A Review of the Concept of Visual Literacy

“A Review of the Concept of Visual Literacy” by Maria Avgerinou and John Ericson

This paper was written with the intention of clarifying the definition of the concept of Visual Literacy. Avgerinou and Ericson begin with the first definition of Visual Literacy offered by John Debes in 1969 and compare it to several other theories. According to Debes, Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies developed in a human by simultaneously seeing and integrating other sensory experiences. A visually literate person would be able to interpret and communicate visible actions, objects, and symbols like a translation of verbal language. Debes’ early definition appears too expansive and misleading as he fails to mention anything about form. The authors recognize many attempts made to define Visual Literacy, showing the complications created by the “pluralistic theoretical basis of the construct.” The complication includes the grounds that Visual Literacy involves many disciplines, including aesthetics/art, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, visual perception, opthamology, sociology, cultural anthropology, instructional design, communication theory, and semiotics. This makes the obstacle of defining Visual Literacy understandable. In 1990, the Delphi Technique to develop a comprehensive definition has proved to be the most beneficial in creating a consensus regarding basic tenets of Visual Literacy.

Burbank and Pett classify the constructs of Visual Literacy by dividing them into theoretical constructs and practical constructs. Theoretical aspects include visual perception, hemispheric processes, cognitive styles, visual language, and abstract language elements. The authors suggest that if one is to become critically autonomous towards visual images, he must become aware of the structure and function of visual language. The practical aspects focus on teaching about visuals, relationships between visual and verbal learning, audio-visual aids in teaching and the influences of mass media.

As the concept of Visual Literacy gained momentum in the late 1960s, several groups were formed in order to spread its propositions to the educational system. Educators must understand that the way in which people learn and remember bears a strong relationship to the way their senses operate, as a high proportion of all sensory learning is visual. Today, Visual Literacy is important in light of the prevalence of visual mass media in film and computers. Despite this, conventional education gives little emphasis on the interpretation of visual material because of the misconception that children do not need to be taught skills of visual literacy, as it seems self-evident that the process is learned through direct experience. This is not true, as the higher order of Visual Literacy skills only develop when identified and taught. The need for visual training is understandable, as potential benefits include the increase in verbal skills, improved self-expression and ordering of ideas, increased student motivation, new levels of comprehension, and improved self image and confidence. The authors conclude the paper by emphasizing that the development of Visual Literacy will increase the ability to better comprehend today’s world and suggest the value of presenting Visual Literacy through school curriculum. In reference to the “global village” of modern times, intercontinental communication plays an increasing role in everyday life throughout a wide range of societies.

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