Wilhelm, J. D. (1995). Reading is seeing: Using visual response to improve the literary reading of reluctant readers. Journal of Reading Behavior, 27(4), 467-503.1


The researcher helped two seventh-grade boys, who had learning disabilities and were “reluctant” readers, to visualize stories through the visual arts. The students became involved in various activities, including using created cutouts or found objects to illustrate or dramatize stories. The students became more sophisticated readers, took a more active role in reading, and began to interpret text rather than just passively read it. The researcher suggests several explanations for the findings related to both metacognition and motivation.

Key Findings:

The two students became much more sophisticated readers through the course of the nine weeks of visualization training. They took a more active role in reading, and began to interpret text rather than just passively read it. The researcher suggests that visual art provides a concrete “metacognitive marking point” that allowed these readers to see what they understood. It is also possible that because these boys were particularly interested in visual art, the use of visual art in reading made them more motivated to read.

Significance of the Findings:

This type of study can give meaning to research that simply establishes correlations between arts education practices and student achievement. Correlational research suggests promising instructional strategies and activities for educators to use; studies like this one promote understanding about what those actions concretely look and sound like and reveal the meanings those actions have for students. This kind of information is critical to stimulating fruitful educator reflection about how to apply arts education research to new settings.


In a nine-week session, the researcher helped two seventh-grade boys who were learning disabled and who were “reluctant” readers to visualize stories through the visual arts. The students created cutouts or used found objects that would represent characters and ideas in the story they were reading, and then used these to dramatize the story. They drew a picture of strong visual impressions formed while reading a story and engaged in discussions of how the pictures in illustrated books work along with the words. Additionally, the students illustrated books and engaged in “picture-mapping,” in which they depicted visually the key details of nonfiction texts. The final activity was to create a collage that represented their response to a particular piece of literature.

Limitations of the Research:

Although it points in promising directions, this research is limited by sample size and a single, primarily naturalistic methodology. This is a hypothesis-generating study. The next step would be to conduct a study with a larger group of students to determine how generalizable the findings are. It would be helpful to know whether this technique works only for students with interest and ability in visual art, or whether it would work for any reluctant reader.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What are the causative interactions among the variables in this type of study, including the learning context, the students’ motivation, and the actual impact of the visual arts on literacy?

1The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.