Draw Me a Story; Write Me a Picture

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Pictures and words have gone together since the first word emerged from logograms in ancient Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago. One of the earliest illustrated books written specifically for children was Orbis Pictus (Comenius, 1658), and it took advantage of the power of pictures and words combined together. Today, graphic novels and comics are widely popular because, in part, they match words with images that, together, convey more than either might alone. Today, educators recognize the ability of properly chosen words matched with other visual information whenever they select a graphic organizer or teach students to create their own graphic organizers. In this Literacy Beat post, I explore how images can inspire young writers and how young writers might learn how their writing can inspire image-making, as well. Of course, in keeping with the theme of this blog, digital technologies will be central to our exploration.

Often, words accompany images (and vice versa) in such a way that one limits the other. For example, a caption under a photograph may limit the way the viewer of the photograph interprets the image. Charts, pictures, and graphs in an academic text may expand on some idea conveyed by words in the accompanying text. But, I wonder if the professor who taught a group of future teachers, me among them, was onto something when she noted that to really understand a thing, one had to draw it. Sometime later, a statistics professor encouraged a group of doctoral students that to understand statistics, one had to be able to draw the results. Images, these professors suggest, have the power to enlighten and inspire in ways words cannot. This may seem an odd thing for a person whose entire career is built around literacy education, so perhaps an example might help.

Write Me a Picture

As an entrée into poetry, I frequently asked middle school students to turn words into pictures. These concrete poems incorporate words in a physical arrangement that becomes an image. Michael P. Garofalo has created several that may serve as a model for your student writers, some of which make creative use of the online environment. Click the thumbnail to take a look at one.

Concrete Block

Michael P. Garofalo

Pencils and paper still work, too. Click the thumbnail to see a student-created example.

Mexican Mariachi

Mexican Mariachi by an 8th-grade Student

Putting words together with images is a first step in thinking about how images might improve writing. It is also a first step in teaching students about composing multimodal texts that make the best use of the combined media.

Draw Me a Story

Images that inspire writing  can be used insructionally in many ways.  Three of those explored here are student-created images, prompts writing with images, and combined text and images via the infographic.

Student-created images can inspire students to better understand the world through their writing. One science teacher I know asked students to go outside and draw an outline of the landscape and buildings around their homes. Then every hour for four hours in a row, they were to go outside and draw in the moon as it appeared to them relative to the skyline. The images were simple, mainly outlines, but the learning the drawing activity inspired led students to notice something about the very familiar moon that they had never noticed before. These drawing led to inquiry about the motion of the Earth and its moon, and the inquiry with the pictures led to writing that was sometimes filled with the wonder that much school-sponsored report writing often lacks. Others have also asked students to observe natural phenomena closely through drawing and writing field notes in the form of a journal: If you would like to read more about the moon project, click here.

Prompts are the directions teachers give to students to direct them to action, particularly to write. At other times, images created by others prompt learning through writing. Two images juxtaposed might provoke students to the written word. The seemingly serene setting of a park in Guernica (May 2007) in the first image contrasts sharply with that painted by Pablo Picasso in the second image. The images, coupled with discussion, and online reading, might inspire more writing than any set of directions given to students.


Guernica by Thomas DeVere Wolsey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Guernica by Picasso

Pablo Picasso, la exposición del Reina-Prado. Guernica is in the collection of Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid (low resolution image)

Multimodality as an approach to composition, Choo (2010) proposes, can motivate young writers and help them (and their teachers) escape from escape inauthentic writing tasks that attend to surface features, for example the ever-present five paragraph essay. For those interested in learning more about Picasso’s painting and how he came to portray such destruction, visit this PBS webpage.

Infographics present information in a visual way. In this example, words that can be used to describe coffee are displayed as a circular array. Colors link words as the eye travels the path around and through the wheel. A difficult writing task for any author is to represent in words concepts learned through the senses of taste and smell. Students might use and create flavor and odor wheels to assist them in thinking about words and choosing the best word for their writing.

Composing Multimodal Text

Photojournalists use words and images to tell their stories; Choo (2010) offers five questions that might assist students to think about how both are used successfully by considering the strengths of each modality.

  1. How do words function to “anchor” and give an interpretation of an image?
  2. How do words function to “relay” or contribute to the meaning of an image?
  3. Where will the image be placed in relation to the words and why?
  4. How much of the frame-space will the image occupy compared to the words?
  5. Is the focal point of the text on the image or on its words and why? (p. 172)

Using these questions as guides, students attend to the features of the images and words they choose and the multimodal texts that, together, they create. The Literacy Beat bloggers are interested in your multimodal projects and how images help your students write and writing helps them learn from images. Please share your ideas and successes by posting a comment, below.


Choo, S. S. (2010). Writing through visual acts of reading: Incorporating visual aesthetics in integrated writing and reading tasks. High School Journal, 93(4), 166-176.

Children’s Literature Cited

Comenius, J. A. (1658). Orbis Pictus.

More Resources

Search Engines and Multimodal Representations in this blog by Bernadette Dwyer

CAST Image Collector


2 Responses

  1. Wow, reading and thinking about your post has helped me to conceptualize multi-modal representation more clearly. I’ll also be asking my grad students to read and think about it.

  2. […] Read more on LiteracyBeat about eye poems and Evernote, too here and here. […]

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