In a post written back in March, Valerie Mitchell posed the question of why teachers of native English speakers are increasingly adopting classroom activities designed for ESL students. As she pointed out, the fixation on scaffolds in the form of “visuals, vocabulary aids, graphic organizers, etc.” does not make much sense. For native speakers, the point of English class is (presumably) to help them express increasingly complex ideas in more sophisticated ways, not to teach them basic vocabulary in a language they have been surrounded by since birth.

I had no idea that this was such a widespread phenomenon until I read her piece, but once it was called to my attention, I realized that the increasing focus on images could only be the result of the three/multi-cueing approach to reading so often emphasized in the early grades. When children are taught to “read” by looking at pictures cues and guessing what the words say, they grow up into teenagers who “read” by looking at pictures and not paying very much attention to text. Then, because middle- and high-school teachers have little idea of why their students struggle so much with text, and even less of an idea how to remediate the problem, they gladly latch onto any solution that gets students engaged. I suspect that this why graphic novels are becoming such a staple in English classes.

To be fair, this is entirely understandable. After all, teachers are obligated to work with the students they have in front of them, at the level they’re at. And most secondary-level teachers probably cannot even begin to imagine the way many of their students learned (or rather didn’t learn) to read. If the choice is between having students learn something vs. nothing, then the decision to focus on material that’s manageable for students is obvious. The problem goes far, far beyond what any one individual teacher could possibly remedy.

It took an incident a few weeks ago to make me fully aware of the extent to which this is now accepted as a normal state of affairs, though. I was trawling the internet when I came across a Masters thesis on the benefits of using “sophisticated picturebooks” in secondary-school English classes. (Incidentally, this was a Canadian thesis—let me point out that the use of cueing methods is a problem not restricted to the U.S.) Remarkably, the writer devoted almost no space to discussing how actual teenagers perceive or experience the use of such books in class, nor did she investigate any outcomes of their use as a pedagogical tool—the entire focus of the paper was on her personal belief in their importance, and how they might be used.

As the writer put it: “[I]f given a structured strategy with which to analyze images (such as picturebooks), [secondary-school] students will be capable of understanding how pictures provide information in stories.”

Aside from the fact that it is difficult to imagine a normally functioning teenager who has difficulty grasping how images are used to support text, what struck me most was the matter-of-fact way in which the writer accepted picture-based books as an appropriate compensation tool for poor reading skills—there was no evident recognition of, or discomfort about, the fact that a teenager who is so heavily reliant on pictures to “read” is functionally illiterate. The notion that such a student might require intensive remediation as opposed to a band-aid designed to minimize the severity of the problem was absent.

For the record, this is not a question of whether the works discussed in the thesis have aesthetic/entertainment value in and of themselves—this is about adolescents whose reading skills are so stunted that they are forced to rely on images for meaning. An eager pre-service teacher can (almost) be forgiven, however. The real fault lies with the advisors who willingly supervise this type of work; to the universities who permit diplomas to be handed out with their imprimaturs; and to the districts that would hire a person with such distorted pedagogical beliefs and place them in a classroom with struggling students whose real needs they are not even remotely qualified to address.

That’s part one.

The second part involves The New York Times Learning Network.

As someone who’s been involved in the world of education for well over a decade, I’ve been in the habit of checking the Learning Section periodically for a good while now, and I find it impossible not to notice how its focus is increasingly drifting away from exercises involving text and onto ones involving graphics. (As if to prove my point, a recent headline was entitled “144 Picture Prompts to Inspire Student Writing.”)

The Times does also still include article-based activities, but given that this is a major newspaper of record, I think it’s instructive to examine the move towards images because it serves as something of a reflection of/bellwether for general trends in education.

Now obviously, adolescents do live in a socia-media saturated environment, and they are inundated with videos, photos, graphics, advertisements, etc. virtually non-stop. So yes, it is reasonable to try to engage them with images (although whether the NYT can seriously compete with, say, TikTok is another issue). And given the primacy of images in teenagers’ lives, it is important that middle- and high-school students be given the tools to analyze them critically. As Neil Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death back in 1986, school should be a place where students learn to step back and study the “frame” through which information is presented to them.

But that is not what’s going on here.

Given the state of American reading instruction, I think that it is important to ask whether the shift away from text is driven in part by the fact that students struggle to work with words—because of poor decoding skills, lack of background knowledge, inability to pay attention, or (most likely) a combination of the three. And nowhere are the consequences of this change exemplified more clearly than in the series called “What’s Going on in This Picture?” moderated by a group called Visual Thinking Strategies. 

(A “What’s Going on in this Graph?” feature was recently added as well, but I’m not going to get into that here.)

Aimed at middle- and high-school students, it’s pretty much what it sounds like: students look at a picture of an activity or event—sometimes fairly mundane, sometimes outlandish—and use “evidence” (that is, details from the image) to guess what might be going on.

The point of the exercise is not to help teens understand/analyze how images are constructed or how they convey an idea/promote a message; nor is it even to introduce them to a topic for further investigation. No, the sole aim is for them to figure out what’s happening.

The student responses left in the comments section are usually something along the lines of, “I observe that there a bunch of people looking at something interesting in the sky. I hypothesize that they are doing some kind of project for school. Based on the writing on the sign, I believe that this is happening in a foreign country.” Occasionally, a moderator might intercede and “interpret” a response so as to pretend that something insightful was said.

This is essentially the three-cueing system pushed to its most extreme point: the graphophonemic (letter-based) aspect has been subordinated virtually to the point of elimination. The caption from the article that the image originally accompanied is provided the following day so that students can check their guesses—but really, how many of them are going to bother to follow up?

In short, it is the emptiest exercise imaginable, made even more absurd by the pretense that it is a critical-thinking exercise in “using evidence.” (Call it Common Core meets the three-cueing system.) But this type of thinking distorts what evidence is, and how it works in the real world—in theory, at least.

As I think the term is generally understood, “evidence” is information that is used to support an argument. And technically, yes, students are being asked to make an argument here, namely that the photograph depicts a particular occurrence.

The problem, however, is that at the most literal level, the scene captured in the image is not open to argument—it does depict a particular group of individuals participating in a given situation at a particular time and in a particular place. The purpose of a caption—text—is to convey that information.

In the real world, highly specific journalism-based photographs like these are always accompanied by words—without that context, there would be no way to fully make sense out of the images. There are no generic strategies (e.g., noticing details) that can compensate for the missing knowledge that the text provides.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes you need fifty or so just to get what’s going on.

I mean, can you imagine the Times running a page of photographs, unaccompanied by text, for its adult readers and encouraging them to “use evidence” to guess at what they were seeing?

Probably not, because that wouldn’t happen.

Inadvertently or not, what an exercise like this does is give the impression that basic reality is something open to interpretation. It teaches students to focus on their own, often weakly supported or outright incoherent, hypotheses at the expense of reliable sources of information. Moreover, if the exercise is done in a classroom, students will more likely remember their peers’ faulty guesses than the reality. As a rule, whatever gets presented first tends to stick—a phenomenon known as “anchoring bias”—and overriding students’ misconceptions is harder than teaching them things accurately from scratch.

Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, words serve to convey complex and abstract ideas in a way that images simply cannot. Pictures cannot be used to analyze flaws in an argument or make concessions, or discuss nuances in ideas, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

This is essentially the teenage equivalent of “making meaning.” Just as Ken Goodman’s “Reading Is a Psycholinguistic Guessing Game” theory gave rise to a concept of reading in which children’s personal conceptions of what might be going on in a story were valued above the actual words on the page, so this type of activity gives teenagers the message that their personal interpretation of an image takes precedence over what it actually depicts.

And in these times, that is a very dangerous thing.