Visual vs. Visual Literacy? No Contest

If a picture's worth a thousand words, why don't we teach visual literacy?
Verbal literacy refers to our ability to create and make sense out of written and spoken texts.
Visual literacy refers to our  ability to  encode and decode, interpret and understand information presented from an image.  It is the ability to "read" meaning from pictures, from faces, from designs.

In a world where tweets, SMS's, and IM's are used more than letters and phone calls, learning to extract meaning from verbal and visual images has become more important.  Why:
  • As we tweet, blog, sms, drive, watch television, movies, commercials, etc. need to create effective verbal and visual messages and we have to be able to critically evaluate the messages we are bombarded with.
  • When marketing ourselves, our skills, our ideas, our businesses, we create visual and verbals messages:  Business cards, billboards, advertisements, blogs, tweets and IMs ALL have visual and verbal representations!
  • Socially - at work, play and in school, we need to read faces of other kids and adults to fully understand how to effectively interact with and respond to others.
  • To succeed in school and at work, we need to decipher the following - ALL of which rely on verbal and visual literacy:
    • Visual and verbal information presented in advertisements, shows, signs, etc.
    • Scientific and mathematical notations, charts and symbols;
    • Musical notes and notation;
    • Webs and charts;
    • Maps;
    • Logos;
    • Graphs;
    • Photographs;
    • Videos, movies, shows;
    • Cartoons (kids' cartoons, political cartoons, etc.);
In short, we have to learn to read images as well as letters.  And, for those who have trouble reading (or reluctant readers), visual literacy is even more important as it will make traditional learning and reading easier and provides another avenue of communication.

So really, there is no contest between visual and verbal literacies...both are essential!

Interestingly (at least to me), while the term "visual literacy" is credited to Jack Debes, co-founder of the International Visual Literacy Association around 1969, it did not come across my radar as a school psychologist and educator until very recently.  Similarly, while Mary Alice White, a researcher at Columbia University's Teacher's College has found that kids learn more than half of what they know from visually presented mediums, few schools consciously teach students how to evaluate and think critically about visual data.  

In fact, until VERY recently, there was little or no emphasis on visual literacy.

Point: Visual and verbal literacy should both be taught is school - preferably together.  That said, due to limited space, I figure you all know about verbal literacy and so I am using the rest of this blog to jump start your visual literacy odyssey.
[NOTE:  IF you want more on verbal literacy, please let me know in the comments!]

Some ways to help you and your child develop visual literacy skills:
Things to talk about together:  
  • When walking, driving, flipping through magazines, looking at illustrations, and reading aloud books with visual images, TALK about the ads and images you see: 
    • discuss the color choices for the panels and images,
    • discuss what is and is not in the background image, 
    • discuss the choice of words and fonts used,
    • what type of feelings/impressions do the font choices relay?   
  • When reading graphic novels discuss the three bullets above AND:
    • Do the panel shapes change?  How and why? [For example, dream and flashback panels are often portrayed within panels with squiggly lines vs. straight lines.  Also, spok en  dialogue is often written in different text balloons from ideas/thoughts th at are unspoken.]  
    • Discuss the way the panels are organized on the page - does one seem more dominant than another?  Why?
    • Does one page look different from another?  How is it different?  Why do you think the authors/illustrations changed the format?
Books you can read: 
  •  Comic books and graphic novels -  
 These are some of my favorite graphic novels for kids of various ages:  
Laika by Nick Abadzis.  First Second Books (age 7+) - about the first sentient being sent to space by the Russians.
 I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura. Image Comics  (age 12+) a book about 5th-grader Barbara who fights giants (but does she really -or is this one giant metaphor...sorry for the pun).
Courtney Crumrin Tales by Ted Neifeh Oni Press (age 7+) about a girl in space school.  
 Salt Water Taffy by Matthew Loux Oni Press (all ages)  
Possessions  by Ray Fawkes (ages 7+) about ghosts and gouls living together (lots of fun, lots of spunk)
 Northwest Passage by Scott Chantler. ONI Press (age 9+) a wonderful account of this pivotal story in American history (with author annotation to help those novice visual 
City of Spies by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan, illustrated by Pascal Dizin. First Second Books (age 9+) - about a girl sent to spend the summer in the early 1940's with her aunt, while her father marries his fifth wife...
Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi.  First Second Books (age 9+) another verbal-visual account of a pivotal event in American history
American Born Chinese First Second Books (age 9+) minority in America
Robot Dreams by Sara Varon First Second Books (all ages) wordless graphic novel  all  about friendship
The Olympians by George O'Connor.  First Second Books  (age 9+) a beautiful account of Greek mythology
 Berona's War by Jesse Labbe and Anthony Coffey. Archaia Press (age 11+) a manual depicting this infamous (fictional) war 
Gennerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell (age 9+) great story about a girl and her 'friend s' in a very boarding school in a very different world
Mouse Guard by Luke Crane and David Petersen (age 9+) a graphic novel much like Brian Jacques' Redwallseries.
Websites to visit:  Check out some of my other blog posts for specific age level suggestions: 

  • Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is a great way to learn and experience the world of visual literacy.  For what it's worth, I just love this book.  McCloud shows how print fonts, print size, patterns, colors, facial expressions, designs, ALL influence our processing and understanding of the things around us.
Sites to visit:
This site provides an interactive 'periodic table' and I find it MIND BOGGLING that there are so many ways to visually present information.  This is an absolute MUST for teachers to go through.  It will change the way you teach and look at the world.

As a parent - this is a fun site to share with your child - especially before projects.  Brainstorm different ways to visually present information.  It is fun!
This site is also useful for parents and teachers.  It defines visual literacy, makes book suggestions and has free materials for teachers.
This site is sponsored by the Oakland Museum of California and discusses why visual literacy is so important, and how parents and teachers can use photographs to better appreciate, understand and develop visual literacy skills.
This site has some pretty cool lesson plans on visual literacy using all sorts of materials although most of the lessons are for middle or high school classrooms.

What is your take on all of this?  I have to say that until I started reading and writing about comics and graphic novels, there were so many visual cues I took for granted.  And, I'm still learning! Do you notice things more visually?  What have you recently noticed?  I'd love to learn what you're doing!

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