Teaching visual literacy

POSTED: OCTOBER 25, 2012

Critical thinking and learning
Critical thinking and learning to "read" a film are among the goals in studying classics like Citizen Kane.

This is my brief rationale for (and definition of) “film literacy,” a skill that my students must master in my film classes as well as in today’s screen-oriented world.

To quote recent guidelines published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), “As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, literacies that are multiple, dynamic and malleable.” One of these is “visual literacy,” centered on an understanding of the mediated image. Today’s readers and writers must be able to create, deconstruct and evaluate various multimedia texts, the most pervasive of which is cinema.

Visual narrative is the most powerful aesthetic force in the world today, and the movies qualify unchallenged as the art of our time. Film, as the most potent form of storytelling and of mythmaking, both expresses and shapes the contours of the contemporary mind. Film’s imprint on modern culture is, for better or worse, profound, and its importance in my students’ lives is indisputable. Indeed, as James Monaco claims in How to Read a Film, movies provide “the first significant means of communication since the invention of writing more than seven thousand years ago.” Because cinema is the most influential art form developed in the twentieth century, it needs to be academically reckoned with. In the current world of “screen-agers” (to borrow Elizabeth Thoman’s term), we must acknowledge cinema as one of our most important literacies.

Pervasive (some would say invasive) non-print media present an interesting issue for teachers of English, dedicated as we are to the written word over the visual image. Our collective challenge is to address the need for active “visual literacy” within the context of our curriculum. In order to navigate a world increasingly based on visually mediated information, the new generation of “screen-agers” needs academic instruction in “cinematic grammar” and in a new critical language in order to “watch with new eyes.” And teaching the moving image is most effective when filtered through such lenses as cultural analysis, ethics, aesthetics, human emotion and critical discourse. This happens best in the classroom where cinema is treated as both art and language, as it is in my film classes.

I am committed to instruction in cinema as an effective means to teach good critical thinking and writing skills. Because many college English departments offer a major in the area of film study and because most universities have separate media studies or cinema departments, it is important for us to explore this area in order to keep our course offerings timely and consistent with undergraduate education (as endorsed by NCTE as well as by the Modern Language Association and the Center for Media Literacy). Film, in other words, should not be considered an adversary, and the “visual text” should be seen as complementary to the printed text. Indeed, the image is the text as we seek to decode a film. Because spoken language is often ancillary in a film, we must be educated in “visual syntax,” both in theory and practice. In short, to understand “how movies work” is to be critically and actively engaged in this “age of the screen.

My approach is to teach film as a powerfully important cultural artifact and as legitimate art, not merely as a supplement to literary study. I stress that cinema should be seen as a separate entity requiring a new critical “language of film” and new analytical perspectives. The process of learning to “read” cinema explores the grammar and the construction of the cinematic message. To be trained to translate, understand, and evaluate visual/filmic manipulation will help students to comprehend our mediated world at large and to appreciate the ways in which we are all shaped as consumers and as citizens.

— Dr. Bruce Chipman
English teacher and chair emeritus

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