Dual Coding and the Importance of Imagery for Reading Comprehension  by Dr. William Kerns

This week my blogging partner Bill Kerns sets the stage for discussing models of reading that are contrary to the simple view of reading. Lately, some advocates of the simple view of reading have proposed models where decoding and reading are completely separate processes. First the reader decodes, then the readers use their listening comprehension skills to make sense of the message.  Obviously, not all researchers concur. This entry is the first in a series of entries that will explore research-based alternatives to the proposition that decoding and reading are completely separate processes.

Dual Coding and the Importance of Imagery for Reading Comprehension 

by Dr. William Kerns

            Reading is a complex process that involves social and cultural influences, background knowledge, emotional and cognitive as well as physiological factors, and the processing of sensory detail. This blog will address strategies for building literacy skills through big books and graphic novels. In this COVID-19 era with instruction increasingly online, discussion of ways that technology and imagery influence literacy and meaning-making is timely. Grounding the blog is research from dual coding theory.

Dual coding theory (Paivio, 2007) gives equal weight to verbal and non-verbal processing. According to dual coding theory, any understanding of the how students read, or best practices for literacy instruction, which fails to adequately account for both verbal and non-verbal processing is incomplete. The theory proposes that there are two cognitive subsystems at work when we read. One specializes in representation and processing of nonverbal objects and events (i.e., imagery). The other specializes in representation and processing of language. Thus, by implication, when a reader makes sense of words printed on a page and related imagery, this comination helps them understand the text in a more nuanced way. Dual coding theory is widely used in the research into ways of delivering information through both verbal and non-verbal means to increase memory in areas such as vocabulary and comprehension of texts (Mayer,1997). A key advantage offered by combining the use of imagery with words in text is that students will increase their level of attention they use to examine both (Boers et al., 2017).

Three types of processing should be accounted for by teachers when instruction is informed by dual coding theory. First is representational processing, which involves the direct activation of verbal or non-verbal representations. Secondly, referential processing is the activation of the verbal system by the nonverbal system or vice-versa. Finally, in associative processing, the reader activates representations within the same verbal or nonverbal system.  Any given literacy task may require any one of the subsystems, or a combination of the processing subsystems. The implication for teachers is that literacy instruction should involve planning, implementing, and evaluating the effectiveness of how to foster the increasingly skillful use of each of these three processing, involving both verbal and non-verbal means. Dual coding theory holds that images on a page are an important aspect of processing a text and teachers should plan ways of including images within literacy instruction.

A word of caution is needed here prior to proceeding. Sensory memory has a limited storage capacity and readers can be easily distracted from a text by imagery. Readers are more likely to pay attention to information if it has an interesting feature. They also are more likely to pay attention if the information activates a known pattern or calls to mind relevant prior learning. Thus, readers only possess a limited capacity for attention. As a reader attends to information, the information enters short term memory. Only a limited amount of inform can be held in short term memory at once. When using imagery with text, bear in mind that the amount of information that can be processed without reaching a point of overload is constrained. If the imagery is too distracting, causing for example a student to pay attention to the imagery instead of the words in the text, it can inhibit comprehension of text, so be careful here. Skilled readers are selective and strategic in what they pay attention to and why, but it is also important for teachers to guide students in the use of these strategies and the monitoring of the reading strategies. This spells out why it is so vital to teachers to point out details, and help developing or struggling readers to be strategic and well-focused, minimizing potential distractions from comprehension of a text.

Picture books and graphic novels become a vital aspect of literacy instruction from a dual coding framework, and during this pandemic many teachers share the reading of these books online. The picture book should contain the same elements found in any good children’s literature if used with children (importantly, some picture books are aimed at adolescents and adults) while a graphic novel shared with adolescents should include elements present in good Young Adult literature. Both picture books and graphic novels should have strong visual appeal with good quality illustrations. Print should well-spaced for readability. Picture books contribute to visual literacy development which is the ability to understand, interpret and appreciate the meaning of visual messages, as well as effectively communicate and produce visual messages. Picture books and graphic novels can be used in the literacy and English language arts classroom to help students make gains in understanding concepts about print, the parts of a book, and different genres.

Repeated reading techniques along with choral reading of a picture book can improve fluency. The study – and better yet, lively discussion – of words within a picture book can improve a student’s phonics and phonemic awareness, understanding of grammar and conventions, vocabulary, and comprehension. Importantly, by varying the way that words are studied, teachers help students develop the following four types of vocabulary: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Students can also use these books as anchors in writing workshops while they develop their own writing skills. Make sure that you are integrating the six language arts (listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, and visually representing) in meaningful ways that are linked together rather than isolating the six language arts from one another.


Boers, F., Warren, P., Grimshaw, G., & Siyanova-Chanturia, A. (2017). On the benefits of multimodal annotations for vocabulary uptake from reading. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 30(7), 709–725


Mayer, R. E. (1997). Multimedia learning: Are we asking the right questions? Educational Psychologist, 32(1), 1–19


Paivio, A. (2007). Mind and its evolution: A dual coding theoretical approach. Erlbaum.


Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito and Dr. William Kerns. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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3 thoughts on “Dual Coding and the Importance of Imagery for Reading Comprehension  by Dr. William Kerns

  1. DeGee Brown

    I’m very interested in this series of articles. I wonder if my brother was taught with the decoding and then comprehending philosophy. He is VERY intelligent but doesn’t like to read. He does not “make pictures in his head” when reading. It’s like he can tell you what he read but there’s no depth or soul to it.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Looking forward rather than back- at the very least it would be good to talk to him about making pictures in his head as he reads. My opening remarks on such lessons is to ask the student to imagine themselves watching TV, but with a rug thrown over the screen. Would it be as much fun? Of course not. So when you read, especially fiction books, you should try to make pictures in your head. Also, teach a writing lesson or two around writing so your readers will make pictures in their heads. As part of the combined study (reading/writing) have them read texts where the imagery is vivid. Include poems! If it’s ok I may use your question and expand my answer to your questions It would make it the next entry in the series. Let me know!

    2. williamkerns

      An unfortunate result of the skill-drill approach to reading, which for many teachers can mean an emphasis on phonics without emphasizing comprehension, is a lack of joy in reading. I can easily picture this with your brother. I know that Sam and I often talk of liking P. David Pearson’s advocacy for a middle ground, one which does recognize the value and need for phonics but also recognizes the value and need for a love for reading, wide reading, enjoyment and meaning-making. As Sam said in his comment, we can’t know with your brother without talking of his memories, there can be so many factors that take away a person’s love for reading. One thing that the dual coding approach does emphasize is the value of imagery, which includes forming pictures in your head, to enhance enjoyment, motivation and comprehension.


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