Art of Comprehension“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” This Leonardo da Vinci quote suggests that regardless of medium, artwork is artwork. In other words, Ernest Hemmingway was as much an artist as Edward Hopper. With this premise in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that the skills needed to comprehend one type of artwork can be used to comprehend other types of artwork. This is exactly what the students at Elms Elementary School in Jackson Township have been doing through the program, The Art of Comprehension (AOC).

For the last five years, students have been viewing paintings, photographs, sculptures and illustrations to develop skills essential for strong reading comprehension. Additionally, teachers at Elms have found that AOC is also extremely helpful in teaching the forms of thinking required by the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/ Social Studies and Technical Subjects.

Engaging all learners

Teachers participating in AOC notice that children who don’t normally participate in classroom discussions often actively engage and begin to contribute. For many students, and for various reasons, text can be a burden and a barrier. Discussing artwork can negate many reading obstacles therefore giving all students, even non-readers and struggling readers, the chance to practice the reading comprehension skills they need. Additionally, because art is often easier to manage than text, discussions can be focused on skills and concepts such as identifying theme and important details, using details to support thinking, empathy and understanding different points of view. The very first step initiates participation.

STEP ONE: Have students gather all of the information provided by the artist by listing everything that can be seen. No detail is too insignificant. Answers should be concrete and not based on inferences. Listing everything ensures that all viewers have all the information on which to build their ideas.

 I often let students who are the least likely to volunteer answers go first. This forces them to engage and provides them an opportunity to give a correct answer, which builds confidence. Even with seemingly simple pictures, it is amazing how long a list can become.

Creating the list is equivalent to decoding. But because complex artworks are often easier for students to decode than even simple texts, younger students or struggling readers can practice the complex thinking that low level texts rarely demand but are essential for academic success.

STEP TWO: Ask students to summarize what is being viewed. This step is also designed to make sure all viewers have the information they need. The summary should be as objective as possible. Summarizing is a difficult skill. If students struggle with this step, the summary can be provided for them.

STEP THREE: This is the students’ opportunity to explain what they believe is happening in the artwork.. As this conversation phase (or the comprehension ARTiculation) begins students should use evidence from the picture to support their thinking. As long as an answer can be properly supported it is acceptable. However, it is important that all evidence is considered, not just selected evidence.

STEP FOUR:. Now it’s time to discuss the “why?” and “how?” After using evidence from the picture to ascertain what is happening in the artwork, and perhaps discussing the difference between details and important details, the next series of questions should lead viewers to think about the more abstract qualities of the work. To answer these questions, viewers must turn to their personal experiences, forcing them to put themselves into the artwork.

Although some answers may seem simple and perhaps even obvious, many students can struggle to properly support their thinking. If students cannot structure their thoughts and organize their answers concerning a simple artwork, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so when presented with complex material. Using artwork is a way of helping students become comfortable with the thought processes they need.

An optional step to include at this point is to have the discuss simple details versus important details. One thing for students to think about is the hierarchy of details. Students have to learn to identify important information within an artwork, article, word problem or novel. Although this step is not necessary to carry on the conversation, getting students to recognize important details is critical for academic success.

STEP FIVE: Create a list of possible themes and big ideas. Ask students to come up with single words or short phrases that convey what this picture can symbolize. These words and phrases should be linked to the answers students gave to the “why” and “how” questions.

STEP SIX: Once the list is created, have students make a connection or two to one of the words on the list. Connections should be as strong as possible so they can become a basis for a story or narrative. Making connections to the theme or big idea demonstrates comprehension. Students should be encouraged to make artwork to self, artwork to text, artwork to world, and artwork to artwork connections which demonstrate their full comprehension.

If we are asking students to pull meaning out of artwork (including literature) we should be asking them to put meaning into the work they create. Understanding what an artwork is really about helps the artist, whether a writer, musician, actor or visual artist, more clearly articulate what they want their reader to understand.

Choosing just the right artwork

A key to having successful discussions about artwork is selecting the right piece. Choosing the right piece of art is just as important as choosing the right book. Just like with reading, to improve pictorial comprehension, and to practice the skills they need, students should not only be viewing artworks that they can comprehend sufficiently but should also be viewing artworks they enjoy. Picture books, documentary photography (non-fiction), and often less well-known fine art, are all good resources.

Using AOC in other subjects

Students at Elms learn to discuss artworks with the focus on making artwork- to-self connections because they are generally the easiest to make. But as students become proficient viewers, artworks are used in many different ways. For instance, students studying weather events used the AOC process to analyze a documentary photograph of the effects of Hurricane Sandy. After their analysis, instead of making a personal connection (which they did in literacy) they had to write an essay explaining what type of weather event could have occurred and use evidence from the photo to support their claims. When studying energy, these same students analyzed photographs of well-known Olympic athletes and other sports photographs and identified all the forms of energy depicted. Throughout the lessons the students were engaged and enthusiastic. Science teacher Dana Bellino said that thanks to AOC, “Energy went from being basically a sleepy science lecture to an energetic interaction. No pun intended!” I’m thrilled that AOC has been embraced by my colleagues, it allows my fellow art educators to directly and measurably (through written or drawn responses) impact student academic achievement while providing students with numerous authentic and meaningful interactions with artwork. I’ve provided two examples of AOC to help you use this strategy in your classroom too.

In many academic classrooms at Elms, artwork has become commonplace as an effective educational tool. That is good for art. More importantly it’s good for our students.

Trevor A. Bryan teaches art, PK-5, at Elms Elementary School in Jackson Township. He is the founder of Comprehension is Key Curriculum Consulting ( through which he teaches The Art of Comprehension. He can be reached at