Common Core


The Imagery-Language Connection: Imagery and Verbal Processing for Literacy, Cognition, and Memory

March 3, 2015

by Nanci Bell

“If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” — Albert Einstein

Einstein’s famous axiom underlies comprehension and critical thinking. In classrooms today, great teachers explicitly develop a student’s ability to visualize the content they are covering. Consider this short passage:

“An ice age is a period when for a long time the temperature of Earth’s climate is very low. This leads to an expansion of the continental ice sheets, polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers” (Simple English Wikipedia, 2015).

To understand and recall this information, readers must have concrete mental representations (pictures in their mind’s eye) of the Earth, glaciers, continents, expansion, and temperature. As additional background knowledge, perhaps readers have the imagery of humans as hunter-gatherers for historical context.

Effective teachers check for understanding by prompting students to describe their own mental pictures to see who “got it.” Good teachers also clarify meaning or introduce new concepts by verbalizing their own imagery (modeling the thinking process, if you will). For example, a teacher might say something like, “I picture huge chunks of ice, as big as a whole state or country, slowly sliding down from the top of the earth toward the middle of the earth.” When necessary, teachers should provide visuals, including pictures, illustrations, and charts, which will aid in developing concrete imagery and background information for students.

Now imagine students who have a difficult time visualizing written and oral language, either due to a disability or because they have not developed the habits and skills required. These are students in special education and students struggling to read and learn. But these are also students in regular classrooms who have trouble reading fluently, getting the main idea, writing cohesively, following directions, or paying attention. These students grasp parts and details of content, but cannot connect them to a greater whole.

Is there a role for the imagery-language connection in literacy instruction?

The role of mental imagery has long been cited as a critical factor in cognition and memory. Can imagery prove to be a missing piece in how we address the language and literacy skills for all students?

As is well known, reading is an integration and interplay of several component subskills such as phonemic awareness, phonics, word attack, word recognition, fluency, contextual cues, and comprehension. However, even a balanced and differentiated approach that addresses these component parts may be insufficient, especially for struggling readers. That’s because underlying these components are sensory-cognitive factors that activate (or disable) a reader’s ability to perform such skills.

According to Allan Paivio, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Western Ontario, and Mark Sadoski, Director of Educational Research at Texas A&M, “Any theory of reading that does not eventually align with a broader theory of general cognition will not endure. Reading and writing are cognitive acts” (Sadoski and Paivio 2001, 1). Their claim suggests that reading pedagogy must go beyond the eclectic methods and non-theoretical strategies that make up the typical reading program du jour.

The imagery-language connection for literacy aligns with Paivio’s theoretical model known as Dual Coding Theory (DCT). He states that “Cognition involves the activity of two distinct cognitive subsystems… a verbal system specialized for dealing directly with language and a nonverbal (imagery) system specialized for dealing with nonlinguistic objects and events” (Paivio 2006, 3). From an instructional standpoint, imagery—a sensory-cognitive function—can be identified, stimulated, and applied to facilitate language and literacy development.

In our instructional practice at Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, we focus on two types of mental imagery related to language and literacy skills—symbol imagery and concept imagery. Symbol imagery is the ability to visualize sounds and letters in words, which serves as a basis for orthographic awareness, phonemic awareness, word attack, word recognition, spelling, and contextual reading fluency. Concept imagery is the ability to create an imaged gestalt (or whole, detailed picture) from language, which serves as a basis for comprehension and higher order thinking. By explicitly and systematically targeting these sensory factors, we have experienced great success in developing and remediating literacy skills, even for students with significant learning disabilities.

Further, behavioral and neurological research validates that the development of the imagery-language connection results in significant changes in the brain and significant gains in language and literacy skills. Researchers from Georgetown and Wake Forest Universities found that training-induced changes in gray matter volume (GMV) in children with dyslexia can be observed, and that reading improvements induced by intervention are accompanied by GMV changes that persist over time.

As has been shown extensively with behavioral and now neurological research, the imagery-language connection is a primary factor in literacy. Bringing imagery to consciousness with explicit instructional methodology will profoundly improve literacy skills.

Implications for instruction

Weakness in imaging and verbal processing are the primary causes of weakness in language and literacy skills. If we provide instruction that explicitly and systematically addresses these sensory-cognitive functions, people of all ages can become independent in language and literacy skills.

This is especially critical now, as most states implement the Common Core and students are expected to meet rigorous standards. The Common Core demands independence in literacy and critical thinking. Emphasis is now placed on a grade-by-grade staircase of text complexity. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for increasing academic achievement, especially for struggling and at-risk students. That’s because the foundation of grasping complex text—multiple levels of meaning, unconventional language structures, figurative language, complex themes—is the imagery-language connection.

How well we succeed in raising achievement to prepare all students for college and career readiness depends on how well we improve instruction in reading, writing, language comprehension, and critical thinking—skills at the core of all academic learning. And how well we improve reading and comprehension—something the nation has not done despite dramatic reform efforts over the past 50 years—depends on whether we approach reading instruction in a new way, recognizing the imagery-language connection and its primacy in independent language and literacy skills.

Nanci Bell is the co-founder and director of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes.


Simple English Wikipedia. 2015. “Ice Age.” Last modified January 7.

Sadoski, M., and Allan Paivio. 2001. Imagery and text: A dual coding theory of reading and writing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Paivio, Allan. “Dual Coding Theory and Education.” Paper presented at conference on “Pathways to Literacy Achievement for High Poverty Children,” The University of Michigan School of Education, September 29-October 1, 2006.

Click here for helpful tips to incorporate the imagery-language connection into your instruction to help struggling students.

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