The ability to teach imagery in literature is incredibly important. It could be the difference between the reader being riveted to your writing or being bored and turning away. But teaching imagery in literature can be a very difficult thing to do. It takes much study and practice to become proficient at it. And to some students, it can be a hard concept to grasp.
So how do we teach imagery in literature? We start by breaking it down into an easily understood concept for our students and then showing them different examples in existing literature and other sources. Finally, we help them to write their own examples of imagery in literature before assigning them their own creative writing project, where they will be able to show mastery.
This is a step by step guide that will show you how to introduce it to your students in a way they can easily understand and immediately be able to recognize it in the literature they read. They will also be able to immediately start implementing it into their own writing.
Table of Contents
What is Imagery in Literature?
According to Literaryterms.net, the definition of imagery in literature is "language used by poets, novelists and other writers to create images in the mind of the reader. Imagery includes figurative and metaphorical language to improve the reader’s experience through their senses."
It makes sense to most of us that our sense of sight is utilized in literature by the act of reading itself, especially if images are included in the passage. And we can even understand the sense of hearing being used in the act of being read to or possibly listening to an audio book.
But imagery goes so much further. It puts words and thoughts together in such a way as to make the reader feel as they are actually experiencing what you are talking about with their own senses. How can your writing do that when you have no contact with the reader and his/her senses? The quick answer is by mastering descriptive language. Let me show you!
When thinking of sight in reading, we generally think of the words we are looking at while reading, or the pictures that are in the material. But sight in imagery in literature is so much more than that. It is getting your readers to see vivid pictures in their head based on beautiful, scary, fun, or any type of description you give them in the scenario of your writing.
So how do we do this effectively? The key is to use descriptive words that cause an emotional response from your reader. Combining emotional words with sensory words will help you to do this. And getting just the right combination will result in the idea you are trying to communicate to have a profound effect on your readers.
Here is an example sentence:
It was spooky and dim in the forest as Jane rushed through to get back to her house.
You can find many emotional and sensory word lists to help you in your writing with a quick online search. I am including an emotional words list (that one is at the bottom of all of the sensory sections) as well as sensory word lists here in this article to get you started.
They can be printed out in poster size or normal paper size, whichever you prefer. And they make great references to print up as take-home sheets for your students as well.
Since books don't make noise (not counting audio books or those children's books that come with recordings), imagery in sound actually means using the correct combination of sensory words in a way that your reader actually hears in their head what you are talking about. Here is an example:
She jumped at the shrill screech of an owl as she was trying to get through the thick woods to her house.
In this sentence, you get a pretty good picture of the sound that the owl was making when the girl was quickly trying to get through the woods to her home.
Here is a printable poster with some good auditory sensory words:
So now that we have already demonstrated imagery in sight and sound, you probably know exactly where I am going with touch.
Here is a great example of what touch looks like with imagery in literature:
The sticky webs clung to Sarah's face as she crept quietly through the dark, creepy forest.
Here is the poster for tactile sensory words:
Taste and Smell
Taste is one of the strongest senses, especially when combined with smell. And that is exactly why I put these last two senses together in the list of senses. The two are an indomitable pair. Putting them together in literature will make for some amazing reading when done well!
As you teach imagery in literature, I found taste and smell to be the favorite sensory experience for the vast majority of my students. And honestly, I had a lot of fun with it myself.
I will talk more about how I capitalized on it in the classroom later, but for now, let me give you an example:
As Sam walked into the movie theater, the rich, buttery smell of the popcorn made his mouth water instantly. Ten minutes later, he was enjoying the crisp, extra-buttery flavor and texture as he waited for the movie to begin. Good thing there were free refills!
And here are the posters:
You will want to draw the relationship between the sensory words and their categories. You will also want to point out to your students how many words fit into several of the categories. This is especially true with the taste and smell words.
Emotional Word List
All of the sensory word lists can be very powerful tools for communication and writing. But when students add emotional words to them AND use them well, their writing will rise to a whole new level.
Here is a printable poster to get you and your class started:
How to Help Your Students Work With Imagery
So, now that you have tons of words that your students can start with (and even add their own words to the lists), it is time to start working directly with imagery in your students' writing.
Begin With the Familiar
A great starting point is to take a few of the books you have already done in class or are currently doing and pull out some excellent examples of imagery.
This will be a fun activity to do with your class because it will open up a whole new perspective of the books they have been working on. The conversation surrounding this activity will be rich!
Practice Makes Perfect
Next we start working directly with building sentences using the word posters above. Students have no limits to what words they can use or how many to begin so I can evaluate their use/overuse of the words in their work. What I do give them is a topic to write their sentences.
Actually, I try to do about five different topics. This allows them to think in several different spheres of knowledge. It also gives me five varied subjects so that I can hit something that everyone in my class is interested in. Making students write about things they don't love can be very difficult.
And of course, the number five is not a rigid number. If they get it sooner then I would do three. If they need more help, then I would do a couple of extra ones.
Once you get this step down, your students should be ready to branch out on their own.
Don't Overdo It!
Before we get to students branching out on their own, I wanted to bring up one aspect to imagery that can totally destroy the effect.
We've all read those books or essays in which the author uses ridiculous amounts of flowery language. We are so distracted by the overuse of words that we totally miss the point or experience of the writing. And often, we just prefer to put the book away and be done instead of reading on and finishing it.
We need to make sure our students don't think that the more words we use the better. Balance is key here just as it is in most other cases.
Assigning Your Students Their Own Imagery Project
Okay, so now you have given your students all the tools they need to be able to recognize and use imagery in their own literature. And you have given them practice in working with it while you supervised to make sure they fully comprehended it. Now it is time for them to take it and run!
For the students that have no problems with creativity or coming up with their own writing projects, let them take it and have fun. For those that need some help coming up with ideas, have a list of writing prompts handy for them so they aren't agonizing forever about what they want to write about.
I have some writing prompts if you would like some ready-made ideas and they apply well to your particular class(es). Just click on them to check them out.
So this is how I was able to teach imagery in literature in a way that my students could really grasp the concept and then run with it on their own. I loved how excited they got when they realized what power good writing could have and how easily they could obtain the level of writing with a some focus and a great thesaurus.
How has teaching imagery in literature worked out in your class? I would love to hear from you!
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