Visual Literacy

An ES classroom scenario – Project work in progress, students are working in groups of 2-3’s, teacher is moving from  one group to another, lots of conversations and discussions going on, tons of constructive energy…and then the teacher calls out and  raises her hand with the peace gesture. Within 30 seconds all is quite in the room with students looking expectantly at the teacher for next set of directions!

The peace hand gesture is an example of visual communication (includes gestures, symbols, signs and objects) that the students were able to interpret and act accordingly. Another example of visual communication is this (taken from a second grade c’room) wall sign that brings out the ‘global’ message around the concept of peace.

The use of varied forms of visual communications can be witnessed in all classrooms for a variety of purposes. It is amazing how this form of communication, in the form of posters, signs, bulletin boards, worksheets, rubrics and more is so enmeshed into the content core areas. Simple things like painted signs on the staircases to use of photos on the classroom teacher blogs are in use to connect with the students and parents.

In the article Brain Rules by John Medina, he says that ‘Vision trumps all other senses’. There are five traditionally accepted methods of perception (via the sensory organs) – touch, sight, taste, vision and hearing. Of these  the maximum amount of input to the brain is via what one sees through the eyes, and so for this reason use of visual forms of communicating have always been in practice in education.

Now, literacy, in the literal sense, means interpreting and unpacking information to generate understandings. The decoding and understanding the message via visual communication is Visual Literacy. Visual literacy is another educational strand, the importance of which cannot be minimized. Erin Riesland in his article “Visual Literacy and the Classroom” stresses upon student empowerment by educating them to understand and communicate via visual modes. He also emphasizes the need to enable the students with the tools needed in the 21st century.

Using the visual forms, the interpretation of the information (via text, symbols and signs) becomes easier especially for the younger ones. For students, experiential learning has always helped make stronger connections where all the senses are in play. Graphically laid out information encourages not just passive assimilation but also sparks active synthesis. The nonlinear format of developing insights about concrete topics such as Shapes and Landforms to abstract topics such as Unity or Migration is very powerful. The decoding of the concepts via graphical representation helps with far better retention and developing personal perspectives.  These understandings stay with the student forever.

Visual literacy helps develop cognitive skills for the students. It helps reduce the barrier of language for comprehension, and this can be so very helpful for EAL students. Visual literacy provides for an emotionally engaging yet intellectually challenging learning environment.

In today’s world, students need to be not just interpreters of information but producers as well. With the technological advancements and ease of accessibility, there is a plethora of tools to choose from. And so another component to visual literacy in schools needs to be exposing and familiarizing students with the audio/ video technologies that they can use to create. The visual literacy education also needs to encompass the design elements (fonts/ styles/ layout/…) Examples could be an Kindergarten kid’s drawing to represent his perspective on Peace or a more tech savvy product like ‘Peace movies’ done by 5th graders.  Another example of a representation of understanding would be a 5th grader’s presentation on Migration. In all these examples the student is a producer of visual representation of his understanding.

Visual literacy serves the purpose of Visible Thinking, a Harvard initiative that the ES has embraced. All the thinking routines suggested by Project Zero Institute at Harvard are about developing understandings via graphics or demonstrating understandings via creating visuals. The headlines routine or the color, symbol, image routine, all are intense strategies which encourage knowledge construction and exemplification of the understandings.

Our MS art teacher had done these line drawings which represented her understandings of the Delhi traffic patterns. When these were shared with second graders, their insights were astoundingly astute. And something that stood out was how each one of them translated the different colors, length of the stroke, thickness of the stroke!, and off course these observations were within the context of ‘Delhi traffic’ that they had experienced. They had personal perspectives, e.g. honking that they had experienced at the traffic signals connected to the red strokes in the drawings.



In addition to serving the purpose of Visible Thinking, the above example also highlights the need to educate students about the impact of the design elements on the audience. The students need to be exposed to the six fundamental aptitudes – Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy,  Play,  Meaning (by Dan Pink) for not just creating but also for interpreting graphically laid out information. It could be as simple as use of appropriate fonts, colors and layout to complex skills as presentation techniques with focus on mood and tone.

As per the The Visual literacy White Paper to be visually literate a person should be able to –

  • Understand the subject matter of images
  • Analyze and interpret images to gain m eaning within the cultural context the image was created and exists
  • Analyze the syntax, synergy, interaction, innovation , affective impact and/or feel of the image
  • Evaluate the work in terms of purpose and audience

And so to conclude, here’s a quote by George Lucas, eminent filmmaker says that “When people talk to me about the digital divide, I think of it not being so much about who has access to what technology as who knows how to create and express themselves in this new language of the screen. If students aren’t taught the language of sound and images, shouldn’t they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write?”


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