Visual Literacy
in Classrooms

by Keith Lightbody

last updated
5 March 2007

Quick Start:
Students today live in a multimedia world and appreciate variety in their learning environment. Some forms of literacy they can develop include textual, numerical, visual, audio and multimedia. Visual Literacy can be defined as the ability to understand and produce visual messages. Both teachers and students can benefit by developing their abilities to create, use and evaluate visual resources.

Supporting research:

The Visual Literacy White Paper

"Visual literacy includes such areas as facial expressions, body language, drawing, painting, sculpture, hand signs, street signs, international symbols, layout of the pictures and words in a textbook, the clarity of type fonts, computer images, student produced still pictures, sequences, movies or video, user friendly equipment design, critical analysis of television advertisements and many, many other things"
"Young people learn more than half of what they know from visual information, but few schools have an explicit curriculum to show students how to think critically about visual data" Mary Alice White, researcher, Columbia Teacher's College
"The majority of information absorbed by human beings is collected with our sense of vision. It seems logical the we emphasize the development of visual skills as a way of preparing for successful and satisfying lives" page 4, A Guide for International Visual Literacy Association Board Members and Officers

Some Implications:
(1) visual skills can be learned
(2) visual skills are not usually isolated from other sensory skills
(3) teachers can provide appropriate learning environments and materials
(4) teachers can allow students to create their own visual messages
(5) digital literacies (e.g. computer, visual, audio, print reading, information, multi-media) each require different skills
(6) competency in one literacy does not necessarily transfer to another
(7) visual arts can affect student emotions and aid understanding
(8) students need to learn how to recognize and respond to visual and print messages of humor, irony and metaphor
(9) students require guidance to distinguish between factual and fictional visual representations.

Some elements that may contribute to the 'look and feel' of visual resources include:
- colour, proportion, form, shape, texture, emotion, feelings, typography, design and composition. For example - text that includes these elements can be made more visual (see below) - skilled use of typography is just one way to enhance communication.

(font samples from )

Visual Manipulation:
In a society where powerful interests employ visual data to persuade (what Alvin Toffler calls "info-tactics") schools must show students how to look beyond the surface to understand deeper levels of meaning and tactics employed to sway their thinking

"Government and the media commonly manipulate video and photographs using modern computer technology, raising ethical questions concerning truth and deception. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but doctoring a photo sometimes says a lot more. During the last 150 years, photographs repeatedly have been manipulated for propaganda, fraud, humor, profit and just to rewrite history"

Curriculum Benefits:
- students can learn better when teachers support a variety of learning styles
students can improve reading and writing skills through the use of visual literacy techniques (studies have shown that processing in competent reading involves both phonological and visual information)
- visual literacy can contribute to visual-spatial intelligence (one of the multiple intelligences identified by Howard Gardiner). It can also be involved in other intelligences such as bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.

"Students learn how to view critically and thoughtfully in order to respond to visual messages and images in print, nonverbal interactions, the arts, and electronic media. Effective viewing is essential to comprehend and respond to personal interactions, live performances, visual arts that involve oral and/or written language, and both print media (graphs, charts, diagrams, illustrations, photographs, and graphic design in books, magazines, and newspapers) and electronic media (television, computers, film). A media-literate person is able to evaluate media for credibility and understands how words, images, and sounds influence the way meanings are conveyed and understood in contemporary society. Students need to recognize that what they speak, hear, write, and read contributes to the content and quality of their viewing". [New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards May 1996, Language Arts And Literacy Standards And Progress Indicators, Standard 3.5:- All Students Will View, Understand, And Use Nontextual Visual Information]

Digital Cameras: Although visual literacy consists of many elements such as colour, typography, graphics and photos one techology that can make a significant contribution to visual literacy is digital cameras. Digital cameras are now widespread in schools - they are easy to use, small, cheap and powerful. Teachers and students in any learning area can now readily produce and use digital images. However a photo does not have to just capture an image - it can express feelings, celebrate colour or emphasise shape. Some ways in which digital cameras can assist with visual literacy include:
- enhancing lesson worksheets, teacher overheads, test items, food preparation notes, science reports, etc
- student assignments across the curriculum
- email attachments (e.g. sharing photos, global collaborative projects, epals)
- getting images into web pages quickly and easily
(NOTE: duty of care may require parental permission for student photos to be published on the Internet)
- self esteem activities (merit certificates, student of the week, etc.)
- assisting language teaching (e.g. vocabulary) - suitable for LOTE, ESL, NESB and other programs
- providing relevant lesson material to hearing impaired students
- taking photos or recording information on excursions or field trips
- assisting students in special education and autistic applications
- providing close up, macro or micro views of objects, plants or animals
- enhancing slideshows or presentations
- encouraging effort through immediate recognition of achievement
- recording student progress (including difficult-to-record evidence for process outcomes)
- analysing physical education activities
- taking images that capture different emotions, beauty, ...
- recording sequences of events in experiments (e.g. life cycles, motion, ...)
- recording weather, types of clouds, ocean conditions, ...
- taking photos of natural or built environments (e.g. rivers, mountains, buildings, ...)
- preparation of photo sheets to introduce staff or students
- photographing bulky work samples or other evidence in outcomes based education
- helping document an interview or biography
- providing photos of all the people and events for publishing in school yearbooks
- producing time lapse movies (e.g. flowers opening, clouds forming, ...)
- record a movie showing collaboration in the preparation and progress of experiments (using digital camera, digital camcorder or time lapse) - students can pause or rewind the movie repeatedly to view and analyze events
- record images of assembly of 3-D objects (e.g. for later reassembling, instructions to others)
- learning about photography concepts (e.g. lighting, composition, depth of field, motion effects)
- providing images to print professional looking CD labels
- linking in with First Steps (procedure writing, etc.)
- up-to-the-minute public relations brochures, flyers
- fashion or modelling activities
- fun class activities (e.g. guess the student from a 'Dark Angel style - eyes only' photo)
- taking images to show key stages for job progress records
- providing images for use as computer desktop, background or wallpaper
- documenting computer networks, sports equipment, etc.
- archiving student photos over the years
- presenting images on parents nights of students at work & play
- compiling folios for dancing, drama, models, artists, etc.
- artwork, artistic creations and manipulations
- preparing folios to send to prospective employers
- providing photos to make custom calendars or greeting cards
- opportunities for students to develop a photography career (e.g. photojournalism, still life, fashion)

Digital cameras can also be used in conjunction with other media such as sculpture, painting, drawing, models, video and animations. For more detailed information on how to use a digital camera to take a photo visit Digital Cameras in Education at digcam.htm

Digital Images: For short notes on how to adapt a digital image to suit different purposes visit adapt.htm Once the photo is in a suitable format load it onto the computer, open the rquired software, locate your cursor and insert the photo.

Digital Video: The kinesthetic learner may benefit from greater use of video - it is now easy for schools to record, edit and publish video resources. For help doing this in the classroom visit digvideo.htm

All of these visual tools offer huge opportunities for constructivist learning within a school and for global collaboration between students and teachers via the Internet.

"For example language is an active process for constructing meaning. Even the quiet listener is actively working to link prior knowledge and understanding to what other people say. Language develops in a social context. While language is used in private activities, the use of language almost always relates to others. Each of us is an active audience for those who create spoken, written, or visual texts"

Helpful Resources: *** recommended resources (more stars is better)
**** Visual Literacy Portal
**** International Visual Literacy Association
*** "Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning: A Literature Perspective" Suzanne Stokes, Troy State University
*** Benedict Visual Literacy Collection: What is Visual Literacy?
*** Benedict Visual Literacy Collection: Internet Resources

Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn by Lynell Burmark
** Some History of Visual Literacy by Jack Debes
Ethics in The Age of Digital Photography
** Ethics in Digital Photography
* The World History Survey: Visual Literacy and Associative Thought

**** Google advanced image search
Images of Australia

Site Credits:
This site is to help the 80% of people who just want learning, information and communication technology to be easy to use and reliable. I believe the increased ease of use of digital cameras provide an incredible opportunity for teachers and students to make greater use of visual resources. Please take the trouble to offer ideas or suggestions - you will be acknowledged and others can benefit. This site is intended to be free of bias and receives no commercial gain from any party.
First published 10 April 2002. The introductory photo shows a tug escorting a ship into Albany Harbour. Currently up to 250 people a week visit this site. Statistics on usage of this site were previously gathered by ozlog software.

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