Sep 09

Visual Literacy in the Common Core

In thinking about visual literacy and its role in the classroom I thought I would consult our new common core standards. In the grade 5 standards visual literacy is addressed more explicitly four times.

photo by Echro B Side

photo by Echro B Side

Reading Literature (RL.5.7)

Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g. graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem)

In fact this year we started off our year with a reading unit on graphic novels. The unit definitely involved a lot of new learning for me. My primary resource was Adventures in Graphica by Terry Thompson. We started by looking at the general features of graphica but we will get into more analysis of the visual and multimedia elements. I believe I will also incorporate digital stories, such as Inanimate Alice, when we get deeper into the analysis of the visual and multimedia elements. My students love graphica – reading, writing, viewing – so I need to capitalize on this opportunity to really delve into visual literacy. Already I have found so many links to bridge between graphica and traditional prose. I am noticing that the prior learning of features in graphica is helping students remember the features of traditional prose (i.e. speech bubbles to quotation marks).  I must admit at first I wasn’t overly excited to teach a unit on graphica but it has been an excellent entrance point into literacy in grade 5 for this particular group of students.

Reading Informational Text (RI5.7)

Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to location an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently

Upon reading this standard I am immediately reminded of David McCandless’ TED Talk The Beauty of Data Visualization. We know that the internet provides us with access to an immense amount of knowledge. We need to teach our students how to make sense of that knowledge. It is easy to get lost in the vast amounts of information available. David McCandless shares how data visualization combines the language of the eye with the language of the mind to give us enhanced understanding. Data visualization helps us solve information problems.  Furthermore John Medina, author of Brain Rules, also provides us with research that shows how much more effective visuals are than text or speech.  So if we encourage students to not only draw from digital sources, but also create digital sources, to map out the information they have researched perhaps the recall and transfer of their knowledge will improve. Not to mention the value of the skills they would also develop by creating and learning elements of design.

photo by eszter

photo by eszter

Where to begin. I think there are many entrance points. Several ideas I am considering include viewing advertisements and discussing the purpose, message, and effectiveness. I believe this could work into transition times whereby I try to offer a slight transgression from our typical curriculum. I anticipate I will also find ways to work analysis of ads into math and other subject areas now that it is on my radar.  I’m also interested in having my students look more at infographics, including some of the work by David McCandless. I believe the site  GapMinder.org would provide an great hook to introduce our 20th Century unit using the teacher resources provided for the graph ‘200 years that changed the world’. Furthermore, I can see multiple math connections with regards to displaying and interpreting data. Increasing their ability to critically analyze and understand data will help them to answer a question quickly or solve a problem efficiently.

Speaking & Listening (SL.5.2)

Summarize a written text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally

Again this standard reflects the need for us to expose students to diverse media and formats. There are so many resources available online. As I am a fan of pinterest I have started a new board titled Visual Literacy to pin infographics and links to other media to use with my students. I would like to encourage students to do short one-minute speeches so perhaps they could each begin by choosing an infographic of interest to explain to the class.

Speaking & Listening (SL.5.5)

Include multimedia components (e.g. graphics, sound) and visual displays in presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes

As we continue to develop presentation skills in grade 5 I will continue to encourage Presentation Zen format whereby students have very little text on each slide.  I enjoy using Haiku Deck with my students as it encourages a Presentation Zen format.  I would also like to have students interact with data more often. There are many natural links in math and science for using Google Spreadsheet to charts and graphs to display data which could then be used in presentations.

photo by Edwin 1710

photo by Edwin 1710

Another useful tip I found interested in the Presentation Zen article was that on the rule of thirds and the power points on an image. As I am not a designer, I appreciate these little tips to try out. It is true that the images that follow the ‘rule of thirds’ do appear more dramatic and powerful. My students and I often do use visuals however they might be considered unremarkable by our viewers. I look forward to trying out this tip and sharing it with my students. Again viewing presentations and commercials that follow the presentation zen format will help students better understand how they can use images to enhance the development of their ideas.

In Closing

I am a visual learner. I appreciate the clarity that comes from viewing a graphic representation of a data set or idea. I don’t see visual literacy as being separate from literacy. To be literate we need to be able to make sense of the media that is very much a part of our lives. We need to be able to recognize and understand the explicit message along with the subtleties and meta-message of media. I look forward to learning more in this course to better facilitate my students’ development of their visual literacy.


  1. Profile photo of Robert Appino
    Robert Appino

    Great to hear about you using comics and graphic novels in class. Inanimate Alice will compliment this well later in the year. The modes make it come to life and stick in your mind. I can still hear the intense heart pounding music/sound which sets the mood for every page/slide.

  2. Profile photo of Bart Miller
    Bart Miller

    One of the benefits of Common Core is that it provides flexibility for learners to define the standards for themselves. As a teacher, you are using that flexibility to its greatest potential by defining the standards according to contemporary tools and literacies. It’s easy to read “multiple print or digital sources” and think “dictionary or wikipedia”, if not old-fashioned. It’s inspiring to see thinking like this and I hope more teachers will see the possibilities in CCSS rather than limitations.

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