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Two ways to integrate visual storytelling in K-12 instruction

This piece originally appeared on

The first pop-up children's book I ever touched was Little Red Riding Hood. I was a high school senior and I had thought I was over the fairy tales phase age. Yet I was super impressed with the pop-up Little Red Riding Hood.

The story was the same. Except that it wasn't. The pop-ups made it different; they added another dimension to it. Did I mention how impressed I was with the pop-ups?

I envied the kids who'd discover Little Red Riding Hood through that book. I had discovered the story through a book with no pictures. No pictures at all. I had to imagine everything. That wasn't too hard, but the beautiful images that popped-up each time I turned a page made me imagine the story more vividly. Even though I was a high school senior.

That's the power of visual storytelling.

The sight is probably the most important sense involved in the learning process — no matter the age of the learner, nor the subject learned. The right visual cues in a course can spark more interest and improve retention rates.

Storytelling, with its characters and plot, is what makes people want to know more about what can happen. When learners identify themselves with the main character in a story, the engagement rates are constantly high.

Do you know any teacher who wouldn't want their students to be interested in their courses, engaged with the learning materials, and better remember what they learn? I seriously doubt it.

So what should teachers do to integrate visual storytelling in their instruction? I'll only go into two options:

Visual storytelling through gamification

Kids of all ages love to play games. Even when games are about adding and fractions, sorting mountains based on their height, or putting on an imaginary crown and reenact historic battles, students love to play games.

Gathering points makes them want to progress more and more. Getting on the leaderboard makes them compete with each other and challenge themselves. Showing off their badges and trophies, or unlocking extra levels, makes them feel proud of their results.

And the best part of learning games is that they never look boring. A game — as simple as it can be — will always look nicer than any scientific paper with small font-size, ugly and hard-to-understand graphics, and lots of footnotes. Colors and interactive elements are the salt and pepper of games.

How to apply visual storytelling in games

You can create learning games with the help of your school LMS. Most instructional games fall into two categories: Candy-Crush-like games and Mario-like games.

Candy-Crush-like games are all about repetition. Learning basic math — adding, dividing, fractions — could be wrapped in a space rocket passing by "math" stars, getting bigger with every right answer, and smaller with every wrong answer from the student. Repeat, repeat, learn.

Mario-like games let you take a step further, and include storytelling. Mario follows a path and he gathers gold coins while trying to avoid deadly obstacles, to save a princess held captive by a dragon. You can take any element of this simple story-line and adapt it to your game and your subject.

For example, if you're a geography teacher, you can create a game where a student needs to find the best soil to plant a special species of an orchid. He/she can try the Canadian tundra, the watery soils of Bangladesh, the Sahara desert, or the Amazonian jungle. The student becomes the main character, and he/she must think, practice and adapt to the different specifications of each type of soil until they find the right one and plant the flower.

Integrating visual storytelling through gamification may not be possible for all courses, subjects or for all types of games. But when it is, students will have fun while learning, and even if they won't realize it, they'll appreciate it.

Let students be visual storytellers

If scientific studies and their small font size, ugly and hard-to-understand graphics, and lots of footnotes are boring, homework is dreadful. I think plenty of students can agree with me on this.

As if spending most of their day in school isn't enough, students have to spend another couple of hours at home doing homework. Dreadful. One second grade teacher from Texas is experimenting with a no homework policy this year. I can't wait to hear about the results at the end of the school year.

But if a no homework policy is not an option for your class, you can at least make homework interesting from time to time, by letting your students be visual storytellers. They'll be happy you did.

How to apply this

Whenever you take your class to a local museum or art gallery, encourage students to pay attention to the exhibits they see, and take as many pictures as possible — when that's allowed. Then, as homework, you can ask them to do a visual story about their trip and what they learned.

A website like UtellStory can come in handy. Anyone can create an account, upload pictures, and record their voice telling a story.

If you're a history teacher, another great idea would be to ask your students to work in groups and to create an interactive poster or board about the Boston Tea Party, or any other historical event. They must use the characters they've learned about in your class, and explain how one action led to another, and how everything came together to become the historical event.

Glogster, Padlet, and similar websites or apps can assist with this. They're all easy to use.

Dreadful homework? Not anymore. Students probably won't even realize if they spend more time than usually to do this kind of homework.

Over to you

Would you consider integrating visual storytelling in your instruction? What other examples on how to do this can you think of? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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