Pat Klos | September 2013

Visual Analysis: Writing to Source

Writing to Source

Writing to source is a key shift in the Common Core approach to writing we must address. And, we can easily accomplish it through visual analysis. According to David Coleman, one of the authors of the Common Core Standards, “a student’s ability to comprehend a primary source” is highly indicative of overall reading achievement.

Primary source expert Rich Cairn says: the “capacity to organize, analyze, cite, discuss, and write about information gained from both primary and secondary sources is paramount.”

Undoubtedly, having students analyze and respond to primary sources as often as possible is the way to go. I say: start with art as the source!  Use visual analysis as a pathway to writing, thinking and learning.

A primary source can be fine art or artifacts and photographs as well as letters, documents and other items. The idea behind using primary sources is getting students to translate what they see into written words. It becomes wonderful writing approach that we can use in any arts integrated classroom.

In a visual arts classroom, a formal visual analysis technique teaches students to help them organize their thinking when examining a piece of art. This analysis technique can be “applied to any work of art, from any period in history, whether a photograph, sculpture, painting or cultural artifact” according to the Kennedy Center’s arts integration website, ArtsEdge. We can apply this approach in other content classrooms as well.

Visual Analysis as a Primary Source

A primary source technique I have often used for arts integration is artifact examination. The strategy provides students with practice in responding to a source in writing as well as analyzing it terms of the elements and principles of art. We define an artifact as something made or given shape by humans. For instance, things like a tool or a work of art; many times it is an object of archaeological interest.

Sometimes called visual analysis, the strategy basically provides students with set of prompts that help them methodically examine and evaluate a piece of art in order to learn more about it and identify what, why, who and how it was made. Students look at and discuss an item from various points of view and write responses to questions in an organizer:


Identify and describe the artifact including the material making up the artifact: bone, pottery, metal, wood, stone, leather, glass, paper, cardboard, cotton, plastic, other material.


Describe how it looks and feels: shape, color, texture, size, and weight. Does it have movable parts, anything printed, stamped or written on it?


What might it have been used for? Who might have used it? Where might it have been used? When might it have been used?


Does it tell us anything about how it was made? What does it tell us about the life, times and technology of the people who made it and used it? What was the value of this object? Where does it come from? Can you name a similar item used today?


Of the artifact or a portion of the artifact. Put in as much detail as possible.

I love to use this activity to as an anticipatory set. I especially like to look for artifacts that students might not recognize, so they have to make predictions about what it is and what it has to do with the upcoming lesson. They love the investigation aspect of the activity. If the students are able to actually handle an object, it is really fun and engaging—but good quality photographs work just as well.

Applying Visual Analysis in Class

In a science class we used this technique to introduce an apparatus they would use in an experiment and in a Spanish classroom the students examined a variety of percussion instruments such as guiros used in Latino music. In a middle school social studies classroom students imagined themselves as anthropologists investigating the culture and civilization of the Mayan people by examining the art and artifacts they left behind. They looked at photographs of Mayan artifacts found online at the Library of Congress.

As an extension, the students were given clay and provided with a mini lesson on sculpting techniques. Then, students sculpted a model of an item that is part of their own everyday life. One, in which, in the 500 years we’d consider an artifact. They sculpted things like cell phones, a soccer balls and computers. After, they wrote artist statements that explained why they chose the item and what it would tell about their culture. They displayed their artifacts next to Mayan artifacts in a class museum.

Artifact analysis/examination can be a quick and engaging writing and thinking activity for students or become part of an inquiry based lesson. You can find lots of resources and sample lessons on the education pages of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, Smithsonian American Art Museum and many other museums. Check them out!

David Coleman’s Discussion
Rich Cairn’s Discussion

About the Author

Pat is an arts integration specialist in Anne Arundel County, MD. Having been a mentor teacher and instructional coach, she passionately believes that integrating the arts is the best approach to teaching: it enriches the classroom environment with art, engages students and motivates learning. Her mission is help all teachers realize that they can teach through the arts with a little know-how. Pat appears every Monday. Email Pat.