Teaching Visual Literacy

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

This lesson will cover the basics of visual literacy and why it is a necessary skill. Included are some recommended tools for teaching visual literacy in the classroom. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Visual Literacy

Every day you are bombarded with thousands of images of every conceivable type. Just walking down the street you will see pictures in shop windows, images on advertisements and billboards, and decals on car bumpers. You see pictures in textbooks, comics, movies and on television. Do you know what they all mean? Can you grasp the idea being conveyed if it isn't in writing? What feeling or sense is the artist trying to evoke? Understanding these questions (and more) is what we call visual literacy.

Visual literacy can be defined as the ability to interpret, recognize, appreciate, and understand information presented in visual form. Essentially, think of visual literacy as being much like traditional literacy. Even an illiterate person can see words, but they can't find the meaning behind those words and understand what is being conveyed. The same is true of visual literacy. We all see images, but the visually-literate understand how certain techniques are used to create a particular thought or express an emotion.

Elements of Visual Literacy

To the untrained eye, it can seem that any image is straightforward. The artist (photographer, painter, etc.) has simply created something, and you are looking at it. Boring! Move on. Not so fast, though. Every image has a number of traits that were purposefully manipulated to create a message. At the core of visual literacy is the ability to understand those elements and what the artist is trying to say.

Any single image can raise dozens of questions if looked at critically. There are many basic elements of an image that can be explored, feel free to let your students use their imagination in exploring the elements of an image. Just a few of the possible elements (and the questions they raise) are:

Color

Is everything in the picture the color it is in nature? If not, why? What colors are most obvious, and what might this mean? Are there multiple hues of the same color? What emotion or feeling do you associate with the primary color(s)?

Shape & Line

What are the predominant shapes in the image? Are there many jagged lines making the image geometric or fewer curving lines? Are lines used to create a 3-dimensional image or 2-dimensional image, and why do you think this is? Are there any repeating patterns or shapes?

Light

Is the image primarily light or dark? What areas of the image have different levels of light, and what might this be used to convey? Do you think the artist used light or darkness to evoke a particular feeling?

Characters

What are some of the different characters found in the image (characters can be people, animals, or objects)? Does the artist use any effects to try to deliver a feeling or impression about the character? How are characters positioned? What actions are the characters engaged in?

Teaching Tools

Methods you can use to teach visual literacy are almost as varied as the amount of images. Each picture, portrait, or comic book is trying to convey something, and there is a unique way of unlocking its secrets. That being said, there are some basic strategies that consistently work for teaching visual literacy.

Think Aloud

This is an age old tactic for teaching reading, but can be easily modified for visual literacy. In front of the whole class, observe the picture and talk through your thoughts while the students listen. Before you start, be sure to tell them to focus on specific words you are using, such as ways you are describing color or depth, and how you work from one area to the next. Then you can lead them through an image and show the students how to ask themselves questions.

Visual Thinking Strategies

Another method of working with the whole class involves an ongoing class discussion framed around three questions:

  1. What's going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

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