While most English/language arts teachers understand how to use and teach alphabetic and even aural literacy, they may not be so adept at using and teaching visual literacy. Since it was first used in the 1970s, the term “visual literacy” has been given many definitions by many disciplines. One early description of visual literacy was “the active reconstruction of past visual experience with incoming visual messages to obtain meaning” (Sinatra, 1986, p. 5). A more general definition given over a decade later was “the ability to ‘read,’ interpret, and understand information presented in pictorial or graphic images” (Wileman, 1993, p. 114). Another similar definition of visual literacy referred to it as “the learned ability to interpret visual messages accurately and to create such messages” (Heinich, Molenda, Russell, & Smaldino, 1999, p. 64). In all of these definitions, visual literacy can generally be thought of as paralleling verbal literacy, both aural and alphabet based (Kiefer, 1994). Tying the concept of visual literacy back to the general definition of literacy, visual literacy may be thought of as any creation of visual images intended to communicate across time and space.

Because the term “visual literacy” has different meanings to different people, it has been unclear where and how this new literacy should be taught. Is visual literacy a visual arts issue as the first part of the name might imply? Perhaps the computer teacher would be best suited to address a problem related to emerging technologies? If visual literacy is truly a literacy, shouldn’t the English/language arts teachers be responsible? Discussion continues with no resolution, no definition of visual literacy, and no disciple responsible for teaching it. While many people accept the need for instruction using non-verbal modes of learning, many do not fully understand nor appreciate critical thinking using non-verbal modes of learning. Even though many educators clearly see the desirability of teaching visual literacy, difficulties have arisen in both English/language arts and other disciplines because of a lack of understanding. Each of the disciplines that uses the term “visual literacy” holds a slightly different perspective of the term and regards somewhat different issues as more important. Computer technology, media studies, communications, the visual arts, and language arts all recognize up to forty different terms related to various types of literacy, with three broad categories standing out—verbal literacy, visual literacy, and media literacy (Rafferty, 1999). Obviously the differences among disciplines in their understanding of literacy have created confusion.

Yet, the confusion does not stop with the various disciplines that use the term “visual literacy.” Within the English/language arts discipline itself, many educators hold different views of what visual literacy is. In fact, some even argue that literacy and rhetoric cannot appropriately be used in connection with visual images (Blair, 1996; Fleming, 1996). In addition to the problem of not having a common definition, teaching visual literacy may be difficult for some English/language teachers because of their perception that some of their students have superior knowledge of the media and technology associated with visual literacy (Loveless, 2000).

However, as students become less accustomed to using written language to transmit thought, they may also become less aware of how the images that they generally rely on to gain knowledge impact their understanding and beliefs (Flood, Heath, & Lapp, 1997). Theorists have attempted to create models for better understanding the concept of visual literacy. Some of the first models used the idea of language as a metaphor for visual literacy. Early in the discussion of the importance of visual images, Ruesch & Kees (1956) identified three types of non-verbal language—pictorial, action, and object. Even as visuals were becoming more prevalent in society, the interest in what constitutes visual literacy seemed to wane until the late 1980s. Braden & Hortin (1982) teamed to map the domains of visual literacy. Using a Venn diagram, they illustrated the overlap of visual literacy with vision and linguistics. Both perception and understanding of structure and meaning were required for a person to be visually literate according to Braden & Hortin (1982). As part of the Delphi study, Clark-Baca & Beauchamp (1990) reported nearly two hundred statements attempting to define visual literacy. From her study, Clark-Baca later joined with Braden (1991) in developing a cluster map to illustrate the components of visual literacy. At the center of the map was “purpose,” suggesting classical composition and rhetoric influences. Surrounding “purpose” were six areas making up visual literacy—communication, learning, thinking, constructing meaning, creative expression, and aesthetic enjoyment. Clark-Baca & Braden (1991) recognized, however, that the growing volume of information about visual literacy was not contributing to a consensus among the experts as to what actually constituted visual literacy.

Interest in describing and defining visual literacy continued throughout the 1990s. Various disciplines took various perspectives. Coming from an educational media point of view, Moore & Dwyer (1994) edited a group of essays on visual literacy in their book, Visual Literacy.

In the same year, Messaris (1994), considering visual literacy from a psychological, perceptual construct, concluded that visual literacy was a natural phenomenon, one that, with few exceptions, could not be taught or learned. Also in 1994, Seels (in Moore & Dwyer), coming from an educational point of view, subdivided visual literacy into visual thinking, visual learning, and visual communication. However, she did place visual communication at the top of her “Visual Literacy Cube,” with visual thinking and visual learning to the sides, emphasizing the important of the visual as language. In the following year, Watkins (in Moriarity, 1995), from a mass communications perspective, outlined six domains of visual literacy—aesthetic, functional, historical, symbolic, perceptual, and cultural. Also that year, from an English/language arts and creative writing view, Bell (in Moriarity, 1995) categorized visual literacy as relying on visual acuity, cultural understanding, imagination, and technology. By the turn of the 21st century, in seeking a definition of “visual literacy,” Kovalik & King (2004) used the broad term “visual literacy” in much the same way that Seels (in Moore & Dwyer, 1994) did ten years earlier. They saw visual literacy as encompassing three other concepts--visual thinking, visual learning, and visual communication. A further subdivision of visual communication, visual rhetoric, views visual images as persuasive tools. Because the terms “visual literacy” and “visual rhetoric” use the words “literacy” and “rhetoric,” which traditionally are associated with English/language arts, many states have included standards, in the English/language arts curriculum, related to visual literacy. “Visual literacy” and “visual rhetoric” do, in fact, parallel traditional, language-based literacy and rhetoric, both aural and alphabetic (Kiefer, 1994). Yet, the relationship of visual literacy to the traditional literacies historically taught in English/language arts classrooms is not well established. Nonetheless, visual literacy is clearly literacy in the same sense as traditional literacy. Yet, visual literacy has never been emphasized as strongly in formal education as traditional literacy, particularly at the secondary level. This fact can be illustrated by the textbooks used at the secondary level. Although elementary-school texts are richly illustrated, as students progress into secondary school, visual images become fewer, with a greater proportion of materials being alphabetic text (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996). In the English/language arts discipline, opposition to the concept of visual literacy does not necessarily represent a bias against visual media in general but a preference for verbal media in situations where visual images and writing vie for importance. To many educators, in such circumstances, visual images pose a potential threat to verbal literacy, indicating a decline of culture and learning (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996). The goal of advocates of visual literacy instruction is to persuade traditional forces that both verbal and visual literacy have a place in contemporary society as means to instruct and developunderstanding.

Recognizing the importance of visual literacy is not a new phenomenon. British scholars, decades ago, were calling attention to visual literacy and its impact on education. They had come to realize that students needed to learn to read the many complex symbol systems beyond alphabetic text (Heath, 2000). As society is becoming more globalized, visual literacy naturally takes on a more significant role “where people are unlikely to have any given language in common” (Kress, 1997, p. 130) because images, particularly photographs, are easier to assimilate and more universal than words (Walker & Chaplin, 1997). The importance of visual literacy on an individual level also becomes apparent when one considers that, although some individuals show preference for language-based thinking, people generally develop the ability to think visually first. Unfortunately, people do not work on developing their primal visual ability rather concentrate on abstract, logical, word-based thinking.

Martha S.M. Robertson

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