Teaching Students to Analyze Complex Nonverbal Texts

March 20, 2013
Image credit: Veer

Standard 9 of the Common Core State Standards underscores the importance of students reading and writing about complex literary and informational texts, skills critical for "college and career readiness in a twenty-first-century, globally competitive society."

Using Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, my last blog toured several text-dependent strategies for teaching complex literary nonfiction. After grumbling about the CCSS's unfathomable vernation of cold reading as rigor transcendent, I argued that the assessment industrial complex conflates comprehension with test-taking literacies. Moving past these objections, today's post observes ways in which multiple strategies and contemporary texts of different genres -- even nonverbal ones -- satisfy Standard 9 (impatient readers may be forgiven for skipping down to the section titled Strategies for Reading Nonverbal Texts to find examples of nonverbal texts and analysis strategies).

No Silver Bullet

Teaching students, or anyone, to analyze a complex text is not easy. There is no silver bullet. No elaborate interpretive procedure exists that best helps students analyze all texts, because text uniqueness is comprised of an endless combination of interactions between:

  • Content
  • Reader's gender, age, culture and life experience
  • The text style
  • The author's purpose and intended audience
  • The reader's purpose for reading
  • The context of the text's development
  • The teacher's instructional approach
  • Whether the entire class ate bad tuna for lunch . . . etc.

To learn more about the role that communities play in interpretation, read Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in this Class?

Ultimately, a workbook filled with random passages and questions may keep students occupied, but does not foster the disposition most important to thinking critically through a text: caring about the material. Therefore, skilled instructors -- expert in the art and science of knowing how specific readers might profitably approach a text -- remain indispensable.


Students are motivated to engage with nonverbal forms of communication every day. Although we privilege traditional texts, consider that each of the following genres involve complex stuff, a communication process from a sender through a genre-channel to a receiver who interprets a message: human gestures, music, clothing, web sites, dance, memes, non-verbal advertisements, flash mobs, photographs, videos, paintings, sounds, diagrams, collage, remixed multimedia, etc.

Not all, but many, nonverbal artifacts align with six characteristics of text complexity defined by the ACT:

  1. Relationships among ideas or characters
  2. Sophisticated information "conveyed through data or literary devices"
  3. Elaborate and/or unconventional structure
  4. Intricate style
  5. Demanding and context-dependent vocabulary
  6. Implicit and/or ambiguous purpose

"Gone are the days when a text was judged as difficult solely on the basis of sentence length and syllable count," write Timothy Shanahan, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in Educational Leadership. "We now know that many factors affect text complexity."

Strategies for Reading Nonverbal Texts

Complex nonverbal texts and strategies for interpreting them are abundant. I've often used parts of Jim Burke's prompts for reading images with The Guardian's ongoing 24 Hours in Pictures. But rich photos are widely available across the web, such as one depicting a Woolworth sit-in and another focusing on school integration.

Memes -- images, videos, etc., that are shared electronically -- are great springboards into discussions about culture. And analysis can feel like play. "The last decade," writes Aaron Saenz, "has seen the arrival of lolcats, fails, trolling and dozens of other phenomena whose sophomoric exteriors bely subtle tones of social complexity and etiquette." "Binders full of women," the phrase uttered by Mitt Romney in a presidential debate, illuminates the social-political attitudes of viewers as much, or more, than those of the candidate who made the gaffe.

The Google Art Project affords students the opportunity to work through the grammar of art criticism. Norman Rockwell's best paintings include interpersonal tension, allowing students to make inferences about the narrative being depicted. Even doodling is worthy of study. Diversified Art features a handy protocol for describing, analyzing, interpreting and judging art pieces, and The J. Paul Getty Museum provides a handout for formally analyzing elements of art.

Students will enjoy learning How to Read Gestures and Body Language to interpret cues and send appropriate signals.

If you come across a genre of art that is inexplicable, weird, cool, or jams culture, try having students answer any of the following prompts:

  • The Quadrant
    • Physical: What do you observe, touch, taste and hear?
    • Emotional: What do you feel?
    • Intellectual: What do you think it means?
    • Spiritual/Philosophical: What do you believe to be true about the art?
  • Perspective Taking
    Edward de Bono recommends having students take the perspective of different professionals when analyzing an artifact: artist, banker, professor, environmentalist, journalist, etc.
  • One-Word Essay
    Have students compose a one-word essay (that they later support) about the subject.
  • Analyzing complex nonfiction texts need not feature interminable exegesis on the Magna Carta.

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    • Assessment
    • Literacy
    • Media Literacy
    • English Language Arts
    • 9-12 High School

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