visual literacy | Visual Literacy | Teaching Visual Literacy and Visual Texts in the Classroom |


For many people, the word ‘literacy’ conjures up an image of a library filled with dusty books. This is unsurprising given the importance the written word has played in all our lives, especially those of us who are too old to be considered ‘digital natives’.

Despite the importance of the written word in our schools, it is not the only means of widely sharing our thoughts and ideas. We are constantly bombarded with static and moving images in this Internet age. It is more essential than ever that our students develop the necessary visual literacy skills to navigate this image-intense world we all inhabit.

Screens of all shapes and sizes dominate our attention span; YouTube and various social media platforms have replaced the book as the primary source of entertainment in the blink of an eye, and this is unlikely to change.

In this article, we will examine some approaches to help you devise activities using visual texts and teaching visual literacy in the classroom. We will also suggest fun and meaningful activities you can use with your students today.

Firstly, however, we need to get to grips with precisely what we mean when we use the term ‘visual literacy’. We can consider the term as a general working definition referring to interpreting and creating visual images. Visual literacy is about communication and interaction, as with other types of literacy. While it has much in common with those other forms of literacy, it has some unique aspects that students will need to explore specifically.

What is Visual Literacy?

The basic definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, write and create static and moving visual images. This concept relates to art and design but has much broader applications. Visual literacy is about language, communication and interaction. Visual media is a linguistic tool with which we communicate, exchange ideas and navigate our highly visual digital world.

Luckily, when introducing visual texts to students, there is no shortage of options and examples, as can be seen below.

The term was first coined in 1969 by John Debes, who founded the International Visual Literacy Association:


A Complete Visual Text Teaching Unit

visual literacy | movie response unit 1 | Teaching Visual Literacy and Visual Texts in the Classroom |

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This collection of 21 INDEPENDENT TASKS and GRAPHIC ORGANIZERS takes students beyond the hype, special effects, and trailers to look at visual literacy from several perspectives, offering DEEP LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES watching a series, documentary, film, or even video game.

Visual literacy is more than just recognizing images or understanding graphics; it’s about comprehending, analyzing, and effectively communicating through visual means. As educators, fostering visual literacy among students is paramount in preparing them for a world saturated with visual stimuli. Here, we delve into the key components of visual literacy and explore how educators can cultivate these skills in their students.

1. Interpretation: Decoding Visual Information

Interpretation lies at the heart of visual literacy. Teaching students how to analyze and interpret visual information equips them with the essential skills to make sense of the visuals they encounter daily. Whether deciphering complex infographics, decoding symbols in artworks, or understanding the message behind advertisements, interpretation enables students to extract meaning from visual texts. Educators can facilitate interpretation by engaging students in activities that prompt them to analyze images, charts, graphs, and diagrams critically.

2. Creation: Empowering Students to Visualize Ideas

Encouraging students to create their own visual representations is a powerful way to enhance their visual literacy skills. By engaging in the process of creating visuals, students not only deepen their understanding of concepts but also develop their ability to communicate ideas effectively. Whether designing posters, crafting digital presentations, or producing multimedia projects, creation fosters creativity and empowers students to express themselves visually.

3. Critical Thinking: Evaluating Visual Messages

Critical thinking is essential for navigating the vast sea of visual media with discernment and scepticism. Educators play a vital role in developing students’ ability to evaluate visual messages critically. This involves teaching students to question the credibility of sources, recognize bias, and consider the creator’s perspective. Educators cultivate a generation of critical consumers and creators of visual media by engaging in discussions and activities that prompt students to analyze the intent and impact of visual content.

4. Ethical Considerations: Navigating the Complexities of Visual Representation

In an age where images can be easily manipulated and misrepresented, discussing ethical considerations is crucial in visual literacy education. Educators must guide students in navigating the ethical implications of using and creating visual content. This includes addressing issues of representation, authenticity, and the responsible use of images. By fostering conversations around ethical dilemmas and encouraging students to consider the ethical implications of their visual creations, educators instil values of integrity and respect in their students.

Incorporating these critical components into visual literacy instruction empowers educators to nurture students adept at interpreting, creating, and critically evaluating visual content. By equipping students with these essential skills, educators prepare them to thrive in a world where visual communication reigns supreme, enabling them to navigate and contribute meaningfully to an increasingly visual society.

Much of the information that comes to our students is a combination of both written text and images. Our students must be fully equipped to process that information in all its forms.

Considering how visually orientated we are as humans, it is no surprise that images have a powerful impact on us. Research shows that there is a wide range of benefits derived from improved visual literacy, including:

  • Visual Information is More Memorable

One of the most effective ways to encourage information to jump from limited short-term memory to more powerful long-term memory is to pair text with images. Studies show that we retain approximately 10-20% of written or spoken information but around 65% when presented visually.

  • Visual Information is Transferred Faster

Information presented visually is processed extremely quickly by the brain. The brain can even see images that appear for a mere 13 milliseconds. Around 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual in nature.

  • Helps Students Communicate with the World Around Them

Traditionally, we think of teaching literacy as the two-way street of reading and writing. We can think of visual literacy as involving similar processes of interpreting images and creating images. In a fast-moving world, with an ever-increasing diagnosis of attention deficit disorders, we increasingly rely on images to quickly convey meaning.

  • Enriches Understanding

While images can be used in isolation, they often accompany text or audio. Images can significantly enrich the student’s understanding of a text or other media, but to interact with these more profound levels of meaning, students must possess the necessary skills to access those depths.

  • Increases Enjoyment

Not only does increased visual literacy enrich our students’ understanding of the media they consume, but it can also enrich their enjoyment—especially of visual art. If you have taken younger students to an art gallery, you may have heard protests of ‘This is boring!’

However, when students have a deeper understanding of the ‘meaning’ behind the art pieces, are familiar with the context around the art, have insights into the lives of the artists, or are experienced with some of the techniques that produced the pieces, they often derive greater pleasure from their visit.

The same is true of their engagement in terms of visual literacy. As informed readers of images in various modalities, students are exposed to the exciting dimensions of shape, color, texture, and more.

Creates More Educated Image Readers

In an era of fake news and ceaseless advertising, a responsible approach to educating our students must encourage them to become informed viewers of the world, including the media they engage with. Through the teaching of visual literacy, we can help students understand how the images they consume can manipulate their emotions and persuade them to act in a given way.

Supports EAL Learners

The use of images in the classroom can be of great benefit to students who come from non-English-speaking backgrounds. As these students travel on their road to fluency in English, images can provide an effective bridge in that learning process. While using images in the forms of flashcards, writing frames, etc, to teach EAL learners may be obvious, creating images by the students themselves can also be a great way to assess their understanding of more abstract concepts and vocabulary.

What Forms of Visual Text Are Used in the Classroom?


Students are exposed to a vast array of visual media. When we hear the jazzy term ‘visual text’ we may immediately think of its expression in the digital age, but the roots of visual texts stretch deep into our history; all the way back to our beginnings. Think of the cave paintings in Lascaux!

However, today, there are many more forms of visual text to consider. From cave walls to computer screens and all points in between, students are exposed to billboards, photographs, TV, video, maps, memes, digital stories, video games, timelines, signs, political cartoons, posters, flyers, newspapers, magazines, Facebook, Instagram, movies, DVDs, and cell phone wallpaper—to name but twenty! All these can serve as the jumping-off point for a lesson on visual literacy.

The digital age has opened the floodgate on images spilling into our consciousness and unconsciousness. The implications for visual literacy stretch far beyond the limits of the English classroom into all areas of our lives. From the math student interpreting graphs to the music student following musical notation or the geography student poring over Google Earth. For a multitude of purposes, in an array of modalities, visual literacy is ever more critical.

visual literacy | Teaching Visual Literacy and Visual Texts in the Classroom |

In the mid-20th century, the impact of film and television introduced new modes of information and entertainment consumption, dramatically influencing popular culture.  For the first time, we could tell a story simultaneously to three hundred people in a cinema as a shared experience in 90 minutes that previously may have taken weeks in isolation.

Whilst we rightly should explore the contrast between books and films as storytelling tools, the impact film has had on popular culture over the last century is incomparable.

In 1902, Georges Melies released “A Trip to the Moon”, which is generally regarded as the world’s first feature film.  At the time, this creativity was probably only achievable by less than ten people worldwide.

Within less than a decade, films were being produced globally. Shortly after, the film and television “industry” employed thousands of creative storytellers in Hollywood alone. 

As a result, Visual Literacy evolved from the filming of staged plays into an immersive and engaging storytelling method that transformed storytelling from hundreds of pages of text into  “lights, camera and action.”

In the second half of the twentieth century, we saw pockets of innovative educators draw upon film as a genuine study area, introducing students to new methods of consuming and creating narratives.

Today’s students would consume visual literacy over traditional text-based literacies by a factor of ten outside the classroom. However, we are still reluctant to teach it even though it is far easier and cheaper to create a video and share it with millions via YouTube than to get a book published and printed.

Furthermore, many of our students are completely uneducated as to the principles of visual texts. They cannot effectively comprehend or decode a film or television show from an informed perspective.

“Visual Literacy is the ability to construct meaning from images. It’s not a skill. It uses skills as a toolbox. It’s a form of critical thinking that enhances your intellectual capacity.”

Brian Kennedy

Director, Toledo Museum of Art

Suppose visual literacy is about decoding meaning from images of various kinds. In that case, we must teach our students how to set about this intimidating task – just as we do when we teach them how to approach a written text. Regardless of the nature of the image, this process follows three general steps:

1. What Can You See?

Students must become familiar with Visual Literacy Clues (VLCs) to answer this. When students are familiar with these clues, they will have a method of approaching any image to decode its meaning. The VLCs are subject matter, colors, angles, symbols, vectors, lighting, gaze, gestures, and shapes. These categories provide an approach to examining the details of the various aspects of the image they are reading.

2. How Does It Make You Feel?

After the students have had time to note what they can see in the image through examination of the VLCs, it is now time for them to consider their emotional response to what they have viewed.

With close reference to the VLCs they have previously identified, students express how the image makes them feel and how it has influenced them to feel this way. They may feel anger, anguish, excitement, happiness, etc. There is no limit to the emotions they may refer to, provided they can point to evidence from the image. Here are some suggested questions to help the students explore their responses:

Subject Matter: What is the topic of the movie? Who and what are in the image? What is the image about?

Color: How is color used in the image? What effect do the colors choose have on the viewer?

Angles: Are we looking from above or below? What is the camera angle? How does this affect what we see and how we feel about it?

Symbols: What symbols are used in this image? What do you think they represent? Are the colors that were chosen symbolic?

Vectors: Can you see the major lines in the image? Are they broken or unbroken? How do the lines create reading paths for our eyes?

Lighting: Can you describe the lighting used in the movie? How does it affect the ‘mood’ of the movie?

Gaze: What type of look is the character giving? Where is their gaze directed? What does this say?

Gesture: What type of gestures is the character giving? What is communicated by these gestures?

Shapes: What geometric shapes can you recognize in the image? Do they repeat? Is there a pattern? Is order or chaos conveyed?

3. What Is The Image Trying To Tell Us?

This third aspect peels back another level of meaning to get to the image’s overall message. This question asks the students to delve into the intentions of the image-maker themselves. The genre of the image will be of significance here, too, as the student considers the nature of the image as art, entertainment, advertisement or a fusion of the various genres.

Year Long Inference Based Writing Activities

Visual Writing Prompts

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Activities for the Teaching of Visual Literacy in the Classroom

1. Caption a Photograph


Photographs are one of our students’ most familiar forms of visual media. Often, they see photographs accompanied by captions.

In this exercise, give copies of a single photograph to the class without captions. Their task is to closely examine the photograph individually or in small groups before writing a caption to accompany it. When students have completed their captions, they can compare them with each other before you reveal the true nature of the photograph.

Before writing their caption, you may wish to provide some supporting questions or background information. You may, however, wish them to go in blind to any background other than what they can deduce from the photograph itself.

This activity aims to reveal to the students how open a single visual image can be to interpretation. The students will gain awareness of the power of a caption to frame an image’s meaning, even if the caption is inaccurate.

Some suggested questions for students to consider:

  • What people, objects, or activities can you see in the picture?
  • Are there any clues as to when it was taken? What was happening at this time in history?
  • Are there any clues as to where it was taken? Are there any clues to why it was taken or who took it?
  • Is it a posed photograph? A natural scene? A documentary photograph? A selfie?

Extension: You may wish to use this activity as a lead-in to a more prominent topic. It can be a great introduction to draw out the students’ background knowledge and lead to a more extensive discussion or research project. This activity can also be easily adapted for various types of images, such as advertisements.

2. Engage with a Video Game


There is no doubt of two things when it comes to video games:

1. They get a bad rap

2. They are extremely popular among younger people

And while there is no doubt that there are some games on the market of dubious worth, as with any art form, there is much of merit and potential in this relatively new medium.

While there are obvious links to storytelling activities that can be made by examining the narrative of many video games, it may be much more interesting and useful to look more closely at how video games ‘work’ in terms of the overall experience.

Video games are immersive, multi-sensory experiences for players. This is a large part of their appeal. While written texts can appeal largely to our imaginative faculties, video games can also appeal to our senses of sight and hearing – and now, even touch can be incorporated. To have students focus on visual aspects of their gaming experience, give them a worksheet to make notes on that experience using the VLC categories listed above. This can create a great group discussion activity as the movie or game plays with the sound off.

3. Multi-Modal Comparisons

We are familiar with the concept of movie tie-ins. In days gone by, the response to the question “Have you read x?” was often a “No, but I saw the movie.” Nowadays the reply is just as likely to be “No, but I have the video game.” The triumvirate of the book—movie—game tie-in is fertile ground for some interesting text comparison work in the classroom.

Popular tie-in triplets include Harry Potter and the seminal Lord of the Rings. Use your students’ powers of visual perception to create this multimedia experience by selecting scenes from the original book and comparing how the scene is handled in the movie or video game.

Keep the focus on the visual elements in the latter two media. Encourage students to discuss, write, or prepare a presentation on how the movie or video game translates non-visual aspects from the text version into visual elements. Again, as discussed above, reference to the VLCs will be an important element in this activity. 

4. The Timeline


While the activities examined so far have focused on honing the students’ comprehension skills in relation to visual texts, this activity allows students to apply that knowledge to the creation of visual texts themselves.

Encourage the students to plot significant milestones in their lives on a visual timeline. They may use a combination of images and text if this aligns with your learning objectives and students’ abilities. However, do ensure you remind students how they can incorporate the VLCs into conveying meaning in their images.

This can also be a valuable activity in which to incorporate various aspects of IT skills. Students can perform advanced Google image searches to locate copyright-free images or use websites like The Noun Project to locate Creative Commons icons to help them make a slideshow version of their timeline on PowerPoint. A wealth of software applications can assist, many of which are freely available online.


In today’s digitally driven world, technology offers a plethora of opportunities for both teachers and students to enhance visual literacy skills. By leveraging digital tools and resources, educators can engage students in dynamic learning experiences that foster critical thinking, creativity, and communication. Here are some ways teachers and students can use technology to enhance visual literacy:

  1. Interactive Multimedia Presentations: Teachers can use software like Microsoft PowerPoint or Google Slides to create visually engaging multimedia presentations. Incorporating images, videos, and interactive elements captures students’ attention and helps them understand complex concepts through visual representation. Additionally, students can learn to create their own multimedia presentations, enhancing their skills in visual storytelling and design.
  2. Digital Storytelling: Digital storytelling platforms such as Adobe Spark and Storybird enable students to combine text, images, and multimedia elements to create compelling narratives. By planning, creating, and sharing digital stories, students develop their visual literacy skills by making deliberate choices about visual elements to enhance the storytelling experience.
  3. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR): VR and AR technologies provide immersive experiences that transport students to different locations, time periods, or scenarios. Teachers can use VR headsets or AR apps to explore historical sites, simulate scientific experiments, or visualize abstract concepts. By interacting with virtual environments, students develop a deeper understanding of spatial relationships and visual perspectives.
  4. Digital Art and Design Tools: Software programs like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Canva empower students to express their creativity through digital art and design. From editing photos to creating graphic illustrations, students learn to manipulate visual elements to convey meaning and evoke emotions. These tools also encourage experimentation and collaboration, allowing students to explore different artistic techniques and styles.
  5. Online Image Analysis and Annotation Tools: Websites and apps such as Padlet, ThingLink, and Skitch enable students to annotate, analyze, and interact with images collaboratively. Teachers can use these tools to facilitate discussions around visual texts, encouraging students to ask questions, make observations, and draw connections between images and other forms of media.

By integrating technology into visual literacy instruction, teachers can create dynamic learning environments that empower students to become critical consumers and creators of visual media. Through hands-on exploration and experimentation with digital tools, students develop the skills and con

Draw a Line Under It

In this article, we have touched the tip of that proverbial iceberg. The scope for using visual texts in the classroom is potentially limited only by our own imagination. While we have looked at several concrete examples of visual literacy-based activities in the examples above, the opportunity for building lessons around the myriad forms of visual texts is endless.

Whether utilising advertisements, internet memes, or classic works of art as the focus, start with the three broad questions outlined previously: What can you see? How does it make you feel? What is the image trying to tell us? These questions provide the basis for developing your learning objectives, and your activities can quickly be built around them.

The Visual Literacy Clues provide strategies for reading any visual text, whether moving or still images. The more practice students get using these strategies, the more fluent their reading will become. While for some students, these skills may take time to develop, remind them too that just as we can refer to images as visual texts, we can equally refer to written text as images themselves, as the letters on the page are themselves symbolic in nature.

If they can learn to read the complexities of the written language, they can be confident they can learn to read the visual world too.