A small, but interesting new study of students’ ability to interpret scientific diagrams by researchers Erin McTigue and Amanda Flowers suggests, however, that all this experience with visual information does not necessarily translate across tasks to help students understand the diagrams they encounter in their academic lives, especially in science texts. Diagrams, explain the authors, are important textual features for three reasons:
- Diagrams represent certain kinds of information more readily than sentences can. Lengthy textual explanations are often replaced with a diagram; a picture, after all, is worth a thousand words.
- Diagrams serve as an organizational tool, which helps even proficient readers make sense of dense or challenging text. Information presented in multiple ways is more likely to be remembered and understood.
- Diagrams can contain information that goes beyond the text. Supplemental images can deepen a student’s knowledge and understanding of a concept.
The authors examined the use and interpretation of diagrams by students ranging from 2nd to 8th grade. They found that students frequently ignore diagrams or, if they read them, bring virtually no strategies to the task. This haphazard consideration of diagrams compromises the quantity and quality of information students can glean from a text.
McTigue and Flowers suggest that educators offer explicit instruction in reading diagrams. A simple measure like modeling the interpretation of a diagram through a think-aloud can go a long way in teaching students what to look for. To correctly interpret a diagram, students should be able to identify its purpose and have some strategies in place for reading it. Also, teachers should be mindful of the diagrams they present; students in the study indicated that complex graphics were often distracting rather than helpful.
The authors conclude that if students are to fully understand the value and organization of diagrams, it is essential that they create diagrams themselves. Just as literature teachers often teach a genre by asking students to write a piece in a certain style, science, math, and history teachers can help their students develop graphics to illustrate the life cycle of a butterfly, the structure of a Roman road, or the difference between geometrical shapes. In deciding how best to convey information, students will learn important lessons about diagram features that can guide their reading. As the fields of science and technology grow ever more prevalent, it becomes increasingly critical that students are equipped with the skills to interpret scientific and other visuals effectively.