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The "Art" of Comprehension


Voice of ExperienceIf it wasn't for Howard Gardner's multiple-intelligence theory, educator Max Fischer might never have seen how art can be used to increase student comprehension of content reading material. Included: Ideas for using pictographs, storyboards, graphic organizers.

Max W. Fischer

Anyone who knows me as a teacher -- or who has read a few of my Voice of Experience essays -- probably knows of my fondness for Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. I am drawn to Gardner's work because I see clearly the value of using a wide variety of methods to cultivate my middle-grades students' comprehension of the content I teach. When you teach ancient history -- where the vocabulary can automatically elevate the reading level of a course text -- you search for any means to help students better grasp that material. Gardner's theory informs, and my experience has confirmed beyond a doubt, that no one method is best for all.


Spatial intelligence, one of Gardner's eight identified strands of intelligence, is defined by him as the ability to recognize and employ patterns of varying degrees of space. In my social studies classroom, students use spatial intelligence to read maps and graphs, to view video clips or transparencies, and in individual project assignments that include artwork such as dioramas, murals, or video presentations.

Activities that require use of spatial intelligence often prove beneficial for students whose reading and writing abilities don't measure up and for those gifted members of the class who are bored stiff and unchallenged. Following are a few spatial-intelligence activity ideas that have worked for my students and can be adapted to many areas of the curriculum.


To most students, say the word pictograph and they conjure up an image of a graph in which a symbol is used to indicate quantity. But in another, more novel, form, pictographs can be drawn to represent a word, a famous name, a place, an event, an idea, or a vocabulary term. In that case, the actual word often appears within the pictographic image, as it does in the student-created mercenary pictograph that appears here. A mercenary is a soldier, usually a foreigner, who is paid to fight for a ruler. The student who created this pictograph employed a shield, spears, and arrows -- tools of mercenary soldiers of the ancient Greek world -- in it. The spears and arrows actually cross to form the letter M in the word mercenary.

I often ask students to create pictographs after I have presented content. In most cases, it is readily apparent from my students' pictographs whether or not they comprehend the significance of the term.

Pictographs have additional benefits as a classroom activity. For example, one student's pictograph of the term mercenary might lead to other students "seeing" the concept in a way they might not have understood it. The art, in that case, is far more memorable than a simple definition of the term. It gives additional context that might give rise to a real understanding of the term.

Pictographs, while employing spatial intelligence, do not necessarily require artistic talent. Many students -- and myself -- are intimidated about drawing human figures. Pictographs offer an escape from that kind of precise drawing. With pictographs, I counsel students to think beyond the literal interpretation of the term. I encourage them not to draw people at all, if possible. That forces them to think in more symbolic ways when defining a term. The "mercenary" pictograph is a perfect example of that. Ultimately, a simple logo worked as well or better to represent the word than a drawn human figure might have worked -- even though the term defines a kind of person!


While the pictograph is an excellent tool for building vocabulary, the storyboard is an exceptional strategy for reflecting students' comprehension of specific content. Often used by elementary reading teachers, storyboards are a form of comic strip in which students illustrate the main ideas of reading material in a handful of distinct segments. In history or science class, storyboards are useful in depicting events in a series that led to a specific outcome. They are also handy for having students illustrate various characteristics of a topic.

Obviously, some students will be better equipped for the storyboard assignment than others are. Since drawing the human form is bound to be more pervasive in a history storyboard than in pictographs, I might use this as an assignment just once in a school year. After that initial assignment, I often present it as one among a list of options.


A third format of visual/spatial comprehension aides is actually an entire category: graphic organizers. Graphic organizers come in many formats. The ABC's of the Writing Process: Graphic Organizer Links page -- one of dozens of good sources -- offers many sample organizers. Any of them offer a visual pattern that students can use to make sense of their reading.

Activities that employ spatial intelligence can be used by teachers of any subject. Tools such as pictographs, storyboards, and graphic organizers can offer teachers great insight into students' comprehension of significant concepts. Limiting these tools to use in the elementary classroom -- or the history classroom -- is a big mistake.

I have often been amazed at the perception my middle school students bring to bear in their reading. Some of my most challenged students make truly discerning inferences in their "artwork." Without the use of these spatial intelligence activities and tools, I might never have been afforded such distinctive diagnostic opportunities. By using them I have learned -- beyond doubt -- that true inspiration for students lies in a teacher's concession that there is no single best way to learn.

More Voices

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks?

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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Updated 01/12/2010