Mental Imagery in Reading:
A Sampler of Some Significant Studies

Mark Sadoski
Texas A&M University

The mental imagery that we experience while reading, either spontaneously or induced by instruction, is now known to have powerful effects on comprehension, memory, and appreciation for text. This may seem self-evident today, but it was not long ago that purely language-based theories of cognition and memory prevailed. If imagery was recognized at all, it was held to be incidental and of little importance.

This article reviews some key research in this exciting field. The studies are organized into categories of spontaneously occurring imagery, the effects of language concreteness, induced imagery, and theoretical explanations. The empirical studies discussed here were subjectively selected to represent the highest standards of peer-reviewed quality, a variety of research methodologies, and investigations of various reading tasks, age groups, and genres. They all deal with text, and mainly with extended text, as opposed to isolated words or phrases. They all have direct educational implications. The theoretical articles were also subjectively selected to be accessible to those familiar with reading research but not necessarily expert in psychological theory.

This brief collection is by no means comprehensive, nor does it do justice to the many researchers working diligently in this area or to the rich and growing literature being produced. Rather, it serves as a sampler of some key work that should inform theory and practice and provide a base for further study and research.

Spontaneously Occurring Mental Imagery

The studies summarized in this section share the characteristic that their participants were asked to read ecologically valid texts but were given no instruction to form images and had no foreknowledge that they would be asked about their images. They are basic efforts to explore the natural phenomenon of imagery in reading, the aspect of this area that has most recently generated interest.

In a set of two studies, Sadoski (1983, 1985) had third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students read stories from basal readers aloud and then perform several comprehension and recall tasks, including reporting any mental images they spontaneously experienced. In the 1983 study the text was illustrated, and in the 1985 investigation it was not. Students who read the illustrated story did not discriminate between images of illustrations and their self-generated images; students who read the unillustrated story reported more images. Results of both studies revealed that imagery of a key event in the story (its climax) was related to total recall and to deeper levels of comprehension, such as recognition of the story's theme. In both studies, oral reading miscues increased significantly during the story event most reported as imaged, confirming theoretical predictions that intensive mental visualization may interfere with the visual processing of print and providing a physiological correlate for the imagery reports. In neither study were imagery reports related to standardized tests, cloze tests, or multiple-choice questions on the stories, suggesting that imagery is a different, nonverbal dimension of comprehension.

Long, Winograd, and Bridge (1989) used think-aloud methodology and found that imagery was spontaneously reported at 60 percent of the think-aloud stops for a poem, a story, and two expository texts taken from school reading materials for fifth graders. Using an individual difference measure, students had been identified as high or low “imagers.” Imagery was reported by both groups at text points predicted to evoke imagery such as sensory descriptions and passages containing figurative language, and also at other points, including climaxes. The researchers found no relationships between reported imagery and performance on multiple-choice comprehension or vocabulary tests, concluding that these measures were insensitive to the imaginal mode of comprehension. They concluded further that mental imagery occurs as a spontaneous and consistent process in reading, and that imagery is related to interest in reading.

In the most extensive analysis of free-imagery reports to date, Sadoski, Goetz, Olivarez, Lee, and Roberts (1990) had community college students read a 2,100-word literary story and provide imagery reports immediately and after 48 hours. Imagery reports were entered under such categories as consistent with a text paragraph, elaborated beyond the paragraph, a synthesis across paragraphs, or reader-originated. They were also categorized by modality (e.g., visual, auditory, affective). In addition, free verbal recalls were obtained immediately and after 48 hours and were extensively categorized. Results indicated that while verbal recall declined after the delay, imagery reports did not. A factor analysis of imagery and recall variables produced factors dominated by visual imagery, affective imagery, and reader-originated imagery, suggesting that the experience of reading the story was largely an imaginal one. Other findings indicated a significant correlation between imagery reports and story grammar macrostructure, with imagery of the climactic event most common.

Another set of studies used numerical ratings and self-reports to investigate the spontaneous imagery of university undergraduate students who read literary short stories (Sadoski, Goetz, & Kangiser, 1988) and feature articles from Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic (Sadoski & Quast, 1990). In both studies, readers read the entire text and then were asked to go back and rate each paragraph for either the degree of imagery experienced, the degree of emotional response, or the importance of the paragraph. Graphs of the ratings for the stories produced the typical pyramid shape of a plot rising to a climax and tailing off for the denouement. Graphs of the magazine articles showed consistently moderate to high ratings, reflecting their journalistic style that strives for constant reader engagement. For both stories and articles, significant correlations between imagery and emotional response ratings were found, even when importance ratings were statistically controlled. For the stories, self-reports of the highest rated paragraphs indicated considerable agreement on what was imaged, felt, or held to be important. For the magazine articles, a surprise 16-day delayed recall test determined that paragraphs rated highly for imagery and emotion were still well recalled, but paragraphs rated as important were not.

In an extensive correlational study that also used rating scales, Goetz, Sadoski, Fatemi, and Bush (1994) had university undergraduates read articles selected from the international section of the New York Times and then rate them for imagery, emotional response, comprehensibility, familiarity (with the general topic and story specific), importance (general topic and story specific), interest (general topic and story specific), and writing quality. Factor analyses revealed that the ratings for imagery, emotional response, interest, comprehension, and writing quality loaded together on one factor, while the ratings for familiarity and importance loaded together on another factor that also received moderate loadings from the interest ratings. The researchers concluded that imagery, interest, emotion, and comprehension are consistently related aspects of reader response not necessarily linked to familiarity or importance.

Effects of Language Concreteness

Language concreteness, its capacity to evoke mental images, has been shown to be one of the most powerful determiners of comprehension and learning yet studied. For example, snarling tiger is concrete and image evoking, but policy concept is abstract, less likely to evoke images. There have been many studies of language concreteness, especially at the word and phrase level. In the studies mentioned here, language concreteness was varied experimentally to determine its effects on reading longer texts. Participants were not instructed to form images.

Anderson (1974) had university undergraduates read and recall simple declarative sentences. Sentence subjects were general nouns either with or without concrete modifiers (e.g., “The set fell off the table” vs. “The ivory chess set fell off the table”). Participants remembered 50 percent more of the sentences with concrete modifiers. In a second experiment, the sentences included either concrete or abstract modifiers and were equated for length (e.g., “The oil-pressure gauge was covered with dust” vs. “The measuring gauge was covered with dust”). Results for this experiment were the same as for the first, indicating that concreteness was the effective variable.

Wharton (1980) revised narrative passages on the causes of wars taken from American history textbooks to make them more concrete and imagery evoking; readability was held constant. About one word in eight was changed, and a panel of history professors determined that essential meanings were unaffected. The entire incoming first-year class of a college participated. Students scored significantly higher on comprehension questions on the revised passages than on the original ones. The comprehension questions were at the literal, applied, and critical levels, and test experts judged that the wording of the questions did not favor either treatment. Findings also revealed that participants rated the revised passages significantly more interesting and imagery evoking. Reading times were equivalent for the original and revised passages.

The use of advance organizers to enhance comprehension has been advocated for many years, but empirical results of their effectiveness are mixed. Corkill, Glover, and Bruning (1988) provided part of the reason for this seeming discrepancy. They conducted two experiments to examine the effects of having a concrete advance organizer, an abstract advance organizer, or no advance organizer on learning extended text. In the first experiment, advance organizers that were matched for length and rated comprehensibility but differed in rated concreteness were presented to two separate groups of undergraduates. Students in each group were asked to paraphrase them briefly to show that they had been understood. Then they and a control group read and recalled a related 1,200-word passage on astronomy. The concrete organizer group recalled significantly more than the abstract organizer or control groups. There was no significant difference between the abstract organizer group and the control group. The concrete organizer group recalled more than twice as much as the average of the other two groups. The second experiment replicated the first experiment except that an entire 5,000-word textbook chapter on linguistics was used. The results were the same.

In a study using historical narratives, Sadoski, Goetz, and Fritz (1993) investigated the effects of concreteness on the familiarity, comprehensibility, interestingness, and immediate and delayed recall of sentences and paragraphs. The texts were drawn from textbooks and history articles and dealt with historical figures who varied in familiarity (e.g., Sandra Day O'Connor, Michelangelo, Malvina Hoffman, Robespierre). Concrete and abstract text passages about each figure were selected, and modifications were made to enhance this distinction (i.e., concrete texts were made relatively more concrete and abstract texts more abstract). Results indicated that, with readability controlled, concrete text was rated as more comprehensible and interesting than abstract text, but not as more familiar. Concrete texts were recalled two to five times better than abstract texts, both immediately and after five days. Placing a concrete sentence before an abstract sentence about the same historical figure increased the recall of the abstract sentence by 70 percent.

Induced Imagery

These experimental studies used imagery training programs or gave readers instructions to form images. There have been many studies of induced imagery; those described here show the various ways it can affect reading of extended texts.

In a classroom setting, Pressley (1976) taught third-grade children a mental imagery strategy to help them remember stories. The children were given practice constructing images for progressively longer prose passages (sentences, paragraphs, stories) and were shown slides depicting good examples of images for the passages. Controls were told to do whatever they could to remember and did not see the slides. Both groups then read a 950-word story with alternating printed and blank pages. The imagery group was reminded regularly to form images on the blank pages and the control group was reminded regularly to do whatever they could to remember when they saw the blank pages. On a 24-item short-answer test, the imagery group outperformed the control group. There were no difference in reading times for the passages.

In a somewhat similar study, Gambrell (1982) gave first and third graders short stories to read in segments. Before each segment, children in the experimental group were told to make pictures in their heads to help remember, while the controls were told to think about what they read in order to remember it. After reading each segment, the participants were asked a prediction question (“What do you think is going to happen next?”). Responses were scored for factual accuracy and number of accurate predictions. Third graders in the imagery group reported twice as many facts and made twice as many accurate predictions as controls. Although first-grade imagers also outperformed controls on both measures, the differences were not statistically significant. Gambrell and other researchers have speculated that with beginning readers, the burden of verbal processing may inhibit simultaneous formation of images. Possibly, very beginning readers may do better reading and forming images successively, as in the structure of the Pressley study.

Anderson and Kulhavy (1972) used a 2,190-word text about a fictitious primitive tribe with high school seniors. The experimental group was instructed to read the text and form vivid images. The control group received instructions only to read carefully. Analysis of multiple-choice and short-answer comprehension tests showed no difference between the groups, but analysis of a postexperimental questionnaire revealed that a majority of the control group reported forming images during reading. Therefore, the participants were then distinguished, no longer as belonging to the experimental or control group, but by the amount of reported imagery. Re-analysis of the data showed that comprehension was an increasing function of the amount of imagery reported. This study is interesting to experimentalists in imagery research because it raised the question of whether it can be assumed that control groups are not forming images (i.e., imagery is a natural part of reading).

Steingart and Glock (1979) had undergraduates use either a mental imagery strategy or a verbal repetition strategy to comprehend and recall descriptive passages organized in three ways. Each passage dealt with a variety of objects, such as shelters, vehicles, or plants. In the first organization, each object was described completely in a distinct paragraph. In the second organization, one paragraph focused on one attribute of all the objects (e.g., , one paragraph described all their shapes, another paragraph their colors, and so on). In the third organization, the information was scrambled across paragraphs. Regardless of text organization, the participants using the imagery strategy answered more questions and recalled more. Imagery also resulted in more higher level inferences and better organized recalls.

Gambrell and Bales (1986) experimentally studied the effects of mental imagery training on the comprehension monitoring performance of fourth- and fifth-grade poor readers. The experimental group received a short training session in which members were encouraged to make pictures in their minds to help them understand and remember while reading. Children in the control group were told to do whatever they could do to understand and remember. Both groups then read passages in which either explicit or implicit inconsistencies had been embedded. They were instructed to read to determine if there was anything that was not clear or easy to understand. Questions and probes revealed that the imagery group identified both types of inconsistencies more than twice as well as did the controls. Follow-up interviews indicated that few control-group students reported using any imagery.

In a study with 120 fourth graders who read a 925-word basal reader story with five text-relevant illustrations, Gambrell and Jawitz (1993) investigated the relative effectiveness of inducing mental imagery, attention to story illustrations, or both together. The group instructed to form mental images read an unillustrated version of the story. The group instructed to attend to illustrations read the standard, illustrated version. The group instructed to do both read the illustrated version. A control group was instructed to read and remember the unillustrated version. Children in the group instructed to form mental images of their own as well as attend to illustrations significantly outperformed all the other groups on several measures of comprehension and recall. The imagery-only group outperformed the illustrations-only group on recall of story structure elements and complete recall of the story. The control group had the lowest performance on all recall tasks despite the fact that it was the only group explicitly instructed to read to remember.

Theoretical Explanations

This section presents a selection of articles that give a theoretical accounting of various findings related to imagery and reading. Currently, the most comprehensive general theory of cognition that explains the relationship between imagery and verbal processes is Paivio's (1971, 1986) dual coding theory. This theory maintains that cognition consists of the operations of two separate but interconnected mental coding systems: a verbal system for language and a nonverbal system that deals primarily with imagery. The articles described below offer specific extensions of dual coding theory to reading or tests of that theory against alternatives.

Sadoski and Paivio (1994) present the dual coding model as it applies to reading, with examples of how it would explain the comprehension of words, phrases, and sentences in different contexts. The dual coding theory is compared and contrasted with other theories, such as propositionally based schema theories and semantic network theories, in explaining the comprehension of the language units. The article reviews research studies (including many of the studies mentioned above) that support the theory as it applies to imagery as a natural comprehension process, imagery and learning from text, and imagery as a form of aesthetic response and appreciation. Issues requiring further research are raised.

Schema theory is another cognitive theory that has been popular in offering an explanation of reading comprehension and memory. This theory maintains that a schema is an abstract knowledge structure that guides the way text information is assimilated, how inferences are made, and how text is remembered. Sadoski, Paivio, and Goetz (1991) posed dual coding theory as an alternative, criticizing schema theory for its lack of a consistent or operational definition, its roots in idealist epistemology, and its mixed empirical support. The results of key schema studies were reinterpreted in dual coding terms. The authors argued that dual coding theory can more systematically explain results derived from schema theory as well as results of studies for which that model cannot easily account..

Context-availability theory has been posed as an alternative explanation for concreteness effects in text comprehension and memory. This theory maintains that concrete language has more prior knowledge connections than abstract language, and when abstract language is sufficiently familiar or presented in context, its comprehension and recall should be equal to concrete language. Sadoski, Goetz, and Avila (1995) presented undergraduates with four paragraphs derived from biographies about historical figures that were matched for readability, information density, cohesion, and rated comprehensibility. In one set, two paragraphs were equal in familiarity but one was more concrete than the other. In the other set, the paragraphs were unequal in both familiarity and concreteness, with the abstract paragraph more familiar. When the concrete and abstract paragraphs were equally familiar, the concrete paragraph was recalled significantly better. When the abstract paragraph was more familiar, the paragraphs were recalled equally. Thus, even when the abstract text had the advantage of familiarity, it was not better recalled than the concrete text, and when both texts were equally familiar, the concrete was recalled much better. These results were interpreted as supportive of dual coding theory and inconsistent with context-availability theory.

The theoretical picture is by no means complete, and theoretical debate and progress will surely continue as issues arise. New directions for research and application in the area of mental imagery in reading are numerous. For example, content area textbooks are often criticized for their blandness. An interesting question is when and how best to use concreteness in modifying text to make it more comprehensible, interesting, and memorable. Another question involves assessment. Many researchers have found that standardized, multiple choice, or cloze tests are insensitive to the contribution of imagery; its effects are more powerfully seen in various free-response formats. Therefore, the effects of imagery have implications for how reading comprehension is measured. As many of the studies described above have demonstrated, imagery inducement or training can have large effects on the performance of school reading tasks. Improvements in practice may occur through merging mental imagery in content area reading and “hands on” activities in science and math, for example. Still another area is the role of imagery in literary response and appreciation, especially regarding the symbolic function of imagery that seems to imbue literary works with significance. Mental imagery has been of interest since ancient times, and the rebirth of interest in imagery in recent years suggests exciting new directions for researchers and educators.


Anderson, R.C. (1974). Concretization in sentence learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 179-183.

Anderson, R.C., & Kulhavy, R.W. (1972). Imagery and prose learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 242-243.

Corkill, A.J., Glover, J.A., & Bruning, R.H. (1988). Advance organizers: Concrete versus abstract. Journal of Educational Research, 82, 76-81.

Gambrell, L.B. (1982). Induced mental imagery and the text prediction performance of first and third graders. In J.A. Niles & L.A. Harris (Eds.), New inquiries in reading research and instruction (31st yearbook of the National Reading Conference, pp. 131-135). Rochester, NY: National Reading Conference.

Gambrell, L.B., & Bales, R.J. (1986). Mental imagery and the comprehension-monitoring performance of fourth- and fifth-grade poor readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 454-464.

Gambrell, L.B., & Jawitz, P.B. (1993). Mental imagery, text illustrations, and children's story comprehension and recall. Reading Research Quarterly, 28, 264-276.

Goetz, E.T., Sadoski, M., Fatemi, Z., & Bush, R. (1994). That's news to me: Readers' responses to brief newspaper articles. Journal of Reading Behavior, 26, 125-138.

Long, S.A., Winograd, P.A., & Bridge, C.A. (1989). The effects of reader and text characteristics on reports of imagery during and after reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 24, 353-372.

Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and verbal processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Reprinted (1979). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual coding approach. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pressley, G.M. (1976). Mental imagery helps eight-year-olds remember what they read. Journal of Educational Psychology, 68, 355-359.

Sadoski, M. (1983). An exploratory study of the relationships between reported imagery and the comprehension and recall of a story. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 110-123.

Sadoski, M. (1985). The natural use of imagery in story comprehension and recall: Replication and extension. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 658-667.

Sadoski, M., Goetz, E.T., & Avila, E. (1995). Concreteness effects in text recall: Dual coding or context availability? Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 278-288.

Sadoski, M., Goetz, E.T., & Fritz, J.B. (1993). Impact of concreteness on comprehensibility, interest, and memory for text: Implications for dual coding theory and text design. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 291-304.

Sadoski, M., Goetz, E.T., & Kangiser, S. (1988). Imagination in story response: Relationships between imagery, affect, and structural importance. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 320-336.

Sadoski, M., Goetz, E.T., Olivarez, A., Jr., Lee, S., & Roberts, N.M. (1990). Imagination in story reading: The role of imagery, verbal recall, story analysis, and processing levels. Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 55-70.

Sadoski, M., & Paivio, A. (1994). A dual coding view of imagery and verbal processes in reading comprehension. In R.B. Ruddell, M.R. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.),Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed., pp. 582-601). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Sadoski, M., Paivio, A., & Goetz, E.T. (1991). A critique of schema theory in reading and a dual coding alternative. Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 463-484.

Sadoski, M., & Quast, Z. (1990). Reader recall and long term recall for journalistic text: The roles of imagery, affect, and importance. Reading Research Quarterly, 25, 256-272.

Steingart, S.K., & Glock, M.D. (1979). Imagery and the recall of connected discourse. Reading Research Quarterly, 15, 66-83.

Wharton, W.P. (1980). High imagery and the readability of college history texts. Journal of Mental Imagery, 4, 129-147.

Sadoski can be contacted at the Department of EDCI, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-4232, USA; e-mail

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Posted December 1998
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