Visual Literacy Activities and Skills Assessments

Visual Literacy Activities and Skills Assessments
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1st Lesson Plan: Analyzing & Interpreting Paintings

Since visual literacy activities are not easily accessible, I designed a teacher-made lesson. In this lesson, Henry used a What Do You See Guide (see Appendix #1 below) to analyze and interpret two Masterwork paintings: “Peaceable Kingdom” by Hicks and “Storm of the Tiger” by Rousseau (see Appendix #2 below). [caption id="attachment_130509” align="aligncenter” width="718”]Visual literacy activities - the Peaceable Kingdom The Peaceable Kingdom by Hicks[/caption] Each artist depicted an animal theme, but each expressed different moods. The goal of the lesson was for Henry to practice his interpretive skills in response to visual signifiers. Henry examined each of the paintings and then answered the questions on the What Do You See Guide.

Appendix 1: What Do you See Guide

The Guide questions are as follows:

  1. What stands out most when you first look at the picture?
  2. Explain why it stands out.
  3. Look again, what else seems important?
  4. What leads your eye from place to place?
  5. What feelings and mood does this picture have and how does the artist show it?
  6. What is the main idea of this picture and what details give you a clue to the main idea?
  7. What title would you give this picture and why?
  8. Which art elements do you notice the most in this picture?
  9. What do you already know about the objects, people, animals, shapes in this picture that helped you to understand the picture.
  10. What is the style of this picture? (realistic/photographic, abstract/not realistic, fantastic/real, but impossible as in a dream, expressive/less realistic with lots of feeling)
  11. What memories and new thoughts do you have that connect to your own life when you look at this painting?
  12. If you could be somewhere or something in the picture, what would it be and why?

Much as guided reading gives students a purpose and focus to ferret out meaning while they read, the What Do You See Guide for imagery can parallel the same typical guiding questions for written text:

  • Main Idea - What idea seems most important in the story?
  • Transitions - How does the author connect events?
  • Mood - What is the mood and what language depicts the story mood?
  • Author’s Voice - What kinds of literary devices and phrasing does the author use to make the story come to life or make imagery?
  • What personal connections can you make to this story?

After answering the forms, Henry thought aloud about the similarities and differences between the two paintings, and filled out a compare and contrast chart. As you can see from the discourse below, Henry successfully used the visual clues from the picture to form a schema. With guided questions, Henry noticed essential details that revealed the “story” in the pictures. The comparison Venn Diagram helped Henry to distinguish the different moods of the pictures.

Appendix 2 - Think Aloud

The following is a transcript about the painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” which is a Think Aloud that took place between the teacher and student as Henry filled out the Guide, a framework for learning visual literacy skills.

Transcript Key: H= Henry T=Teacher Question #3: Look again, what seems important? Explain why.

H- “The Indians and the people, because they look like they are having a meeting.”

T- “Is this taking place in 2006?”

H- “No, it looks like the time of Christopher Columbus.”

T- “Why?”

H- “Because of what they are wearing. And the guys with hats look like they have been sailing.”

T- “What are they talking about?”

H- “There is a carpet, and the other people want to give the Indians something too.”

T- “How so you know that they want to trade something?”

H- “Because the Indians look like they are thinking. They have their hand under their chin.”

T- “Are they getting along with each other?”

H- “Yes, because they are not angry.”

During this lesson, Henry was improving his decoding skills for objects and visual features, advancing his observations of details, and evaluating the salience of themes in the paintings. Just as professionals do, he was asking critical questions and analyzing objects, relating them to his own knowledge and the context of the painting’s other visual symbols and background, in order to draw conclusions about the main idea of these paintings (Nodelman, 1988). Much of the visual literacy process is a rehearsal or supplement for the comprehension process of traditional print text, and as noted before, a preparation for recognizing and decoding complex multi-sensory, layered information on the internet. Therefore, integrating visual literacy experiences with reading can support, scaffold and serve as a diagnostic instrument and aid for comprehension.

2nd Lesson Plan: Using Story Maps

Visual, audio and kinesthetic support can also develop a framework to track character relationships and story events. The second topic in our list of visual literacy activities are story maps. Story maps provide a way to spatially scan a story structure and facilitate look backs of pertinent details (Swanson & De La Paz, March, 1998). To help with his recall skills, Henry drew a story map to accompany the book, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, (Hopkinson, 1993).

With the story map, Henry could keep track of the 5 W’s through the progression of events in the story. Each sequenced image functioned as a memory peg that helped him to recall the events from the beginning, middle and end of the book. The visual representation transformed Henry’s inner thoughts (metacognitive process) to the external. The graphic representations made the words more concrete and were visual clues to lookback at and identify problem, turning point and solution. The pictures were a jumping off point for discussion and a more intense interaction with the each event.

3rd Lesson Plan: Teacher-Made Triptych

The last example of visual literacy activities I have with Henry was a teacher-made Triptych (Wilhelm, 2005), (Appendix #3), a visual aid to address Henry’s comprehension need to chunk smaller amounts of information from scenes in the chapter book, Day of Tears, (Lester, 2005). A triptych consists of three panels - first created to represent early Christian art. [caption id="attachment_130510” align="aligncenter” width="1024”]Visual literacy activities - the triptych The Master of Frankfurt - an example of a triptych[/caption] Because of the complexity of the characters’ relationships, fluidity of time, challenging vocabulary, and sophisticated metaphors, Henry needed clarification in two areas: the passage of time, and the change in the relationship between the two main characters. Even though the foreword listed the characters and their relationships, Henry still confused a key relationship between the two main characters, Master Butler and his slave Will who he grew up with and treated like a brother. In this lesson, I asked Henry to write one paragraph about the childhood and one paragraph about the adult relationship between Mr. Butler and his slave. Henry correctly understood that the initial brotherly relationship had disappeared. However, he also believed that Master Butler and Will were equal business partners, not owner/slave, and that both men approved of the slave auction. The fact that Will was a slave was clearly stated in the book. Also, throughout the story, Will passionately expressed his distress about the slave auction. The project zeroed in on the issue of the text’s confusing fluctuation of time frames, (flashbacks) by spatially dividing up the text into digestible chunks of separate time and place parts, freezing each event as a moment in time. The “past” and “present” labels and key phrases structured Henry’s decision-making process. In Appendix #3, Henry was able to read an excerpt from each confusing scene in the text, underline signal words that referred to time, assign the labels of past or present successfully after initially making an error, and draw a picture depicting the text describing Will’s and Master Butler’s relationship.

Appendix #3 - Book Text

In the speech bubble, Mr. Butler is yelling at the slaves: “I want you to go to work. You are stupid slaves!” For Henry, representing written ideas in visual form made analyzing text more systematic and structured, so that he could connect complex information in a visual/spatial dimension and formulate more reliable conclusions (Wilhelm, 2004). The triptych clarified the confusion about the flashbacks in the story. Before the triptych activity, Henry wrote a good, but straightforward description of Master and slave relationship as follows:

Transcript of the Character’s Relationship #1

“They did not live with each other all the time. When Will moved they forgot they were friends. When they found each other it was like they didn’t know each other. They forgotten they were very close friends. Master Butler didn’t look up to him as a big brother anymore. Master Butler owns Will now. He is just like the other slaves.” The drawings tracked whether or not Henry had represented enough information to rethink or revise his conclusions about the changes in Mr. Butler’s relationship with his slave, Will. Since Henry initially only showed the good side of the Butler’s attitude to his slaves in part one of the triptych, I asked Henry to add any missing details about the event. He added the character of Mr. Butler saying in a speech bubble- “So now what so you want.” To recheck any misunderstandings, I then asked Henry to answer the following questions:

  • What is Will feeling about how he and the other slaves are being treated now?
  • What are his feelings toward Master Butler now (Since Mr. and Mrs. Butler are getting a divorce and he needs more money)?

Transcript of the Character’s Relationship #2

“I think Will is feeling sorry for master butler because they can’t be friends anymore. Master Butler wants to just be in charge of everybody. He don’t care if he doesn’t have any friends, he cares about power and being a boss. I think Will kinda hates Master Butler for treating him and their slaves wrong. After they had a good relationship with each other.” We see an improvement when comparing the new description of the adult relationship (Transcript #2) between Master and Will compared to the prior description (Transcript #1). Henry uses stronger, more vivid language written in a succinct style. After the visual literacy intervention, Henry ‘s written description of the characters’ relationship is clearer, accurate and more deeply understood.

Adapting These Techniques to the Classroom

In Henry’s case, and in my years as a private reading specialist, I have integrated many types of multi-sensory methods to teach reading to children with reading difficulties. I have encouraged students to transform written text to visual, 3-dimensional or auditory modes in many ways. The techniques that I have mentioned above could easily be adapted to classroom use in hundreds of ways and purposes. Most of my methods are developed and adapted from ideas found in books and websites in the bibliography of this article. The variety of conventional and unconventional storytelling formats in today’s world are particularly good for teaching challenging abstract concepts such as, symbolism, irony, inferencing, interpreting metaphors and other comprehension skills. I have used the formats of drawings, comic books, graphic novels, puppetry, 3-dimensional models, radio show scripts, power point, video, picture books, artifacts, editorials, collage, charts, diagrams, and hypermedia as devices that encourage deeper understanding and give students another avenue to show their knowledge. Though I may be enthusiastic, other teachers might be cautious or hesitant to take on teaching approaches that they find unfamiliar or more time-consuming. Consulting with art teachers, authors and illustrators or museums in the community could also be a resource. In my own experience, visual literacy is an active and compelling part of our world as learners, teachers and consumers deserving our attention and research.


  • Please see the first article of the series for a complete list of sources used in my research.

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