One of the tasks that a teacher of literature faces is how to get students to really visualize a story’s characters and action or to understand how a simile or metaphor’s images contribute to the meaning deep within a poem. Teaching imagery to students — whether they are young children who are barely able to see over the tops of their desks or their hulking teenage or college-level siblings — is a matter of helping them identify it in texts, explore it through games and experiment with creating it themselves. Teaching imagery using a little fun coupled with a little imagination will help students rethink the world around them as well as the worlds created in literature.
In literature, an image is simply something that can be visualized. Students often confuse the idea of image with a cliché. In fact, many clichés first came to life as images that were vivid enough to capture the imagination, but through constant use, their visual appeal has become diminished. In the days before home burglar alarms, when many homes had a canine sentry, describing someone’s "bark" as "worse than their bite" was visually evocative, bringing to mind a neighbor’s outwardly ferocious Rottweiler who was just a gentle pup on the inside. Asking students to draw a visual image of a cliché or two helps them recognize that such everyday sayings were once truly images.
The next step is for students to find vivid and unexpected images in a story or poem that the class is reading or that the students are reading on their own. When students understand that a strong image makes the reader forget that the story is merely words on a page that suddenly, magically transform, teaching imagery by asking students to hunt for its use makes sense. Students might notice that strong images often use unusual verbs and very specific nouns. For example, a torn plastic bag that balloons with a sudden gust of wind and rattles across a parking lot offers an image that suggests impending drama. Had the author simply reported trash getting blown around, the reader could easily not even notice.
Kids like games, and teachers like games that teach kids. One simple game using index cards can be a great way of teaching imagery. A teacher and his or her students can brainstorm a long list of vivid verbs, ignoring standbys such as "talk," "sit" or "walk" in favor of "mutter," "slouch," "strut" and dozens of other verbs that suggest a picture.
The list should be at least 50 words, which is actually not as difficult as it might sound. Each verb is printed on a blue index card. Another set of 50 objects are printed on white cards.
Students can be organized into teams or partnered. The object is for the students to find as many unusual combinations that make sense — and create a visual image — as possible. For example, a leafless tree’s shadow might seem to stagger through moonlight, or a rollerblade artist might dangle in the air. After they’ve had the chance to work with others to create these images, students can try creating images on their own.