Standard Lesson

Captioning the Civil Rights Movement: Reading the Images, Writing the Words

2 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
One 60-minute session
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Students are surrounded by visual materials that provide information and insight to the world around them. In this lesson, students explore historical content through visual literacy, reading, and writing. Using a scaffolded process and moving from whole group to individual work, students will explore iconic images from the Civil Rights Movement and create captions that summarize the features and ideas in the images. To publish their work, students can use the ReadWriteThink Printing Press, Trading Card Creator, or Stapleless Book student interactives. This lesson uses the topic of the Civil Rights movement, but can also be done with other thematic sets of images.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Text features, including captioned images, fill the pages of students’ content-area texts and trade books and play an important role in overall text comprehension (Roberts, Brugar, & Norman, 2014). However, many children do not understand the relationships between text and graphics and how individual graphical devices contribute to the overall meaning of the text (Roberts, Norman, Duke, Morsink, Martin, Knight, 2013). Because reading and writing have a reciprocal relationship, it is important that we not just expose students to high-quality examples of these devices and teach explicitly about them (Kelley & Clausen-Grace, 2010; Roberts, Brugar, & Norman, 2014), but also engage children in the creation of text features (Gabriel & Gabriel, 2010).

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

Materials and Technology

  • Document Camera or computer linked to an LCD projector
  • White board with boxes labeled "Step 1," "Step 2," and "Step 3" (modeled after steps 1-3 on the Picture This! handout, but without the written descriptions)



This website provides an introduction for teachers interested in using objects and photographs with students at the elementary, middle, or high school levels. Section 6 (Teaching with Photographs) and Section 7 (Teaching with Photographs: Steps to Take) are helpful to teachers who are interested in promoting the use of descriptive language in conjunction with photographs.

This website is an excellent resource for teachers to learn more about Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). Click on “What is VTS?” to see videos of students actively involved in this instructional practice as well as further information and resources.

This resource contains catalogue records and more than 1.2 million digital images that document United States history and “the lives, interests, and achievements of the American people.” Images include photographs, prints, drawing, posters, and architectural and engineering drawings.

The National Archives electronic repository is a searchable database with a wide variety of images related to United States history and culture. To search specifically for images to caption, click on “Advanced Search”, then “Filter Archival Descriptions.” Select “Photographs and Other Graphic Materials.” Selecting “Maps and Charts” also provides interesting material to caption.

This webpage allows viewers to browse photos by topic in each of three separate collections: Photo of the Day, Photography Book Galleries, or Photography Print Galleries. The parent website, National Geographic, is also searchable by keyword and contains a wide variety of high-quality images.


Student Objectives

Students will

  • identify captions in grade appropriate texts.
  • accurately recognize and describe people, actions, and items in photographs.
  • determine which parts of images are likely more and less important.
  • use a process approach to create canonical captions (i.e., captions that sound like book language and accurately describe the focus of the image).


  1. Ask students to look at their textbooks (or any informational text with captioned images) and talk about the kinds of things that they see on the pages. Take notes on the white board until a student identifies “pictures” or “photographs.” Tell students that today, they are going to focus their attention on photographs and the words close to them called captions. In order to do this, they will be looking at some pictures about the Civil Rights Movement.
  2. Ask students what they know about civil rights, noting responses on the white board. Depending on the focus of instruction up to this point, student responses might include people (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks), places/actions (e.g. March on Washington), or outcomes (e.g. integration of schools, Voting Act).

Visual Thinking Strategies and MLK in Washington, D.C. (Whole Group)

  1. Tell students that when good readers, writers, and historians study the past they examine many different types of evidence. They read books about the time period they are interested in and read documents/primary sources. Also, they examine pictures or photographs.
  2. Tell students that as good readers, writers, and historians, we want to know more about the Civil Rights Movement and one way to further what we already know (reference to the white board contributions by students) is to look at photographs taken during that time period.
  3. Display Slide 2 of the Civil Rights PowerPoint, “Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington in 1963” (Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
  4. Ask students to respond to the following questions as you record responses in the “Step 1” box on the white board:
    • What do you see?
    • Depending on your instruction up to this point, refer to previous experiences with camera shot composition: camera placement, subject arrangement, framing, lighting, and color. Possible follow-up questions include: What do you notice about the camera angle? Is the camera/photograph close to or far away from the subject of the photograph? In this photograph, what do you see in the foreground? Middle Ground? Background?
    • What evidence do you have, or how do you know that is what it is?
  5. After several students have had a chance to respond, ask: What do you think the person who took this photograph wanted people to know or understand?

Captioning of Image (Whole Group)

  1. Tell students that their observations are important ideas to share with others, and that one way that authors or photographers let their readers know what they are trying to say with a photograph is to include a caption. Ask the students if anyone knows what a caption is.
  2. After students share their ideas about captions, add or reiterate that captions are words or short sentences that either describe a photograph or provide the reader with more information about the topic of the photograph. Authors use captions to tell people what to pay attention to in the picture. That doesn’t mean that you can’t learn other things from the picture, it just helps you to figure out what the author wanted you to pay attention to. Captions are almost always short—usually a sentence or a few words, and almost always less than 10 words.
  3. Tell students that they are now going to use their ideas to help caption the image. Explain that they won’t be able to use all of the information, so they will have to try to pick out what they think the main idea of the picture is.
  4. Explain that sometimes it can be hard to figure out what the main idea is when we don’t have other text around the picture. If students are trying to decide between ideas, they might want to think about what the photographer seemed to be focused on, which is usually toward the middle of the picture or takes up a lot of space in the picture.
  5. Discuss which items the students think are focal points. Circle those items in the “Step 1” box on the white board and then re-write them in the “Step 2” box.
  6. As a group, draft two or three possible captions using the words in the “Step 2” box, reiterating that they would choose a caption to draw the reader’s attention to the point the photographer wants to make. Write these draft captions in the “Step 3” box.
  7. Remind students that photographs that are in books are not just to make it pretty; rather, authors are very careful when they choose which ones to include to help their readers better understand the information.
  8. Finally, guide students through editing and revising their captions. First, read each caption and ask students if they sound like “book language” or the way that we talk. Take student suggestions and provide your own as needed and revise the captions into book language, leaving the original on the board, and writing the revised version alongside it or typing it directly below the image in the PowerPoint.
  9. Next, guide students through a quick edit to make sure that they fit what they know about how captions should look. Are they short? A few words or a sentence? Count the words and be sure that there are less than or about 10. If not, take student suggestions and provide your own, as needed, to edit. This step parallels step 4 on the Picture This! handout.

Captioning in Pairs

  1. Have students move into pairs.
  2. Pass out the Picture This! printout (one for each student) and an image from the Civil Rights PowerPoint (each partner should have his or her own copy of the same image).
  3. Prompt students to complete Steps 1 and 2 in pairs, pointing out how they align with steps 1 and 2 on the whiteboard.
  4. As students complete Steps 1 and 2, prompt them to begin drafting captions individually (Step 3), and reminding them to look at step three on the whiteboard for examples of draft captions.
  5. Move on to Step 4 and ask students to share their draft captions with their partner. Partners can work together to critique, edit, and revise the captions.
  6. Once captions have been shared and edited, prompt students to write the final version of their captions under their images.
  7. Students can publish their captioned images to create a class set using the ReadWriteThink Printing Press, Trading Card Creator, or Stapleless Book interactive.
  8. If there is time, each student can use the same process to caption another image.

Closure (Whole Group)

  1. Share a few exemplar captions on the document camera, drawing attention to the match between the image and words, language used, and length.
  2. Remind students that when good readers read they read both the words and the pictures. When they read the captions, or the words that go with the pictures, it helps them to understand the message that the author was trying to get across.
  3. Recap the lesson by pointing out to students that, as authors, today they practiced writing captions—picking out the most important part of the picture, and describing it in just a few words or a sentence. As historians, we learned that looking at images allows us to investigate and understand what life was like in a different time or place. In this case, we understand that many people worked toward civil rights in our country from Martin Luther King, Jr. to everyday people like you and I. We also know people took lots of different actions including public demonstrations and speaking out. The actions of these people changed the ways that schools, voting, and many other things in our country work. Without these people, we would be living in a very different place.


This lesson can be used with a variety of photographs or images on other content-area topics. Pages with images and a space for student captions can be created using the ReadWriteThink Stapleless Book interactive. Students can also search for their own images, using one of the suggested websites or another source, and use the ReadWriteThink Printing Press interactive to caption them—the brochure template 1 works particularly well.

To extend this lesson on the topic of the Civil Rights Movement, teachers can share the actual captions/titles of the photographs, as written in the notes section of the PowerPoint, as well as the student captions for each image. Then the teacher and students can discuss how the events depicted affected lives then and now. For example, using the image on slide 9 of Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr.:

  • When this photograph was originally published in 1965, how do you think different groups of people received it? For example, what did civil rights activists think of this event? What about African Americans? White politicians? Do you think that everyone in each of these groups felt the same way about the signing of the voting rights act or might there have been some disagreement?
  • When we first looked at this image, we didn’t have the caption. What did we infer might have been happening? In 1965, if this image had been published without a caption, how might different groups of people interpreted it? What kinds of problems could misinterpretation have caused?

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • As students work through the process to create their own captions, listen for comments that indicate that they are trying to describe and make sense of the image in the context of what they know about the Civil Rights Movement. The degree to which they are making connections between the details in the photographs and their prior knowledge will indicate the degree to which they are assimilating or accommodating new information.
  • Monitor students as they discuss the images and peer edit/revise. Make note of any students that may need additional instruction on the social skills necessary to complete these tasks.
  • Assess students’ beginning captioning skills using the Caption Checklist. Students can also assess themselves using the same checklist.

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