The Importance of Images for textual understanding

Thus the visual presentation of a text was considered, at least by the learned, to be a part of its meaning, not limited to the illustrations of its themes or subjects but necessary to its proper reading, its ability-to be significant and memorable

(Carruthers 224) .

This week I began my journey through my summer classes with ENGL621 Technology and Literacy. Already I am hooked! We read a portion of Carruthers’ The Book of Memory, specifically exploring the purpose of images in medieval texts. The quote above shows the importance of visual images in meaning and understanding. Carruthers discusses how images in these texts were not merely meant for decoration or aesthetic purposes, but that they served an important role in comprehension. This idea of the role of “nontraditional” texts in understanding is something that interests me as a secondary classroom teacher.

Even at an early age, we are “drawn in”

“Looking at pictures is an act exactly like reading”

(Carruthers 222).

Book cover of The Giving Tree
Cover of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein was one of my favorite books as a little kid. And if I am honest with myself, it was more about the pictures than the text. The love and empathy that Silverstein conveys through these images really brings the story home to the reader. While the words are powerful, the image of the tree bending down to share his apple, the moping, love-struck teen resting along the tree’s trunk, and the old man lonely, sitting on the stump, all tell the story just as clearly (if not more so) than the words themselves. I would argue that most people who grew up with this book can probably picture all three of these images just described. This is strong proof that Carruthers is correct that images help to hold ideas and themes in our memory.

More than just for children’s books

“Both textual activities, picturing and reading, have as their goal not simply the learning of a story, but learning it to familiarize and domesticate it, in that fully internalized, even physiological way that medieval reading required” (Carruthers 222).

I am a true believer in the adage that “a picture tells a thousand words,” and I think as educators, we should be using visual texts more often than we do in the English classroom.

“The Poet as Painter: Artwork as Text in the Secondary English Classroom”

Headshot of Anne Hudak
Anne Marie Hudak

Click here to view the abstract.

Above is a link to the table of contents and abstract for a master’s thesis that I wrote in 2004. The idea of using visual texts to help unpack written texts or to be used as a jumping off point for critical thinking is something that I am very passionate about. Although… it’s been a long time since I read this paper, and now I’m wishing I had titled it “The Painter as Poet…”

SAAM Summer Institutes- A Little Plug

Summer Institutes: Teaching the Humanities through Art at SAAM

For people who are passionate about using artworks in the classroom to promote deeper learning, I highly recommend the SAAM Summer Institute “Teaching Humanities through Art.” This program helps K-12 teachers explore ways to incorporate visual texts into the classroom to promote critical thinking and engagement. I attended the institute in 2016 and gleaned so many valuable tools.

“The author is a “painter,” not only in that the letters he composes with have shapes themselves, but in that his words paint pictures in the minds of his readers” (Carruthers 229).

So it is with this quote that I begin my journey into “Technology and Literacy.” It is certain that cultures privilege certain types of texts over others. It is interesting to look at certain privileging over the course of history to see how cultural norms affect these biases. If it is true that some people have argued against the use of visual images as a “lesser text” or simply as aesthetic decoration, we must think about why that culture might see visual images in this way. Likewise, we need to be sure to examine our own biases for or against certain texts in our modern culture and be slow to dismiss texts that we consider “lesser” until we have fully examined how our values might affect this judgement. In the meantime, I’m here to keep an open mind and experiment with all sort of texts in the classroom: visual, traditional, digital, and the like.

Works Cited

“Memory and the Book.” The Book of Memory: a Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, by Mary J. Carruthers, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 221–255.

Moser, Anne. “The Poet as Painter: Artwork as Text in the Secondary English Classroom.” College of William and Mary, 2004.

Museum, Smithsonian American Art, director. Summer Institutes: Teaching the Humanities through Art at SAAM. YouTube, YouTube, 18 Jan. 2017,

Shel, Silverstein. “The Giving Tree Book Cover.” Wikipedia, 1 Oct. 2017,

“Summer Institutes for Teachers.” Smithsonian American Art Museum,

Published by amhudak

a life-long learner trying something new

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1 Comment

  1. How neat your your MA thesis connects so closely with Carruthers’ ideas! We do have a divide in high/low literature that is often marked by the presence of visuals. I’m struck by how that shift is so dissonant with older culture’s reverence for visual art. I do wonder if an ocularcentric culture of media has watered down our reverence for the image as a sign for communicating meaning. Neat, practical and insightful connections here, AM.


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