Visual Literacy Instruction in All Grade Levels: What is Visual Literacy and Why Should we Teach It?

Visual Literacy Instruction in All Grade Levels: What is Visual Literacy and Why Should we Teach It?
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What Is Visual Literacy?

Being literate in the 21st century entails more complex criteria than in prior generations. More diverse expectations are being placed

on our students’ cognitive capabilities considering the current bombardment of non-linear demands of the technological age. As students move away from strict print reading, and journey into a world of literacy that is predominantly visual, sensory and technologically loaded in other ways, visual literacy instruction is becoming paramount for our children.

To have a discussion about visual literacy, we should review what the traditional definition of literacy is. In traditional literacy, we use standard language to deliver meaning through metaphors and figurative expression. In print books, images are an adjunct to reinforce the meaning of language. What then is Visual Literacy?

Visual literacy involves skills that we use when interacting with multi-media, and is defined by two prongs. The first prong is the ability to extract or “read” (decode) linguistic meaningful information from an image. The second prong involves the ability of the individual to produce visual representations using art elements (line, shape, color, proportion, etc.) to communicate (encode) clear messages and symbols (Piro, 2002).

In summary, “Visual literacy is the ability to understand and produce visual messages (International Visual Literacy Association).” As a fully literate modern person, an individual communicates successfully as both writer and designer, as well as accurately interprets and evaluates the pooled text and images in both traditional and Internet hypermedia.

What Student Skills Are Involved?

While reading, writing and speaking will always be the mainstay of literacy; many high order critical thinking skills overlap in visual literacy, including the following:

  • Teaching children how to manipulate, navigate, produce, visual information to communicate a clear message.
  • Need for interpretive skills to understand the complexity of imagery and its interplay with text.
  • How to evaluate multi-media’s purpose and message, emotional effect on society, authenticity and relevance.
  • Observational skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Understanding symbols and symbol-making
  • Making inner mental images concrete

How Are Core Curriculum Standards Relevant to Visual Literacy?

In most states, viewing and representing are required language arts skills. Viewing is “An active process of attending to and comprehending visual media such as television, advertising images, films, diagrams, symbols, photographs, videos, drama, drawings, sculpture and paintings.” (Begoray, 2004, p. 1)

Researcher Nitzberg defines representing as students developing skills to make successful representations of acquired knowledge, showing what they know by “Knitting together pictures and words into unified presentations” (2006).

In infancy and pre-school, children first use visual literacy skills long before they learn to speak or read text. When exposed to picture books, they view words and pictures that support each other in a way that intensifies understanding. Furthermore, as children gain fine motor skills to participate in technology, they enter the real information drenched world and virtual world where there are diverse expectations placed on students’ cognitive capabilities, including visual literacy skills.

Rationale for Visual Literacy in School Instruction

In the 1920s, Thomas Edison had a belief that motion pictures would make the school textbook obsolete within ten years. That did not happen, but technology and media have taken a primary place in the communication of ideas and information. “Educators implementing new English language arts curricula know that today’s youth have to handle a world that contains multiple forms of literacy” (Begoray, 2001, p. 1). Young children already are pre-destined to venture into a dual mode of communicating and understanding information through different modalities.

Several researchers have explored the concept of how children comprehend text, which relates to the validity behind visual literacy strategies. Auditory, language and visualization are just a few basic capacities involved in the comprehension network (as cited in Nielsen Hibbing, and Rankin-Erickson, 2003). According to a study by Nielsen Hibbing, and Rankin-Erickson, the duality of the coding process “allows us to create images when we hear words and to generate names or descriptions of things when we see” (2003, p. 4). When contemplating the link between image and literacy, one must take into account Berthoff and Emig’s perspective that cognition has both visual and auditory components (Duncum, 2004). Being able to use visual symbols successfully and relevantly to express an idea can clarify language confusion- both for the meaning of words in isolation (vocabulary instruction) and words in context. Integrating the words and the visual reinforce the dual process of encoding and decoding, skills essential to interpreting literacy in any form of representation (Piro, 2002, p. 2).

Understanding text cognitively involves multiple sensory processes, and interpreting visual imagery does too. Words or music can definitely change the connotation of an image. The researcher, Nodelman, did a study that found that both of the communicative systems were needed to help people identify appropriate meaning. Nodelman presented a picture of a small child being taken into the bushes by a man accompanied by somber music. In the next example, he showed the same picture accompanied by happy music. The viewers needed to hear the music as a clue to distinguish the different meanings implied by each scenario. The image of a child with a screwed up expression on her face with the caption “delighted to find her doll” is framed in a different context when accompanied by the caption “lost her doll”. It is the interdependence between reading text, sensory input and perceiving images that is the rationale for utilizing visual literacy techniques in the classroom (Duncum, 2004). Visual literacy skills are advantageous to children’ s comprehension and cognitive abilities. Integrating visual literacy strategies with traditional reading can support, scaffold, and serve as a diagnostic instrument for reading comprehension assessment and instruction.

Benefits of Visual Literacy Skills

The concept of linking technology to the writing process is based on the constructivist learning philosophy that evolved during the 1970s. Rather than only receiving information from an external source, children construct, compose and interact with material drawn from many stratums. Using hypermedia in the classroom as a form of communicating ideas has many benefits. Students given the challenge of creating hypermedia texts sometimes find the task very motivating. In classroom research done by Garthwait (2001), students using a basic hypermedia program found integrating sound and color into their text exciting, and helped them to organize their information more successfully. Students were inspired by the freedom of innovation, enabling them to independently experiment and maneuver language and graphics seamlessly tying together words with images. The role of producing these projects helped students to learn visual literacy skills along the way.

Another advantage to visual literacy is in its application to special education. Literacy professor Claudia Cornett (2003) in her book Creating Meaning Through Literature and the Arts states that, “When we teach for visual literacy, we involve children in thinking about and expressing in images what is often beyond linguistic capabilities (p. 157).” The arts and imagery can be the “great equalizers” since children of many different backgrounds, abilities and attitudes can participate in a learning activity embedded with multiple forms of communication. Many times, Learning Disabled and At Risk students have significant breakdowns in areas of metacognition and strategic processing; causing a lack of awareness or misunderstandings that can snowball and escalate confusion about a story (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams & Bates, 2001). Imagery can make language come to life like a movie or document story actions and happenings more clearly. Even the use of color can influence or evoke emotional response to a story and imply calmness or excitement.


  • Lester, J. (2005). Day of Tears. New York, New York: Hyperion Books For Children.
  • Begoray, D. L. (2001). Through a class darkly: Visual Literacy in the Classroom. Canadian Journal of Education, 26(2), 201-17. Retrieved on 11/1/04, from Wilson Education Full Text database.
  • Hopkinson, D. (1993). Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt
  • Piro, J. M. (Oct 2002). The Picture of Reading: Deriving meaning in literacy through image. Reading Teacher, 56(2). Retrieved on 2/23/06, from EBSCO database.
  • International Visual Literacy Association,
  • Duncum, P. (2004). Visual culture isn’t just visual:multiliteracy, multimodality and meaning. Studies in Art Education, 45(3), 252-64.
  • Micklethwait, L. (1993). A Child’s Book of Art Great Pictures First Words. London: Dorling Kindersley.
  • Nodelman, P. (1988). Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.
  • Topiel, E., G. (2006). “Experiencing Visual Literacy: How to Use it as a Tool to Impact Comprehension Skills.” Rowan University Reading Education Master’s Thesis
  • Gersten, R., Fuchs, L. S., Williams, J., P. & Baker, S. (Summer 2001). Teaching reading comprehension strategies to students with learning disabilities: A review of research. Review of Educational Research, 71(2), 279-320.
  • Wilhelm, J. D. (2004). Reading is Seeing. New York: Scholastic.
  • Nitzberg, K. (2006). “Visual Literacy: Renaissance in the 21st century”in Art.The
  • Nielsen Hibbing, A. & Rankin-Erickson, J. L. (2003). A picture is worth a thousand words: Using images to improve comprehension for middle school struggling readers. Reading Teacher, 56(8), 758-. Retrieved on 1/7/06, from EBSCO database.
  • Cornett, C. (2003). Creating Meaning Through Literature and the Arts.

This post is part of the series: The Importance of Visual Literacy Skills

Being literate in the 21st century means more than simply being able to read. We are exposed to massive amounts of media every day. Teachers of K-12 students should focus on visual literacy skills to improve their student’s success. This series explains more about this concept.

  1. The Need for Visual Literacy Instruction in K-12 Education
  2. Visual Literacy Assessment
  3. Visual Literacy Lesson Plans