visual details lead to inquiry and multifaceted investigation.

From Theoretical to Practical

Now that we’ve established the instructional benefits that visually based texts provide, how can these concepts be practically applied in the library? A basic place to begin is with the creation of a paired text set: for example, an image and printed text. A caveat: a well-constructed text set or project never begins with the selection of the initial text. Instead, the key is beginning with the lesson or unit objectives. Specific objectives focus the selection process to tightly align task and content.

After establishing your objectives, there are other pieces of the puzzle to consider:

  • What do you want students to discover from their interactions with these texts?
  • What related vocabulary do you want students to learn?

These questions can further streamline your search for resources. Once you have located potential texts, consider the relationship between them:

  • What are the shared concepts and vocabulary?
  • How do the texts interact and “speak” to one another? (Cappiello and Dawes 2013, 48).

The process is fluid and recursive, with the potential for many revisions based on available resources, consideration of grade-level appropriateness, and grouping texts that result in a strong interplay of content and concepts. The school librarian’s skill set lends itself beautifully to this complicated and time-consuming process.

A Real-Life Example

We implemented the above process using Social Studies content. New York State Standard 8.2e, which focuses on Progressive reform, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the legislative response, served as the basis for our objectives (New York State Education Department). Given the impetus for literacy to be incorporated across the curriculum, we also used the Common Core College and Career Anchor Standard for Reading 1 as the foundation for our text-based questions (Common Core State Standards Initiative).

Inspired by the Odell units, we planned to have students practice noticing details and making inferences using an image, then apply this newly learned skill to a printed text (Odell Education). To appropriately scaffold, we chose a 1913 newspaper account about a local factory fire in Binghamton, New York. It was an informational text that:

  • Supported our objectives,
  • Contained the targeted curriculum content, and
  • Was at the appropriate reading level.
Binghamton Press and Leader article, July 22, 1913.

Next, we identified both the subject-specific vocabulary as well as the SAT vocabulary words within the text.  Having our objective and content we then selected an image that would provide rich visual details to lead students to a deeper understanding of the factory conditions of the time. With our text and image, we developed open-ended questions to guide students’ reading of each text. Here’s an overview of the lesson:

  • “What details do you notice?” (Odell Education). We provided minimal context to promote discovery, spark curiosity, and generate questions.
  • After processing time, students were asked to circle details and jot notes about their observations.
  • Next, students partnered with peers to compare their individual observations and make note of any details that they missed. Then, students wrote inferential questions tied to the details, led by the prompt “What new questions do you have?”
  • After interacting with the image, students were given the newspaper article. Students were then asked to read, noting important details and gist, then discuss guiding questions with a partner. The more difficult and significant vocabulary terms and concepts were discussed as a class, guided by the question “What conditions does the author suggest contributed to the catastrophic nature of the fire?
  • Finally, we asked students to write a caption for the image, based on their new knowledge from the article. Returning to the depiction of factory life at the turn of the century after reading the paired newspaper article shed new light on the fire hazards shown in the image.
Factory circa 1900

This lesson set the stage for a variety of options for further inquiry. From this point, students could generate additional questions to initiate in-depth research. Or, as we chose to do, students could continue to build their knowledge using a carefully crafted text set that contains a wide variety of text types. (To see our fully developed set, please visit

The Possibilities Are Endless

With your knowledge of resources and learners, the options are endless. School librarians have long been experts in identifying and locating resources that students and teachers need and want. However, ongoing shifts in standards and a renewed interest in authentic materials for content delivery require that we think more deeply about the alignment of resources with instruction. Across text types, school librarians possess the needed expertise to select resources that meet objectives, engage learners, and spur inquiry. Let’s go beyond the book cart and shine as literacy leaders.

Works Cited

Cappiello, Mary Ann, and Erika Thulin Dawes. Teaching with Text Sets. Shell Education, 2013.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading 1. Common Core State Standards Initiative. (accessed July 7, 2015).

Doolittle, Peter, David Hicks and Tom Ewing. “SCIM-C Explanation: A Strategy for Interpreting History.” Historical Inquiry. (accessed June 25, 2015).

Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp. Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives: Comprehending, Analyzing, and Discussing Text. Solution Tree, 2011.

Liben, David. “What Does It Take to Succeed in the Era of the Common Core?” Presentation at the October 2014 New York State Education Department Network Team Institute Day Two Opening Session, October 9, 2014.

New York State Education Department. New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework. EngageNY. (accessed June 25, 2015).

Odell Education. Literacy Curriculum Unit 1: Reading Closely for Textual Details. Odell Education. (accessed June 25, 2015).


Nicole Waskie-Laura, MLS, MEd, is the school library system coordinator at Broome-Tioga BOCES in Binghamton, NY. Nicole received her master’s degree in library science from the University of Buffalo and her master’s in educational administration from the University of Scranton. Nicole can be reached at or on Twitter @nwaskielaura.

Susan LeBlanc, MSLIS, is school library system director at the Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego BOCES in NY. LeBlanc received her master’s degree in library and information science, with a school media specialization, from Syracuse University. You can follow her on Twitter @leblanclib.

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