Routine Argument Writing Practices: Using Images to Spark Conversation

Students enter my classroom, milling about as they retrieve their writing journals from the bin, and make their way to their seats. While a few glance at the image projected on the screen at the front of the room, most ignore it (and me) and focus on each other. It’s a typical day in my seventh grade ELA classroom.

Kathy Kurtze uses speech bubbles to help students talk about what they see. Click to see more of these.

The bell rings, kids settle as I quickly record my attendance, and I turn out the lights.  I glance around to see that journals are indeed open, pencils poised, and I take a position in the front of the classroom, my journal and pencil in hand. The image is stage left of me.  Above me, posted on the wall in shiny plastic, are speech bubbles with sentence stems. I had drawn large, cartoon-ish bubbles with a wide marker, written phrases in each, and after laminating and cutting them out had posted them before the first day of school. We used them that day, and almost daily ever since. Phrases included the following: “I believe ___ because…”  “ I agree with X when s/he says Y, because….” I see what X is saying, but I think….” “I understand what X means when s/he said Y, but I also think…”   “I disagree with X when s/he says Y because…”.  Just a few short weeks into the school year, my students know which one to use when, and even stop themselves and begin again if they haven’t used one in their initial statement. Some even correct others who begin without one. I expect this day to unfold in the same manner. How did I get here, to this point of patterns being internalized? How did my students learn phrases so well that they could (and did) use them even in their history class when analyzing DBQs (Document Based Questions)? Let’s look at how a lesson unfolds, and see.

Several years ago, I attended a session at an MRA (Michigan Reading Association) Annual Conference led by a docent from the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts). Its topic– ‘reading’ images–intrigued me. I grew up east of Detroit, and visiting the art institute was a common family outing, so I was excited to see which of my favorite pieces would be utilized in this exercise. I came away with more than a rekindling of treasured memories. A few things stood out: with the lights out, students feel more anonymous, and are freer with their participation; the teacher keeps it simple with three repeated phrases:

  • What do you see? 
  • What does it mean? 
  • Why do you say that?

 The teacher repeats what each student says, framing the area the student is referring to with large hand/arm gestures, never making commentary (no “oh, good!” just simple parroting of what was said). I used this practice to ‘read’ images with my students for many years. When I learned about using images to spark conversations in argument writing, I adapted the questions slightly but used the rest of the same technique. Today is no different.

This image, a popular meme, serves as a starting point for viewing images as arguments.

I half turn towards the image, and ask “What do you see?” A few hands go up. “Two billboards” I repeat “Two billboards” and sweep my arm from the top image to the bottom image. “One says ‘Childhood obesity. Don’t take it lightly.’” I repeat her words, pointing to them. “The other one says ‘my kinda shopping spree’ and it shows a lady holding two large white bags with some kind of writing on them” I again calmly repeat the words, gesturing to those aspects of the images.  There is a pause, so I ask “What more do you see?”  “The one with the shopping bags has a McDonald’s logo in the top corner” Repeat, point.  “The lady with the bags is smiling” “There are really big pictures of a burger, fries, and a coke.” Each time, I repeat and point. At times, the room is quiet and I simply stand and wait; the ‘teacher pause’ is especially important in this process.  Eventually, the image is described to its fullest, and it’s time to move on. 

“Okay,” I begin. “Using your journals, write the claim you believe the image is trying to make. I’ll set the timer for two minutes. We’ll talk again after the timer goes off.” I set the timer on my phone, pick up my journal and my pencil, and select a seat near a few of my students.  As the timer ticks, students and I write a simple claim. When the timer dings, I stop it and say “If you haven’t already done so, finish the phrase and put your pencils down to let me know you’re ready.” I do the same and again stand beside the image. 

“I need three or more claims–who can share today?” I say, looking around while holding my journal. If sharing is slow, I am ready to share my claim. I hope to not need to–after several times doing this, these seventh graders are confident enough to put their own words out there.

A few hands go up; claims are shared: “If you eat fast food, you’ll get fat” “Don’t eat too much fast food” “Eating fast food can make you fat and unhealthy.” As each states his claims, I restate it, and ask for the evidence from the pictures that led to the claim. I point to each area of the picture they note, again with large motions that include all they are pointing out.  Then I ask the class if there is any other evidence to support the claim, and if they agree there is enough noted evidence for the claim to stand. 

To close, I ask my students to write two to three sentences to explain the  evidence that supports their claim. They might begin with “The picture shows…which means …” or “As the viewer can see, there is … which is meant to show…”  I set the timer for 3 minutes. When it sounds, I ask them to finish the sentence they are writing, and then to turn and read their sentences to a seat partner.

This entire process can be done in about 7 minutes if you want it to; you might omit the writing and just have the oral part.  Another time, you might stretch it out to 15-20 minutes. It all depends on whether or not you are using the pictures as a quick reminder of how arguments are everywhere, or if you want to make it a longer lesson on claims and evidence with complete sentences written. 

“Students are quite adept at ‘reading’ a picture.” Image from Pixabay user StockSnap

I’ve noticed a few things happen.  For one, many students are quite adept at ‘reading’ a picture, and they feel a great sense of accomplishment when they participate. They also feel like they aren’t ‘writing’ too much (which they aren’t), so they enjoy this activity as a ‘break’ from lengthier assignments.  And, as they continue to ‘read’ pictures for the arguments they present, they become more aware that arguments really are everywhere. One of my favorite moments is when a student comes to class and tells me about an ad they saw, and what they thought it was saying and how effective it was (or wasn’t). It proves to me how important this strategy is in helping students be more aware of the world around them, and to consciously think about it. In doing so, they are truly participating in the world and all the messages it continually sends them. It is my hope that they will continue to critically read messages many, many years beyond their year in my classroom.

Kathy Kurtze

Kathy Kurtze is a  happily retired English Language Arts teacher who continues her love of writing by facilitating a writing group at her local library, and as an active teacher consultant as a co-director of the Chippewa River Writing Project at CMU.


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Kathy Kurtze
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