How, if at all, do you teach visual literacy?
Posted by

If a picture's worth a thousand words, why don't we teach visual literacy?

  • As we tweet, blog, sms, drive, watch television, movies, commercials, etc. need to create effective verbal and visual messages and we have to be able to critically evaluate the messages we are bombarded with.
  • When marketing ourselves, our skills, our ideas, our businesses, we create visual and verbals messages: Business cards, billboards, advertisements, blogs, tweets and IMs ALL have visual and verbal representations!
  • Socially - at work, play and in school, we need to read faces of other kids and adults to fully understand how to effectively interact with and respond to others.

Interestingly (at least to me), while the term "visual literacy" is credited to Jack Debes, co-founder of the International Visual Literacy Association around 1969, it did not come across my radar as a school psychologist and educator until very recently. Similarly, while Mary Alice White, a researcher at Columbia University's Teacher's College has found that kids learn more than half of what they know from visually presented mediums, few schools consciously teach students how to evaluate and think critically about visual data. In fact, until VERY recently, there was little or no emphasis on visual literacy.


How, if at all do you teach visual literacy?  I post strategies, websites and books to help develop visual literacy skills on my blog for specific


  • One non-visual exercise would be meditation.  

    Just thinking about it now, how about presenting an odor to them -- a perfume, herb, or some other aromatic - and asking them to verbally describe it?  They could pass around something doused with the aromatic.  Then ask them to use a metaphor, simile, or other semi-poetic word or expression to describe it.  You might then pass around something else imbued with another aromatic and ask them to compare the two.  This could be done in groups.


    After this non-visual exercise, present them with a picture and ask them to react to it.  I think of the picture of Adlai Stevenson's shoe with a hole in it during the presidential campaign in 1952(?), asking your students (after explaining who Stevenson was), "After seeing this picture, would be more or less likely to vote for this man?" Or showing them a picture of a melting glacier, perhaps a before/after picture, and asking them, "How does this picture change the way you live your life?"



  • Neat idea!  Could you give me an example?  I am not clear with "an exercise which did not include a visual reaction and then present a visual cue" - but is sounds REALLY COOL!
  • This is counterintuitive but I would present an exercise which did not include visual reaction, and then present a visual cue.  I have always been amazed, for example, at the results when I tell my students (who are college freshmen) to observe five minutes of complete silence, not moving, not writing, not listening, not thinking, if possible - call it meditation.  The reactions are stunning, but I think one of them is that the brain is fairly blank, so new stimuli elicit an unexpected and interesting reaction.