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Our district has a goal for every teacher to reinforce student literacy skills. We’re struggling with this at the secondary level. Most of our students seem to have decent reading levels, and the reading specialists provide extra help for those who need it. So what can we do in science classes to improve student literacy?
—Hailey, Richmond, VA

You’re fortunate that your students are reading at or near grade level. However, in addition to sentences and paragraphs, the typical science textbook is full of colorful diagrams, photographs, flowcharts, graphs, maps, tables, and sidebars. Many of these (including animated versions) are also found in online or electronic resources. All of these are (or should be) correlated with the text: to visually represent the information, to provide additional information, to present information hard to express in words (e.g., maps or diagrams), or to illustrate how concepts are related.

Students are challenged to interpret visuals as they read informational text. Some textbooks make things even more challenging for students—referring to a graphic on a different page or using different vocabulary in the graphic. Do your students really understand the purpose of visuals and know how to make sense of them? Perhaps your school’s goal could be adapted for visual literacy in science.

The May 2011 edition of The Reading Teacher has an excellent article by Erin M. McTigue and Amanda C. Flowers on this topic. In “Science Visual Literacy: Learners’ Perceptions and Knowledge of Dia...  the authors describe their efforts to understand student perceptions of visuals and how students interpret them. The study used elementary students, but I suspect some of their findings could apply to secondary students (what a great topic for a thesis or action research!). A membership in the International Reading Association is required to access the issue, so I’ll summarize their findings here. (The reading specialists in your school may have a copy.)


Students from grades 6-8 responded to four different graphic representations of the water cycle, copied from a popular science textbook series. Among their findings, the authors noted students “sometimes” or “rarely” looked at the diagrams in their textbooks and reported that the only function of the diagram was to visually represent what was in the text. Students often misinterpreted the structure of the visuals. For example, the authors shared an interview with a younger student who described the use of arrows as a way to point out interesting information on a graphic of the water cycle, not to depict movement or directionality.

The article suggests several strategies for teachers:

  • Model for students how to interpret a graphic, using a think-aloud to describe your thought processes.
  • Assess student knowledge of graphics through think-alouds or questions that probe their interpretations. The authors provide an interview protocol teachers can use to gauge students understanding of diagrams.
  • Provide multiple representations of the same object, such as a photograph and a diagram. Help students compare and contrast what can be learned from each. (I’m reminded of the ongoing discussions among birdwatchers of the merits of line drawings vs. photographs in field guides to assist with identification).

Creating visuals is another aspect of visual literacy often used in science classes—drawing and labeling diagrams, organizing data into tables, graphing, and using graphic organizers. Knowing more about the purpose of visuals may help students make better choices when they create web pages, presentations, or videos.

Additional suggestions from the authors can be found in the article Visual Literacy in Science in the July 2010 issue of Science Scope.

This article has four brief lessons introducing students to the concept of visual literacy. These could be complementary to the “textbook tour” many teachers use to point out the purpose of text structures such as the headings and subheadings, sidebars, and summaries. This type of instruction is important, especially in the middle years, as students make the transition from “learning to read” using stories to ”reading to learn” from informational text.

If your principal needs extra convincing of the importance of visual literacy, you could cite the authors’ note that more than half of the questions on standardized tests required students to interpret graphical representations. Although helping students with visual literacy will have a far greater impact than test scores.

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