Reading Visual Aids

Learning Objectives

  • Use reading strategies to glean information from visual aids

What is a Visual Aid?

Icons of a photo, diagrams, and pie chart.

Figure 1. Take the time to read and analyze visual aids included in your reading.

A visual aid is an image or graphic used to display information. Visual aids can be found in just about every kind of print and electronic media; they can appear within the body of the text, in boxes or sidebars, or in appendices. They often convey information that is supported by the surrounding text, but sometimes they present novel information.

Reading Visual Aids

When reading, it’s a good idea to pause and examine any visual aids you see. Common types include:

Tables: Tables are text-based graphics that display information using words and numbers arranged in columns and rows.

A Table showing bone classifications: long, short, flat, irregular, and sesamoid bones, with descriptions of their features, function, and examples.

Figure 2. Tables are great for organizing large amounts of information in a digestible way. You could use this table to quickly find out that flat bones are thin and curved, attach to muscles and protect internal organs, and include the sternum, ribs, scapulae, or cranial bones.

Graphs: Graphs display information on a grid using an x/y axis. There are different types of graphs, such as line graphs and bar graphs.

Line graph showing relationship between age and bone mass for men and women. It shows that bone density peaks around 30 years of age and women lose bone mass more rapidly than men.

Figure 3. This line graph shows age on the x-axis and bone mass on the y-axis. When these points are plotted, you can find out the bone mass for males and females at different ages. For instance, the average bone mass of a 30-year-old male is 1500 grams, whereas the average bone mass of a 30-year-old female is just under 1250 grams.

Charts: Charts use shapes to convey information, such as percentages, timelines, or processes. There are different types of charts, such as pie charts and flow charts.

This pie chart shows the different types of video game players by age group, broken down by percentage. 26% are above 50, 18% between 36-49, 29% between 18-35, and 27% under 18.

Figure 4. Pie charts are great for visually showing groups of information. In this pie chart, we can see that the percentage of people above the age of 50 who play video games is almost equal to those below the age of 18.

Diagrams: Diagrams are schematic drawings that show how something works, such as a physical structure, a process, or even a concept.

Diagram of a spongy bone, composed of trabuculae that contain the osteocytes.

Figure 5. This diagram shows the structure of spongy bone.

Pictures: There are different kinds of pictures that can be used as visual aids, such as political cartoons and drawings of people, places, things, and events.

Political cartoon by James Gillray. Gillray satirizes the decline in manners brought about by the French Revolution.The cartoon depicts a deposed aristocratic bowing humbly and saying, “I am your very humble servant,” while the revolutionary rudely replies, “Kiss my butt.”

Figure 6. Here’s an example of a British eighteenth-century political cartoon by James Gillray that you might find in a history textbook. The cartoon depicts a deposed aristocratic bowing humbly and saying, “I am your very humble servant,” while the revolutionary rudely replies, “Kiss my butt.” Gillray satirizes the decline in manners brought about by the French Revolution.

Maps: Maps are used to describe a territory or identify a location. Look to the map legend for important information.

Photographs: Photographs are also used as visual aids to convey information about people, places, things, and events. The types and uses of photos can vary greatly because of the different types of devices used to take them, such as cameras, telescopes, microscopes, and even MRI machines.

Watch It

The video below breaks down elements of tables, charts, and graphs. It shows how visual elements can be adjusted to give different impressions of the same information. Pay close attention to how the same information might be presented in different ways.

You can view the transcript for “Reading Data Tables & Graphs” here (download).

Try It


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