Reading Images: An Introduction to Visual Literacy

Images are all around us, and the ability to interpret them meaningfully is a vital skill for students to learn.

“LITERACY” USUALLY MEANS THE ABILITY TO READ AND WRITE, but it can also refer to the ability to “read” kinds of signs other than words — for example, images or gestures. The proliferation of images in our culture — in newspapers and magazines, in advertising, on television, and on the Web — makes visual literacy, the ability to “read” images, a vital skill. But what does it mean to read an image, and how can teachers help students develop the skills to do so thoughtfully?

Visual literacy is the ability to see, to understand, and ultimately to think, create, and communicate graphically. Generally speaking, the visually literate viewer looks at an image carefully, critically, and with an eye for the intentions of the image’s creator. Those skills can be applied equally to any type of image: photographs, paintings and drawings, graphic art (including everything from political cartoons to comic books to illustrations in children’s books), films, maps, and various kinds of charts and graphs. All convey information and ideas, and visual literacy allows the viewer to gather the information and ideas contained in an image, place them in context, and determine whether they are valid.

Like traditional literacy, visual literacy encompasses more than one level of skill. The first level in reading is simply decoding words and sentences, but reading comprehension is equally (if not more) important: teachers work to help students not only to decode words but also to make sense of what they read. That understanding requires broad vocabulary, experience in a particular content area, and critical thought, and teachers have various approaches and strategies to help students build contextual understanding of what they read.

The first level of visual literacy, too, is simple knowledge: basic identification of the subject or elements in a photograph, work of art, or graphic. The skills necessary to identify details of images are included in many disciplines; for example, careful observation is essential to scientific inquiry. But while accurate observation is important, understanding what we see and comprehending visual relationships are at least as important. These higher-level visual literacy skills require critical thinking, and they are essential to a student’s success in any content area in which information is conveyed through visual formats such as charts and maps. They are also beneficial to students attempting to make sense of the barrage of images they may face in texts and Web resources.

Visual literacy skills are already employed in a variety of disciplines. Observation, as we’ve noted, is integral to science. Critique, useful in considering what should be included in an essay in Language Arts, is also a part of examining a visual image. Deconstruction, employed in mathematical problem solving, is used with images to crop and evaluate elements and how they relate to the whole. Discerning point of view or bias is important in analyzing advertisements and works of art.

- Melissa Thibault and David Walbert
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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