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VTS: A New Way to Read the Same Ol’ Picture Book!

During this time of home learning and shuttered libraries, do you find yourself reading the same picture books over and over again with the children in your life? This guest post -- by Maine author/educator Margy Burns Knight -- offers an approach that might help you make those "old" books new again! Margy is a trained facilitator in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which was originally developed as a technique for viewing art in museums. In her work, Margy applies VTS to picture books, and has adapted it to broader language learning. Using this technique with picture books can also provide a foundation for an ongoing conversation with your child/ren about race and human differences, such as we did here.

Visual Thinking Strategies work great with the covers of picture books. It's a way to introduce the story and get the readers excited about what they are going to see and read in the book. As you read a book, you can stop at any point and try VTS as a fun way to predict what's next in a story or just to pause and talk about an illustration. 

Once you get the hang of how to paraphrase your child/ren’s responses and keep the three questions going, almost in a loop, you can use this protocol to have lively, thoughtful discussions about the illustrations in picture books. A great aspect of VTS is that you can do it for two minutes or ten minutes — it is up to you and your child/ren! 

Here are the three questions:

  • 1. What's going on in this picture?
  • 2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  • 3. What else do you see?

I am going to take you through a session I have done many times with the cover illustration of the Korean edition of my nonfiction book, Talking Walls:

Margy: Good Morning. I am the author of Talking Walls.

Our book has been translated and will be read in another country. On the U.S. edition, the cover is the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. This country wanted to represent their own wall story on the cover, so they hired Anne Sibley O'Brien, the illustrator, to illustrate this story.  Instead of me telling you the story, I want you to first help me discover the story and then I will open the book and tell you what I wrote about this place.

Take a look at this illustration. Now I am going to ask you three questions about this story and you can tell me what you think. 

1. What's going on in this picture?

Student #1: I think the people are visiting a museum or something like a museum and touching something. There are a lot of colors and the people look happy.

Margy: You think that the happy-looking people may be visiting a museum full of color. What do you see that makes you say the people are happy?

Student #1: The woman holding the baby is smiling.

Margy: Who else wants to add to the story? So far we think this could be some sort of museum with happy people visiting it.

Student # 2: I think it could also be a museum or some kind of visiting place, but look at that barbed wire — that's not so happy. So I think one side is happy and maybe the other side is sad and look, that family is taking a selfie and others look like they are reading something.

Margy: What  do you see that makes you say that is a family?

Student #2: Well, all the people are in their own groups and some are kids and others big people so I think that is a family.

Margy: So far we think that this place may be some kind of museum where you can touch and read the colorful things. Families go there to visit and take pictures, but the barb wire tells us that this place could also be sad.

What else do we see? What  have we not talked about?

Student# 3: We have not talked about the letters and I think they are Chinese because I have a friend who writes letters like this.

Student #4: I don't think it is Chinese because it is Japanese. I saw that writing somewhere and if you look at the faces they look Japanese.

Margy: So we think this place could be in Asia, maybe in China or Japan. You think that this place is happy and sad and families go there to touch and read the colors so it could be a museum. The families look happy and are taking pictures and pointing and reading.

Thanks so much for doing a great job of looking and talking about the details and sharing your ideas. Here is a copy of the book, so let's look at it and I will tell and read to you what I wrote. I don't read Korean but I know what it says.

So yes, this a place where families visit in South Korea, a country in Asia. It is like an outdoor museum. This is a wall of ribbons in a city on the border between North Korea and South Korea. The two countries have been separated since 1954. South Korean families visit the wall and write their wishes for unity and peace on the colorful ribbons and put them on the barbed wire fence. Yes, the barb wire makes it look sad and keeps the families separated.

This wall story is in the Korean edition of Talking Walls. There are twenty-five more stories about walls around the world in Talking Walls and I hope you read them all.


So you probably noticed that I accepted all answers and did not correct false information, but gave the correct information when I opened the book and told them what I had written. I then read the story  to them. I also told them if they wanted to know more about the wall of ribbons they can find information and many photos online.

This is where I have adapted VTS to be content focused so it includes all four domains of language learning. In my one-hour school workshops we talk about three images. I then ask the students to pick one of the stories and write it down.

Here are three writing samples from grade school students (remember this is after perhaps only thirty or forty minutes viewing three images):

As we know writing is not an easy task, but as you read above, post-VTS writing works so well. The students are so proud of their words and knowledge. Teachers were amazed by the amount of writing the kids did in five minutes!  

If you have any questions or you want to practice VTS with me via Zoom, feel free to shoot me an email at!

*Featured Image Credit: "Ma! Where is TV?" by uffizi.chu is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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