5 Keys to Visual Literacy

When we develop digital solutions at Victory, we want the end user to experience visuals as intuitively as possible. Because space is always at a premium, visuals and text are equally important. The visuals need to immediately convey information and tell an extended story. When used well, they not only save space on the page (a picture is worth a thousand words), they also inspire confidence in the reader (or should we say “viewer”) by subtly conveying that the overall message will also be easy to understand.

Visual literacy is experiencing resurgence. It is defined many ways in different disciplines, but a good general definition is:

visual literacy: a set of skills used when a person either sees or produces images in order to interpret them, discover a fuller meaning, and make emotional connections.

From our research, there are five important things to consider about visual literacy:

5 Keys to Visual Literacy
key-flipped-small 1 Observing elements in complex images and determining how they relate
key-flipped-small 2 Developing questions to ask about the images
key-flipped-small 3 Understanding how different visual approaches convey different meanings
key-flipped-small 4 Identifying the emotional impact of different techniques on the viewer
key-flipped-small 5 Interpreting an author’s intent based on the choices made to deliver the message

Visual Literacy Must Be Taught

Visual literacy is about communication. Viewers, like readers, are not simply given the meaning; they actively construct it, as they must for infographics that combine words and visuals. Children are naturally drawn to making and consuming images, but only with practice will they develop visual literacy skills.

Our Director for STEM, Michael Comer, co-authored an NSTA Press book, Developing Visual Literacy in Science K–8. The authors discuss the See-Scan-Analyze process of interpreting images, and point out that children have not fully developed this process. It is up to adults (teachers) to guide them to make meaning of the images they see. The Analyze step is further broken down into three stages:

  • Observations (what I know)
  • Inferences (what I think)
  • Emotions (what I feel)

Just as one teaches children a love for books, one can teach a love for visuals. This develops that third area of Analyze, emotions, in a way that is self-fulfilling, because when children actively and confidently approach visuals, they naturally will improve their visual literacy skills.

Learning by Producing

Kids are not born knowing how to read. It is a learned skill. We spend a lot of effort teaching kids to read. Simultaneously, they learn to generate their own meaning through the process of writing.

Just as we teach grammar when we teach reading and writing, we also need to teach a “visual grammar”—the rules for combining images into meaningful messages. Children apply these rules in many disciplines, such as when they construct concept maps and other graphic organizers.

Production assignments (where students make a product) are one of the best ways to practice applying visual literacy skills because students take ownership and pride in their products. They do not have to be coaxed to work at it, because it doesn’t feel like work; it feels like play.

Asking the Right Questions

Children need to know what questions to ask about visuals. One technique is to scaffold a production assignment with questions, so students learn by example.

You can see this process in action in the Visual Literacy Tool we developed at Victory (see the video sneak preview below). The embedded questions don’t have a single right or wrong answer. They are activating questions that get students to think, inviting them to own the meaning.

Without support, middle-grade students may not be able to draw a political cartoon. Instead of producing an original political cartoon, students use the Visual Literacy Tool to annotate a given political cartoon. Modifying a message is an important step that builds visual literacy students will later use to create their own messages.

The Visual Literacy Tool is not limited to political cartoons. It allows many different types of production assignments, from labeling a map to diagramming sentences. We’d love to hear your ideas on how it can be used to build the visual literacy skills our students need to succeed in the 21st century.


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