Visual Thinking Strategies for Preschool: Using Art to Enhance Literacy and Social Skills

reviewed by Betsy Maloney Leaf - August 31, 2018

coverTitle: Visual Thinking Strategies for Preschool: Using Art to Enhance Literacy and Social Skills
Author(s): Philip Yenawine
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682531570, Pages: 192, Year: 2018
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What do you notice? What makes you think that? What more can you see? Three simple questions, yet when used in conjunction with the process of looking at art, they form the framework for Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), an educational approach to art developed by Philip Yeniwine and Abigail Housen. In Yenawine’s latest text, Visual Thinking Strategies for Preschool: Using Art to Enhance Literacy and Social Skills, the author convincingly argues that VTS is not just for students in elementary and high school, but can effectively elicit critical thinking while bolstering social skills and early literacy for preschoolers as well.

Chapter One provides readers with an overview of VTS in a preschool context. Yenawine acknowledges his own intial reluctance to embrace VTS in early childhood out of fear that young children would struggle with a key component of the approach: attentively listening to one another. But over time, and with help from well-placed colleagues using this method in the field (including at partner sites in Boston, Chicago, and Brookings, South Dakota), Yenawine slowly began not only to embrace the concept, but to advocate for it as part of a comprehensive approach to what schools frequently identify as a preschool curricular goal: school readiness. Yenawine’s reasoning comes from data collected over time in preschool settings across the country. Thus, much of the book includes up-close examples of not only how preschool teachers apply VTS in their classrooms, but also how young students take up aesthetic discourse while discussing art. The author illuminates each chapter with excerpts from classroom VTS sessions and responses from teachers actively using the VTS model with preschoolers.

Chapter Two looks at the process of using VTS in more detail by explaining its most important components: facilitating discussions using questions designed to elicit critical thinking, consciously placing “moments of silence” between the questions to permit students to reflect, and cultivating dialogue by paraphrasing, pointing, and linking connected threads of thought during the class conversation. Of course, there are no wrong answers in VTS. Students learn to observe and then note what they see from their own perspective, regardless of intent, objective, or expectation. The increased attention on observation, and the time to practice seeing, leads preschoolers to more intricate thinking as they shift from observing to inferring.

Yenawine acknowledges the difficulty of including open-ended learning experiences in an era of outcome-based education, especially those that require commitment and time, like VTS. In Chapter Three, he attempts to connect VTS to disciplines where it has the potential to reveal new understandings about key concepts in heavily tested subjects, such as literature, science, writing, and math. He also notes how VTS supports the process of improving social skills. To illustrate its effectiveness, he profiles one teacher in particular who, noting a shift in her classroom culture, used the questions as a way to discuss how miscommunication can impact personal relationships.

At a time when standardized test scores impact not only a school’s funding, but also its public perception, it’s fitting to consider how teachers provide evidence of student learning in order to comply with the expectations of outcome-based education. Yenawine addresses learning by writing an entire chapter about gathering and assessing student data using VTS. Chapter Four begins with an example from a school site in which a reluctant student, Hamad, identifies key objects in a work of art using single word responses to the first question of VTS, “What’s going on in the picture?” Over time and with practice using VTS during the school year, Hamad’s literacy and communication skills blossom. His comments grow from single word responses to full sentences. The following spring, Hamad is able to answer the same prompt (“What’s going on in the picture?”) with more detail and confidence. This, writes Yenawine, is evidence of how VTS supports student learning in the classroom. Later in the chapter, the author contemplates the intersection between social/emotional learning and VTS by suggesting that students who use this approach experience increased levels of participation and skill-building during the school year. He attributes this growth to children’s ability to engage not just “in observing but inferring actions from what they see” to experience “incipient storytelling” (p. 99). This conclusion is significant, because as teachers advocate for using VTS in their classrooms to demonstrate an individual child’s growth, they might also consider its potential to activate student identity, a compelling motivator for learning in schools.

Chapter Five provides much needed perspective from the field through voices of teachers who have applied VTS in their own classrooms. The chapter outlines not only the successes, but also the challenges that come with using an open-ended approach to education; one that challenges the dichotomy of a right or wrong answer. Teaching young children to find visual evidence in order to support observations, then, remains a significant antidote to answering “correctly.” The chapter concludes with a reminder that using VTS takes practice; one doesn’t become suddenly successful overnight, but rather over time and with practice.

Much of the author’s theory regarding the importance of VTS is predicated upon a student-centered approach to learning. In Chapter Six, he provides a succinct overview of educational theories that align with VTS and child-centered methods in education. The chapter covers expected theorists, like Dewey and Montessori, while imploring educational stakeholders to resist standardizing early childhood education, namely by taking play and creativity out of the curriculum. He writes, “Children function within an environment replete with appropriate opportunities – an area full of books and things to look at and read, an area with art and building materials, a science area, a dramatic play corner, and so forth” (p. 148). Readers will appreciate how Yenawine connects important historical epochs in educational theory to contemporary applications of VTS, but might note the absence of current educational theorists who also entreat stakeholders to include creative inquiry as part of schooling, like Heath (2004) and Duncan-Andrade and Morell (2008).

While this book attempts to address student diversity (i.e., racial and socioeconomic diversity) by occasionally referencing marginalized youth, most classrooms featured throughout the book highlight youth of privilege; those attending private preschools or university-affiliated learning centers. In so doing, the author fails to adequately address the complexities of three-, four-, and five-year-old children’s identities within the frame of the institutional power of schooling. What of the youth who encounter obstacles manifested by today’s political environment? How might VTS help them not only build language and social skills, but account for the looming discrepancies between what they experience in life, how they succeed, and what institutions like schools presume of them (and their abilities)? Readers should take note of these shortcomings as they consider how and with whom to implement VTS. Yenawine’s message, though, is well-crafted and delivered; stakeholders invested in early childhood should heed his suggestions for using VTS with preschool populations.


Duncan-Andrade, J., & Morrell, E. (2008). Contemporary developers of critical pedagogy. The Art of Critical Pedagogy. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Heath, S. (2004). Learning language and strategic thinking through the arts. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(3), 338–342.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 31, 2018 ID Number: 22491, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 12:50:53 AM

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