2: Attending to Text Features: Tables, Diagrams, Graphs and Charts

Texts that students use in learning content are often filled with tables, diagrams, graphs, and charts.  Students can learn to use these features to help them make sense of the materials they read and to make more informed predictions before and during reading.  It is surprising that there is not a great deal of research on the linkage of text, comprehension, and diagrams.  This appears to be true about many study aids and strategies that apply to content area reading and textbooks (Devine & Kania, 2003).

Diagrams and other visual aids provide cues to readers that can help them make more accurate predictions as they read.  Figure 2-1 provides a list of common text features.  A 1997 study (Moore & Scevak, 1997) found that students in fifth and seventh grade were less apt to attend to and connect the visual aids they encountered with the text they were reading than their ninth-grade counterparts.  In part, visual aids provide a measure of redundancy, which can be a useful tool when we think about literacy (Burmark, 2002). A message that appears in more than one form or format is one to which a reader should pay increased attention.  Visual aids may also help readers connect concepts represented in texts by visually presenting organizational patterns (Feathers, 1993). Finally, we can consider visual aids as texts in and of themselves independent of connected prose as it might be found in textbooks.Figure 2.1   Common Text Features

Features That Organize the Text
Table of contents


Page numbers

Feature That Organize the Ideas
Synopses (beginning or end of reading)





Graphic Aids



Charts and tables


Features That Elaborate or Emphasize

Bold, italicized, or highlighted words


Margin notes

Features That Extend Understanding


Projects or assignments


Learning to Predict

  1. Students can benefit if their attention is specifically directed to the visual aids such as diagrams, pictures, graphs, tables, and charts because these are easily comprehensible forms of information that can help a student predict, and thus attend, to the concepts represented in the accompanying text.
  2. Teachers can use a think-aloud protocol to model how to connect information gained from visual aids with the text, and the think-aloud protocol can be used to model how the information found in the visual aids can be used to reduce the uncertainty of predictions made during reading.
  3. Students should take time to survey texts in advance of reading them paying special attention to visual aids as well as annotations in text margins and font types (e. g., bold type font, italicized fonts, larger font than surrounding text, etc.). Teachers can encourage this practice by specifically directing students to survey the visual elements in their texts and providing time for students to do so.

Applications and Examples

Elementary Classroom. Punxsutawney Phil is the well-known groundhog who forecasts the winter weather.  Maureen Marino’s third grade students read graphs and charts on CNN’s weather page (Figure 2.2) to chart the highs and lows for each day for the six-week period beginning on Groundhog Day, February 2.  Students worked in groups with a different city and state assigned to each group. As their accumulated data increased, the students predicted what the weather would be like and analyzed topographical features for their effect on the weather.

Figure 2.2   Weather Conditions

The class discussed what it meant to have “typical weather” for the particular time of year in their region.  The students knew that they were collecting data but needed to investigate further what type of weather indicates an early spring or more winter weather. The students also created a chart with their data using Microsoft’s Excel® spreadsheet.  Once their data is entered, the students learned to create a bar graph, which Mrs. Marino’s students used to test their predictions about the winter weather.  (If doing this with older students you may want to use the Farmer’s Almanac to predict the weather, as well.) What did Mrs. Marino’s students call their project?  P.H.I.L., of course, Predictions Help Individual Learning.

Figure 2.3a  Zachary’s daily chart of high and low temperatures


Figure 2.3b  Zachary’s bar graphs created with a spreadsheet program

Secondary Classroom. With older students in his science class, Jesse Herrera teaches his students to use text features to make predictions.  While reading aloud from a science article, Mr. Herrera paused to make a prediction based on an illustration and the caption underneath it.  He models the use of text features and their usefulness in predicting, and thus comprehending so that his students will incorporate this practice into their repertories.

Looking at a photo of a scrawny tree, Mr. Herrera models predictions, “This tree doesn’t look so good. I think the gardener needs to come and cut it down.”  He then reads the caption, which describes the tree as a “champion tree” and one that scientists would like to clone.  He says, “Oh, a champion tree.  Champion usually means that it’s the winner. Given that word and the fact that scientists want to clone it, I predict this tree is important.  I also predict that there will be problems, as I know that people are sometimes uncomfortable with cloning.  I bet the author will tell us more about this as we read on.”

Mr. Herrera knows that making predictions based on the visual information presented in texts helps students consolidate their thinking, motivates them to keep reading to check their predictions, and results in better comprehension.  He also knows that modeling new or complex thinking, the use of predictions in this example, is an important way for students to incorporate this into their thinking habits.

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