What is Visual Literacy?
Visual literacy is the ability to interpret and make meaning from information being observed in the form of an image. Visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be communicated through a process of reading.
It also refers to the concept of mental imagery. Mental imagery is the mental representation of things that are not currently being sensed by the sense organs. For example, one can recall experiences based on sights, sounds, and even smells. When that happens, one is creating mental images of experiences lived in the past. But, our brain is also capable of representing things that have never been perceived by our senses at any time. It is precisely this human capacity for constructing images that go beyond what has been experienced, what has made human progress possible. The human mind can create things that have never been observed or sensed at all. We can imagine ourselves building a flying machine, traveling to the moon, or submerging to the bottom of the ocean. This ability to create visual images of things that never existed, by making connections between previous ideas and unrelated perceptions is the fundamental attribute for any scientist or inventor. Engineers, physicists, architects, and many other scientists and technologists are constantly using imagery to brainstorm and solve problems. This attribute is critical for the kind of creative workforce that the new millennium is requiring. Therefore, it becomes an essential skill to be developed in our students.
The primary literacy in the 21st century is visual. To be literate in today’s world, it must include the ability to read and communicate with, and through, images. Literacy is not just reading and writing words anymore. To be literate one must have the skill of “reading and writing images” or Visual Literacy, which is native to us. The depiction of ideas through the use of visual representations has always been a fundamental form of expression in our human culture. Just think of the caveman and his drawings, or the entrepreneurs and his images in their PowerPoint presentations.
The Association of College and Research Libraries Image Resources Interest Group, defines visual literacy as “a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Images and visual media may include photographs, illustrations, drawings, maps, diagrams, advertisements, and other visual messages and representations, both still and moving.” These abilities are essential for students today, not only for learning in the classroom but also for workplace preparation.
According to the developmental molecular biologist, Dr. John J. Medina teachers should use less text and more pictures to increase engagement and retention. In his book, Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Dr. Medina insists that “text and oral presentations are not just less efficient than pictures for retaining certain types of information; they are way less efficient. If the information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture.”
Visual Literacy and ELLs
As educators, we should support our teaching with images to bring ideas, concepts, and processes to life. Using visual literacy becomes even more essential when working with English language learners (ELLs). With these students, the use of images and visual representations become a sort of universal language that facilitates the work of the teacher and increases comprehension and retention of new vocabulary and concepts.
My experience in the bilingual classroom shows me that when we develop visual literacy (among other research-based strategies such as culturally relevant pedagogy), we can facilitate meaningful and lasting learning. Some recommendations are:
– When introducing new concepts, always accompany them with visual representations.
– Place visuals that reinforce the concepts being taught in different areas of the classroom (walls, bulletin boards, etc.)
– Before Reading from textbooks or digital sources, always ask the students to scan the text for visuals (including charts and graphs). Invite them to make predictions based on their observations.
– Use sketchnoting techniques when introducing key concepts.
– Help the students create interactive notebooks (using sketchnoting techniques) that also include the use of technologies such as QR codes that trigger videos or images that trigger augmented reality experiences.
These are only a few ways to incorporate visual literacy into your everyday instruction. I will be conducting a full-day professional development workshop called Three Steps to Mastering Academic Vocabulary with ELLs, which will provide participants with more concrete examples of how to incorporate visual literacy into their lessons. If you are in the area of Dallas or McAllen, I’d love to see you there.