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Brain Movies: When Readers Can Picture It, They Understand It

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
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Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University. They have written several books, including Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice.

The images that form in your mind as you read -- we call them "brain movies" -- can be more exciting and memorable than a Hollywood film. More to the point for teachers, guiding your students to visualize as they read is an engaging and enjoyable way to boost comprehension and retention.

Learning to create brain movies can help students make sense of complex nonfiction subject matter and "see" the characters, setting, and action in stories. Teachers who use our strategy tell us their students seem to have more fun -- and success -- as they read. These anecdotes are supported by research showing that students who are taught to develop mental imagery of text do better than control groups on tests of comprehension and recall.

The research basis for the usefulness of transforming text into mental images can be found in Allan Paivio's dual coding theory, which holds that cognition consists of both a verbal system for language and a nonverbal, visual-spatial one for images. By creating mental images from the words on a page or screen, we tap into both the verbal and visual-spatial representational systems, making abstract concepts more concrete and thus more meaningful and memorable.

From Text to Brain Movies

Visualizing while reading is a strategy that should be explicitly taught. The assumption that children are naturally imaginative may not be true for all students, and even those with vivid imaginations may need guidance in applying the active process of making brain movies to improve their understanding of what they read. Follow these steps to introduce brain movies to your students:

  1. Select a book, poem, or reading passage with vivid, sensory-rich language to read aloud.
  2. Introduce words or concepts that may be new to students before reading, and share photographs, websites, and other images to help set the stage.
  3. Ask students to share examples of movies based on books they've read, and lead a discussion about the difference between reading the book and watching the movie. Emphasize that as we read or are read to, our imagination creates its own brain movie.
  4. Recommend that as you read the selected passage, students create their own brain movies based on the text by imagining the characters, setting, and action. Suggest that some students may find it easier to visualize if they watch you as you read, close their eyes, or gaze out the window.
  5. Read with inflection and emphasis on striking language.
  6. When you are done reading, pause to let students finish translating the text into brain movies. Then ask for volunteers to share their favorite imagery or scene.
  7. Discuss how students' experiences helped them relate to the story and create their brain movies. How are the characters like them or people they know? How are they different? How is the setting of the story similar to and different from their neighborhoods and places they have visited?
  8. Note how many people find that visualizing what they read helps them to understand and remember the subject matter.
  9. Encourage students to continue conjuring movies in their minds as they read. Emphasize that creating brain movies requires reading carefully and attentively. And suggest that if they have a hard time visualizing a passage, they should reread it and look up any unfamiliar words.

Examples of Brain Movies in Action

Teachers who've used this strategy in their classrooms share these examples and tips for enhancing its effectiveness:

Share Brain Movies to Extend the Learning

Florida teacher Kelly Rose introduced brain movies to a literature circle of fifth graders, beginning with the powerful language of poetry. After guiding students to picture the images in their minds as they read and reread the poems, Ms. Rose then asked them to share what they visualized. "We found that our brain movies were all different, and by sharing our movies, we were able to remember even more details from the poem," she says.

Emphasize Vivid Language for Young Writers

Working with elementary students learning English as a second language, Georgia teacher Melissa Smith shares reading passages that demonstrate how writers choose their words carefully to help readers create brain movies. She then guides students to picture their own stories in their minds as they write, which helps identify the details and striking language that will tell their stories most effectively.

Let Students Choose Their Own Material

Giving students a choice in what they read can make it easier to teach how to create mental imagery. They are more likely to be engaged in and derive meaning from reading they enjoy.

For Further Reading

For more details and examples on using brain movies in your classroom, see author Donna Wilson's 2012 article (doi: 10.1002.TRTR01091) in The Reading Teacher (available by subscription, perhaps through your school or district). Mark Sadosky's article Mental Imagery in Reading summarizes some of the research supporting this strategy. For more visual strategies to support meaning making and retention, see our book BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning.

How might brain movies support other reading comprehension strategies for your students?

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Blain's picture

Thank you for sharing this simple yet genius approach to reading instruction. Both the article and posted replies contain excellent ideas for helping students connect to content.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and extensions of our lesson.

We agree that knowing how to visualize is important across content areas and appreciate the extensions and affirmations here from others who use this strategy to help students learn how to comprehend and understand at higher levels!

Marcus and Donna

Garnet Mayo's picture

Visualizing the story really helps students comprehend what they are reading. When I have students that cannot visualize what we are reading, I know that there is a disconnect. These steps are great and they also help lead to so many follow up activities to see where our students are at in their visualization. I really liked the compare/contrast of everyone's visualization. What a great way to show the importance of all of our brain movies.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


I like the way you are speaking of brain movies as a quick formative assessment as well as instructional strategy. And, agreed, that when students use this as a visualization as a strategy and are comfortable discussing their 'movies' it is a great way to amplify that there are as many different 'movies' as there are learners! Of course, this would be true because each brain brings a different schema to the imagination.

Keep using powerful learning and teaching tools!


Norma Austin's picture

I love this article! I teach 4th grade and I just started reading a book to my class about a 10 year old gold rush girl. After I read the first chapter, I had the students illustrate the first chapter. I had them share with each other what they came up with. It was great to see the different ways they organized their visual representation in their minds and then onto paper. They loved doing this too! After reading this article, I think I will talk more about making a brain movie for the second chapter then illustrate.

Mark Freedom's picture

When I was a child, I closed my mind's eye, and I had a hell of a time trying to open it again.

Are there any exercises for opening your mind's eye included in this new curriculum? Just a suggestion.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


I like your idea for an extension of your work with our visualization strategy! Good idea!



Sumak Warmi's picture

Im reading your research im remembering temple Grandin... My little son has 4 years is tdah maybe tea i dont knonw but im teaching he trhought images and he is Learning same a genius, sorry for my english im speak spanish and every night read to help my little Boy...i think i found your article was a blessing

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


Thank you for your mail and for following our blog posts. We are pleased you find our work helpful. You might also be interested in learning more about the work of the late Reuven Feuerstein at

Blessings to you and your son:)


shashi bhagwat's picture

Thanks for the info. I always knew i had this same ability. The thing here is i am in my thirties and still create a movie when reading fiction and now i know it's called brain imaging/movie.

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