Reading Visual Aids Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Reading Visual Aids Practice Exercises


Writers can use more than just text to get a point across. Diagrams, maps, tables, illustrations, and timelines can all be used to convey information to the reader. This lesson shows you how to interpret several types of visual aids.

You have probably heard the saying "A picture is worth a thousand words." When you look at an image, your brain interprets it in an instant, while it might take you five minutes to read a page of dense text. Images and other visual aids are efficient ways to organize lots of information in a small space. Just think how much easier it is to look at a map of your city than to read a paragraph explaining where all the roads are located.

When you were young, most of your books had pictures on every page. Children need illustrations to help them understand the text. As you get older, your books aren't always illustrated, but writers still use images and diagrams to help the reader visualize the information. Some of the most common visual aids are maps, illustrations, tables, time lines, and diagrams.


A map is a visual representation of an area. There are many types of maps, and they can be used to present a wide variety of information. Maps often include the names of continents, countries, and cities. They might also show elevation, the shapes of landforms, or the view of the land from a satellite. Maps can be used to show data, such as the population of major cities or the main crops of several countries.

To read a map, remember the steps you learned in the previous lesson for interpreting a graph. First, look at the introductory text or caption to determine why the map has been included. What idea or topic is it trying to illustrate? Second, look at the title. This will tell you what the map is supposed to show.

A map of basic landforms and place names might not include a legend. But if the map shows special data, such as the sheep population of Europe, the legend will explain the symbols or colors used. Here's a map showing a bird's habitat:


The map's title tells you that the main idea of the map is where the American Robin lives. The legend explains the different markings on the map. Notice that the states and cities are not labeled, because the writer assumes that you will recognize the geographic location. Does the American Robin live in your state?


An illustration might be a photograph or a drawing. It could be simple or complicated, realistic or cartoonish. It might represent information, strengthen an argument, or tell a joke. A comic is a self-contained illustration with no accompanying text. Other illustrations are linked to written content.

When you come across an illustration in a book or on a test, there are a few things to check:

  • context: If the illustration has an accompanying article or story, be sure you read that first.
  • title: This is an easy clue to the main idea of the illustration.
  • caption: This can provide an important explanation of what the illustration shows or what idea the illustration helps to prove.
  • figure number: Books or articles that have more than one illustration often number the images to help the reader identify them. Illustrations might be numbered with whole numbers (1, 2, 3, and so forth). They might also be numbered by chapter; the third picture in Chapter 4 could be called 4.3, 4-3, or 4c. When you read a book or article that includes illustrations, check to see how the illustrations are identified; then you'll be able to match the illustration to the related content in the text. This is especially important when the illustrations are on a different page than the related text.
  • labels: Within the illustration there might be words or symbols. These labels explain the parts of the illustration and help the reader understand its meaning. Here's an example of an illustration with labels:
  • Illustrations


A table is an organized grid of words or symbols. The information is arranged in columns and rows. Tables are an efficient way for writers to show lots of numbers or percentages that would be confusing in sentence form. A table usually has labels across the top, or the side, or both. Before you look at the table, read the labels to see what is being measured and what units are used.

You see tables on the back of every cereal box and candy wrapper—nutrition labels are a type of table. Here's an example of a nutrition table for corn chips.

Because you see nutrition tables all the time, the labels are probably familiar to you. In this table, the labels are along the top row. The first column shows the amount per serving. There is no unit of measurement listed beside the label because the rows in the column don't share a common unit. For example, fat is measured in grams, while sodium is measured in milligrams. The second column is labeled "% Daily Value," and all the numbers in this column are shown as percentages.

The key to interpreting tables is to read the labels carefully. When you understand how a table is organized, you'll be ready to understand the information, draw conclusions, make comparisons, or answer questions about the table.
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