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Settings and the Five Senses

by Sean Sweeney July 11, 2014 4 min read

This summer, as I complete my Master’s Degree in Education, I am taking a course called Integration of Reading and Writing With Children’s Literature. It is very relatable to what we do at MindWing Concepts. The article I am referencing in this blog, the third installment of our SGM® Summer Study Series, was part of the required reading for this class. The following blog contains excerpts from my final paper for this class. The article is referenced at the end of the blog.

“Strong readers create mental images to aid comprehension. But students don’t always ‘see’ what they read, especially of the text is complex…students [must] turn words from the page into movies in their minds” (Varlas, 2014, p.1). This article further explains that asking questions about the characters, settings and actions in the story (all components of Story Grammar Marker®) enables children to begin to experience text through visualizing. In addition, Story Grammar Marker® and Braidy® tools assist children with the text structure and parts of the story which “reduces the load on working memory” (Westby, 2003, p.12). Therefore, they can focus on description of the characters, settings, actions and other parts of the story.

Valley of the Dolls Cover

The book that my friends and I are reading in July for our Book Club is the best seller Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I am only a couple of chapters in, but the first few sentences in this book struck me, because this passage exemplifies the idea of authors’ ability to create “movies” in their readers’ minds.

"The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming — an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. But she didn't mind the heat or the littered midway called Times Square. She thought New York was the most exciting city in the world" (Susann, 1966). The author used many senses to describe the setting; how the heat felt, what she saw and heard and smelled. Susann also used figurative language and personification (“angry concrete animal”) to create a very vivid mental image of New York City. In thinking about this figurative language, I made a connection to the lyrics of the song Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z, featuring Alicia Keys:

I thought of the chorus in particular…

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothin' you can't do
Now you're in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let's hear it for New York, New York,
New York

The image of the “concrete jungle” gives us the mental image of a dense, tangled environment with the skyscrapers and tall buildings acting as the tall, overpowering jungle trees overhead. It also connotes survival of the fittest but also the idea of freedom and endless possibilities. The other lyrics explore the senses as well, what you might see, hear and feel in New York.

In Varlas’ article, Rowland Reading Foundation’s Kathy Barclay notes, that “it is one thing to say ‘picture in your brain what I’m reading,’ and it’s another to say ‘use your five senses’” (Varlas, 2014, p. 4). She goes on to explain, “the more senses you involve, the more you experience the text, which means you’re also able to recall more about it because concepts move from short-term to long term memory” (Varlas, 2014, p.5). This is especially important now when the Common Core State Standards ask students to find evidence in the text. In examining samples of the new PARCC test, it is obvious that it will be imperative for students to be able to recall specific details and evidence from readings in order to answer the questions.

The Story Grammar Marker® is a tool that kinesthetically and visually represents the parts of the story that gives children something to physically and mentally “hang on to” to help with this task. In our book It’s All About the Story, we have a map specifically for exploring our “senses” in a setting (see below).

Senses Map
Maryellen Rooney Moreau, MEd CCC-SLP always shared in her workshops that a “setting” is more than a time and a place. It is what usually happens there – what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel when you are in that setting. She has a song that she likes to sing with young children to help them with the concept of using their senses to describe a setting. It is sung to the tune of This Land is Your Land. Since this song is about the “setting” of the United States, they could first sing the original version. Here is a fun version to practice with…

Then, you could change to these lyrics to Maryellen’s version to describe a specific setting. The lyrics are:

What do you see there?
What do you hear there?
What do you smell there?
What do you taste there?
What do you feel there?
Then, where is it?
My senses will help me to describe…it!

After that, choose a specific setting and use the map above to brainstorm answers to these questions in relation to a specific setting; New York City, the beach, the park, the mall, main street, Six Flags or a setting from a selection of children’s literature. If your students lack experience and background knowledge with a particular setting in a book, an activity like this can be especially important for them to do in relation to creating a “movie in their mind” as the article suggests.

“With informational texts, strong imaging relies on background knowledge that comes from reading multiple texts on a topic. [Miller] draws from videos, images and artifacts as sources for students to ‘read’ a breadth of texts on an informational topic” (Varlas, 2014, p5). In a Blog post later this summer we will examine ways to pair narrative and expository (informational) texts with multimedia and technology within lessons in order to build background knowledge and improve comprehension.

Hunter, A., Keys, A., Shuckburgh, A., Keyes, B., Sewell-Ulepic, J., Carter, S. & Robinson, S. (2009). Empire state of mind. New York: Roc Nation and Atlantic Records.
Susann, J. (1966). Valley of the dolls. New York: Grove Press.
Varlas, L. (2014). When the screen goes blank: helping students see what they read. Education Update, ASCD, 57, 7, p. 1-5.
Westby, C. (2003). The story grammar marker and braidy the storybraid. Word of Mouth by ProEd, 15, 1, p. 11-12.

Sean Sweeney
Sean Sweeney

Sean Sweeney, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and technology specialist working in private practice at the Ely Center in Needham, MA, and as a clinical supervisor at Boston University. He consults to local and national organizations on technology integration in speech and language interventions. His blog, SpeechTechie (, looks at technology “through a language lens.” Contact him at

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