SOS: Eye Spy

Woman with lens in front of eye

Creative, research-based instructional strategies – presented by teachers, for teachers.

The Spotlight on Strategies series provides help, tips, and tricks for integrating Discovery Education digital media into your curriculum in meaningful, effective, and practical ways. The SOS series includes more than 150 different strategies you can use to engage students in active learning with digital media.

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Eye Spy

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Visual literacy is the ability to interpret and make sense of visual information we encounter, including but not limited to information found in photographs, drawings and paintings. According to the article “Reading Images: An Introduction to Visual Literacy,” by Melissa Thibault and David Walbert, “The visually literate viewer looks at an image carefully, critically, and with an eye for the intentions of the image’s creator.”
In order to develop visual literacy skills, students need structured opportunities to revisit an image multiple times as they carefully analyze it, noticing details and nuances that help them understand the context of the picture. The Eye Spy strategy scaffolds students through a structured analysis of an image, helping them see details that they would otherwise miss.

Materials: digital image, projector, timer, paper, writing utensils
  1. Introduce this strategy to your students by explaining that they will be looking closely at an image for several short periods of time. Set the ground rules by explaining that you will give them specific things to look for, and that when the timer goes off they will be asked to write down what they’ve seen.
  2. For the first viewing, set the timer for 10 seconds and reveal the picture.
  3. Ask students to look for what the picture is about or what is happening in the picture.
  4. When the timer goes off, cover the image and have them quickly jot down their thoughts and observations.
  5. Have students quickly pair and share. Circulate through the room to encourage discussion.
  6. Move on to the second viewing. Set the timer for 15 seconds and show the image again. This time ask students to look for more details in the image, such as:
    • Who are the different people in the picture and what are their roles?
    • What are they doing?
    • What event is taking place?
  7. When the timer goes off, cover the image and have students quickly jot down their thoughts and observations.
  8. Have students gather into groups of four and quickly share.
  9. Move on to the third viewing. Set the timer for 30 seconds and show the image again. This time ask students to look for even more details. Prompt students with questions such as:
    • What is the setting?
    • What else do you see in the frame other than the focal point of the image?
  10. When the timer goes off, cover the image and have students add to the notes they’ve already taken. Encourage small groups to debrief what they’ve added.
  11. Move on to the last viewing. Set the timer for 45 seconds and show the image again. This time, ask students to look for evidence that helps them make inferences about what they see in the picture. Scaffold students by asking questions such as:
    • Why do you think the photographer took the picture?
    • What do you think is the story behind this picture?
    • What meaning did the photo have at the time it was taken?
    • Has that meaning changed for today’s audience?
  12. Wrap up the exercise by asking students to discuss their ideas with the whole group. Be sure to have them justify their insights by using a sentence frame such as: “I think ……… because……….”

This strategy promotes the use of a carefully scaffolded process that helps students notice the details, foreground, and background of an image, as well as taking in the action, characters, and point of view of the image’s creator. Multiple viewings with specific things to look for will help students learn to view images with an analytical eye.


Extend this strategy by combining it with SOS Get Venn-y With It (CDN Version). Have students use the structure of this strategy to compare two similar images.


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