Teaching Visual Literacy


The 3 R's - reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic - have long been considered the three pillars of education; however, we now know that they aren't enough, especially in the 21st century. Our students are inundated with images every day, and so they need to learn to read those as well. That's why I spent more time teaching visual literacy with my students. Read on to find out about my three favorite ways to do so.

First of all, visual literacy is not only something to check off on the list of standards and outcomes; it's an important life skill and one that will help students with the ability to analyze text. We spend our days analyzing visual clues and interpreting people’s actions based on those clues. However, when it comes time to actually analyze similar things on a written page, students freeze up and decide that it's too hard.

Time spent on analyzing visuals can be a doorway to analyzing literature. That's why, when I start literary analysis, we begin by talking about visual clues (grab two free lessons)

I point out to my students that they are taking in - and interpreting - visuals constantly. And, they use them all 😉 the 🤣 time 😱 to capture a single idea. Emojis are actually a wonderful jumping off point for discussions about symbolism that's less scary than diving into it in poetry.

Those were my starting points, but I had three other ways that I taught visual literacy in my classroom.

Use graphic novels for teaching visual literacy

Not only are graphic novels excellent tools for teaching visual literacy, they are also so much fun to read. For many years, there were those who saw them as an inferior choice for an English class, or a text you would reserve for struggling readers. Luckily that attitude has changed, though, because the graphic novel offers a rich reading experience for students.

Because not all students are familiar with the genre, I gave mine instruction on how to "read" these texts. I did this by first teaching them the language of the genre, so they could use it in their analysis.

Once my students had an understanding of the terminology, we looked at a series of mentor texts to examine the ways that graphic novelists use images and text to tell their stories. We learned about importance of angles and perspective, for example, and how low and high angles can be used to develop character and ideas.

My students loved these discussions and, for whatever reason, they find analyzing visuals much less intimidating than literature. However, by teaching visual literacy, I was giving my students the confidence they needed to dive into the analysis of their other texts.

I highly recommend spending some time on graphic texts, whether you do a full class one or not. You can even use book trailers, like this one for the graphic version of Long Way Down.  With videos, even if you don't have access to the text, you can pause on the visuals and have students analyze the author's moves.

One-sliders are another way to teach visual literacy

Once my students understood how other writers use visuals to create meaning, I had try it themselves, first by creating their own visual narratives and then by using visuals to show me what they learned in other areas of the course.

One-sliders were one way they did this.  One-sliders are a digital version of the one-pager, and I. LOVE. THEM. I started using them during online learning and my students were so engaged, and they created such stellar work, that one-sliders became a fixture in my classroom.

One-sliders for distance learning

My students still did a lot of written analysis, but the one-sliders provided an option to visually represent what they learned about a novel or a character. I would also assign different chapters or characters to groups and have them create a slide that captured its essence.

My students were still doing a lot of analysis because they had to choose the images that best represented the ideas they wanted to capture.  They had to choose the best way to present the pictures and texts, so the viewer could easily get their message. Doing that well required critical thinking as well as visual literacy. Then, when they shared their slides with their classmates, they had to explain why they chose the images and why they presented them the way they did. This was an opportunity for more visual literacy for their classmates and a speaking opportunity for those presenting.

The best part? You get a break from grading papers - but your students are still learning!

👉🏻You can check out my one-sliders here:

Animal Farm One-Sliders

One-Sliders for Any Text

Research One-Sliders 

Poetic Device One-Sliders

Assign a visual essay

The success of the one-sliders lead me to try something new with research writing. When I introduced the process, I had students create a research magazine, complete with visuals and even videos to deliver their messages.

The research magazine

The research magazine has all of components of the traditional paper, but it can include images, graphs, and videos to enhance the writer's points. They are visually appealing and the students find them a lot more fun to create.  And, like the one-sliders, students need to think critically about how to present their information in a visually appealing - and easy to read - way. It also affords them a really interesting way to explore an idea and then to present it someone else.

The engagement level was so much higher with this visual essay, the students learned a lot, and I really enjoyed reading them! (Read more about the research magazine here).

Let me know if you have any questions!

👉🏻 You can check out Nouvelle ELA's resource for analyzing photographs here.



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