Using a Say/Mean Chart to Decode Cartoons

Using editorial cartoons can be a great way to provoke student thinking. These cartoons can be seen as a type of puzzle that needs to be solved. The keys to decoding editorial cartoons are:

a) background knowledge

b) inferencing

In Chapter 5 of Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12, Kelly Gallagher presents a simple thinking tool to help students navigate their way through a cartoon before trying to determine its ultimate meaning.


The ‘Say/Mean Chart,’ as Gallagher calls it, is a simple t-chart. On the left is the question “What does it say?” and on the right is the question “What does it mean?” Gallagher’s example above is from a text source. When using this structure with cartoons, you might alter the left side to “What do you see?”

When students examine the cartoon they complete the left column by looking only at the ‘surface level’ aspects of the cartoon. That is, they don’t try to figure out what the different symbols represent; rather, they make a list of items that they recognize in the cartoon.

Consider the image below. This was drawn by Benjamin Franklin and is widely considered to be the first political cartoon in American history.


A student might record the following on the left side of his or her t-chart:

What do you see?

-snake chopped into pieces
-caption that says ‘Join, or Die’
-initials beside each piece of snake:

Students might struggle with this cartoon if they don’t have enough background knowledge. American History teachers would likely be in the midst of their first unit of study when presenting this image, so students would likely have heard at least a bit about Ben Franklin as well as the struggles that many of the colonies faced in years before the American Revolution.

So now students must switch columns and make some inferences. In the right-hand column, a student might make a note beside N.Y. and say:

“I think N.Y. stands for New York, which was a colony back then. This makes me think that each set of initials is a different colony.”
“I think the snake represents America and it’s dead because it’s been broken into pieces.”
“The caption means that America is doomed if the colonies don’t start working together.”

The teacher might have students record questions that they have based on their charts. For example:

-Why did Franklin draw this cartoon?
-What dangers did the colonies face if they didn’t work together?
-Why didn’t the colonies want to join with each other?
-Were there any other colonies?

With practice, students can become quite adept at decoding cartoons. I have had students go and seek out cartoons for the class to decode. This gets them thinking outside of class about our subject areas and/or current events. There are tons of sites that have great collections of editorial cartoons. Here are a few that I have used:

Cartoons from Library and Archives Canada
Library of Congress
British Cartoon Archive
Cagle Cartoons (great for current events and Civics)
Collection of WWII cartoons by Dr. Seuss
Harpweek Political Cartoons (American History)

Charles Hou published 3 great collections of Canadian political cartoons that you can find by clicking here. The Begbie Contest disc from the same page contains many useful images that can be inserted into your classroom materials as well.

The Say (See)/Mean chart is a really simple tool to use when students are decoding images as well as text. For a more thorough cartoon analysis page, have a look at the attachment that was produced by the Library of Congress. cartoon_analysis_worksheet


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s