Reading Comprehension and Video: 4 Essential Strategies for Teaching Kids to be Strong Readers of Visual Media

Even though our students are spending a great deal of time consuming visual media, they’re frequently just passively letting both 45-second tik-toks and feature-length films wash over them. The fact that they’re consuming a lot doesn’t mean that they know how to be strong readers and decoders of the media that they are consuming. Part of preparing our students for being “21st Century learners” means helping them to read all texts, not just traditional print ones. 

So what is visual literacy? Brain Kennedy writes, “Visual Literacy is the ability to construct meaning from images. It’s not a skill. It uses skills as a toolbox. It’s a form of critical thinking that enhances your intellectual capacity.”

I love using films and video in my classroom, but I’m intentional about the strategies I use. Here are my four go-to strategies to put in your toolbox to help your students be stronger visual media readers and critical thinkers.

Watching Twice: Meaning Comes After Understanding 

As educators, we know that each time we teach a text, we discover something new with every reading. The same can be said for visual media. That is why watching visual media twice is a powerful tool to deepen understanding and aid in rich analysis.

Shorts, Commercials, Music Videos

These types of visual media can be watched twice in their entirety because of their brevity. Here is an example of this strategy that I have used recently in my classroom. 


This year, I introduced the concept of protagonist and antagonist to my 5th graders. The goal of this lesson was to help them understand that the protagonist is the main character of a work, but they don’t always have to be “the good guy” or even likeable and the antagonist is meant to introduce conflict by opposing the main character. So, I chose one of my favorite shorts to help them understand this concept:

The Present by Jacob Frey.

It’s an emotional short. Students have A LOT of feelings that they will yell at the screen! So, I allowed my students to watch the short through one time and focus their first viewing on understanding and emotional processing. 

After being inundated with impassioned cries, their opinions, and firm declarations of, “The puppy is the protagonist. Period,” I refocused their objective: “Given your understanding of the definition of protagonist and antagonist, who is the protagonist? The boy or the puppy?”

We watched the short again, this time they were all silent, equipped with a lens for their viewing. Our post viewing discussion was just as lively, but after the second viewing, students were able to separate their emotional answer from the objective answer; the boy was indeed, the protagonist. The adorable puppy introduced conflict into the story, causing the boy to come to grips with an internal conflict within himself.

Full Length Films

Second viewings of certain scenes from a film are also a powerful tool. It’s difficult for students to remember specifics of certain scenes if they don’t have the opportunity to view them again. 

My favorite film for second viewing was Baz Luhrmann’s, The Great Gatsby when I was still teaching high school. After reading the novel, we would watch the film as a class. Instead of a traditional viewing guide, I created a film analysis of certain scenes, paired with passages from the text for students to analyze. This best practice allowed  my students to see how text and visual media intersect, discuss film maker’s choices (good and bad), and write comparative analyses. 

So whether you’re watching a commercial and analyzing rhetorical devices or watching one of the latest Shakespearian film adaptations, your students will be stronger readers after a second viewing.

Applying Critical Reading Lens to Film

Just as we read various texts through a critical reading lens, the same concept can be applied to visual media. Here are some resources on various lens you can adopt while reading:

Going into a reading of visual media with a lens gives students a “purpose” for reading and allows them a framework in which to discuss what they have “read”.  

This strategy is able to be adapted for any grade level. For elementary school students, reading visual media through a reader’s response lens is most effective. For middle school students, and even upper elementary school students, a moral/philosophical lens can lead to rich discussion. High school students can pick from an array of lenses to make meaning when reading visual media. 

During my lesson on protagonist and antagonist, using The Present, I also had my 5th graders adopt a moral/philosophical lens while reading. Here, they read the text and asked themselves, “What lesson was communicated in this text? Was the character’s behavior acceptable? Why or why not? Do I agree with the character’s choices? Why or why not?” 

Ultimately, adopting a critical lens allowed my students to write thoughtful and moving responses about the short. When using this strategy in your classroom, remember, using a critical reading lens can allow students to write paragraphs or essays.

The 4 W’s

This next strategy is brought to you by a dear former professor of mine, Dr. Todd Finley of East Carolina University. In his article, Dr. Finley, inspired by Debbie Abilock’s Noodle Tools, discusses an activity that he created to, “help students make observations, connections, and inferences about an artist’s agenda and develop ideas about a work’s significance” and can be seen below:

This activity is perfect for analyzing visual media screen grabs, photography, printed advertisements, illustrations and social media posts. 

The question, “What do I see?” allows students to pay attention to detail and practice citing textual evidence. When using this in my classroom, I pick out details that I would like to discuss beforehand. Having these ready prepared allows me to help students that say, “I don’t know what to write.” For example, when reading this illustration from Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I may rephrase my question and say, “Look at the expression on Junior’s face on both sides. What do you see? Describe it.”

The question, “What does it remind me of” allows students to make connections between texts and tap into their prior knowledge. Asking students to connect what they’re reading with their own experiences can also help them ponder the question, “How are my experiences being represented in the material we are reading? What voices and experiences are being included? Excluded?

“What is the artist’s purpose” not only allows students to practice the standard but also serves as a launching point for your discussion of the reading. I particularly like that Dr. Finley included the artist’s purpose of “document” in his questioning. This invites cross curricular opportunities for students to make connections between historical photos and events being represented in the text that you are studying. 

Finally, “So what” allows students to take their observations and write about why the visual media is significant. In my classroom, I like to use sentence frames in order to help students process what they’ve read. For example, in my lesson for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, students used this sentence frame to process their reading:

          My observation of…is significant because it allows the reader to understand…

This strategy offers endless opportunities for students to read and make meaning of whichever medium of visual media that you would like to use. Pairing the 4 W’s graphic organizer with sentence frames makes it even more versatile.

Positive and Negative Connotations

During my time as a Stanford Hollyhock Fellow, I was introduced to this strategy of using feelings as a means for analyzing literature from the incredible Sarah Levine. Her strategy is called Up-Down-Both-Why and is a “feeling-based approach to literature”, or in this case, visual media. 

I highly recommend reading about her work in this article from Cult of Pedagody, “Up-Down-Both-Why: A Feeling-Based Approach to Literature”  in its entirety. In this article she details the strategy and how to use it. It’s full of excellent examples and infographics to help you fully understand the power of this strategy. 

This strategy can be used in all grade levels, produces incredible student writing and a basis for discussion. I have used this strategy in every single class, no matter the grade level, since learning about it in 2016. Once students are given this tool for analyzing a text, they will always use it to make meaning of texts. Prepare to have your classroom revolutionized with this strategy! It will quickly become your secret weapon. 

Don’t be scared!

Remember, teaching students to analyze films and video clips is an important part of helping them to develop a critical lens. If your fellow teachers or an administrator gives you an upturned eye-brow when they see that you’re spending another day on a film, hand them your lesson plan and walk them through the key literacy strategies you’re honing through this medium. Shying away from an entire genre just because of outdated perceptions would be doing your students a disservice. Be bold, be thorough, watch everything twice, and have fun!

Catherine Baker, Elementary ELA Teacher
Written by Catherine Baker, Elementary ELA Teacher

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