In this lesson, we explore graphic information in texts. We will take a look at the types of graphics often seen in nonfiction, learn how to analyze them, and see how they contribute to the texts’ information.

Graphic Information

You check your syllabus and notice that you have a massive reading assignment due at the beginning of next week, so you haul out your textbook, take a deep breath, and open the cover. As you scan through the pages, you let out a sigh of relief. The assigned pages are covered in pictures, maps, charts, graphics, and diagrams. ‘Whew!’ you think. ‘This is going to be easy!’

Not so fast! All those graphic elements of your reading assignment provide important information to help you understand whatever it is you’re reading about. You should not skim over them or ignore them completely because you might miss something very important. In this lesson, we will learn about some types of graphics and practice analyzing them in order to draw out as much data as possible from the text.

Types of Graphic Information

As you read, you will encounter many different types of graphic information. Let’s learn about a few of them.

  • Pictures – Have you heard the old saying ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’? It really is! Pictures reveal details about a topic that written text can never capture.
  • Maps – Maps allow us to form a mental picture of places and physical movements across a landscape. Readers often encounter political, physical, climate, topographic (the shape of the land), road, and economic or resource maps as well as thematic maps that show everything from battles to population growth.
  • Graphs – Graphs offer a visual portrait of data and its relationships. Texts feature line graphs that show changes in data over time; bar graphs that make comparisons over time and between groups; pictographs that represent data through pictures; and pie graphs (often called pie charts) that show parts of a whole.
  • Charts – Charts show organizational relationships (like a family tree) or processes (like a flow chart).
  • Diagrams – Diagrams often provide a visual portrait of how something works or is put together (like a schematic) or of how sets of data overlap (like a Venn diagram).

How to Analyze Graphic Information

We readers must never, ever skim, skip, or ignore graphic information in a text. In fact, we must carefully analyze each graphic, examining it closely to draw out as much information as possible. To do so, follow this five-step process:

1. Take an initial look at the graphic and to determine what kind it is. What strikes you right away as interesting or important?

2. Determine the topic of the graphic. What is it about? What kind of information is it sharing?

3. Read all the accompanying text. Read the titles, captions, map keys, labels, and any other text surrounding the graphic. Don’t skip anything; it is all important to your understanding of the graphic.

4. Look closely at the graphic itself. Notice its details, read its information, and jot down interesting points and questions you might have. Spend the time to really get to know the graphic. Ask and try to answer some important questions for each type of graphic.

  • For a picture, for instance, think about who or what is pictured and try to figure out how the photographer or artist portrays the person, object, or event.
  • For a map, identify the type of map used, the area it covers, and its theme.
  • For a graph, figure out its type, the kinds of data it presents, and the relationships it shows.
  • For a chart, determine whether it shows a relationship or a process.
  • For a diagram, think about whether it presents how something works or is constructed, or whether it shows overlapping data.

5. Pay attention to how the graphic adds to or complements the text. A text and its graphic elements always work together. Spend some time determining what the graphic tells you that the text doesn’t say or how the graphic presents the text’s information in a different way.

The Text and Its Graphics: Working Together

This last point is very important to understand. Graphics either add to the information presented by the text or present it again in a different way. Your job as a reader is to determine how the text and its graphics work together to present information.

Let’s take a look at a couple examples of how this works. Let’s say you’re reading about the Civil War battle of Chickamauga. The text describes the battle in detail, but you can’t quite picture it. You turn the page and see the graphics, which include maps of the battlefield that show the positions of the Union and Confederate armies throughout the battle and even a lithograph picture of the action. Suddenly, the battle comes to life in your imagination.

Perhaps you are reading an assignment in your chemistry textbook that includes a description of an experiment that was performed several times with varying results. You are having trouble keeping things straight, but when you turn the page, you see a bar graph that lays out the various results for you and shows how they changed over time as the conditions of the experiment were varied. You study the graph, and everything starts to make sense.

Maybe you’re perusing a geography book that contains a description of Great Britain, which is accompanied by several maps showing population density, major economic activities, topography, climate, and even major historical events. The maps provide a lot of information that simply wouldn’t fit into the text or would cover pages and pages if it were all written out. Instead, it is captured in a few graphics.

The list could go on and on, but the point is that the text and its graphics work together to provide information, and readers must pay just as close attention to the graphics as they do to the text.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Readers encounter many different types of graphic information in texts, including pictures, maps, charts, and diagrams.

Readers must carefully analyze each graphic, examining it closely to draw out as much information as possible. To do so, they can follow a five-step process:

1. Take an initial look at the graphic and determine what kind it is.
2. Determine the topic of the graphic.
3. Read all the accompanying text.
4. Look closely at the graphic itself.
5. Pay attention to how the graphic adds to or complements the text.

The last point is very important to understand. Graphics either add to the information presented by the text or present it again in a different way. The reader is to determine how the text and its graphics work together to present information.

Remember that reading assignment you thought was going to be so easy because it was filled with graphics? Sorry to disappoint you, but you have a lot of work to do analyzing those graphics so that you can better understand the text.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson is finished you should be able to:

  • List some of the types of graphic information
  • State and explain the five-step process for analyzing graphics
  • Discuss the important function of graphics in a text