By Alexander Baratta

Visual literacy may or may not be a term most people are familiar with but it is a skill which we all possess. 

Broadly speaking, being visually literate requires one to be able to decode visuals from many sources, from the everyday, such as understanding that a green traffic light means go, to the more complex, such as the skills required when analyzing an advertisement with its multiple layers of visuals, to include color, font size and style and the many connotations involved with the main picture itself used to sell a product. 

While John Debes coined the term visual literacy in the 1960s, the need to have such skills goes all the way back to the cavemen days with the drawing of pictures on cave walls and later developments such as Egyptian hieroglyphics. 

In the present era, the current generation is more adept with visuals than ever before, given their expertise with text messaging and its iconography; computer games, the Internet, Facebook, the use of smartphones, Twitter, blogs, DVDs and Blu-ray, to name a few. 

Therefore, the argument put forth in this article is simple: by harnessing students’ visual literacy skills and using them in the classroom, we can create a learning environment that is more dynamic and accessible for the students and subsequently, one that they might engage with more. It’s a case of bringing their interests outside the classroom inside the classroom, to help facilitate learning. 

The benefits of using visuals, based on much research, includes development of overall literacy skills; promotion of critical thinking skills; development of verbal skills; increased self-expression; increase in student motivation; improved confidence; and reaching students, such as bilinguals and the socially underprivileged, for whom other teaching methods have failed. 

In terms of how visuals can be used, there are many approaches and while some subjects are inherently visual, such as art, this does not suggest that visuals cannot be used in a variety of classes. Analysis of print advertisements, for example, can be used in class as a prelude to students designing their own ads in groups. Such an exercise can be used within subjects such as media, marketing, English/ESL and literacy-based classes also. 

Film is indeed already a stalwart of many classes, with a screening often the basis of a subsequent essay, in classes such as literature, English, politics, law and others ― in essence, the film is chosen to fit the subject matter of the class. 

Social media (to include in-class examples, such as Facebook) can be used as the means for a discussion in subject areas that include communication, media, politics (e.g. discussing the use of social media in the recent Arab uprisings) and linguistics (e.g. perhaps discussing how social media has affected the use of language, such as text message iconography and abbreviations such as ``lol”). 

Ultimately, however, perhaps the most important visual in the classroom is that which cannot be seen as such: mental visuals. By using a visual pedagogic approach, students can develop mental concepts of the subject at hand with which to then increase their understanding of the subject. 

Thus, in a media-saturated world with visuals all around us, let us consider the benefits of bringing this world into the classroom and allowing students to show us what they know.

The writer is a professor at the University of Manchester and his teaching interests include ESL, academic writing and sociolinguistics. He can be reached at Alex.Baratta@manchester.ac.uk.

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