What is visual literacy?

Thursday, December 9th, 2010 | education, technology

Visual literacy is one of the new literacies required for successful operation in the twenty-first century – it refers to the ability to communicate by means of images, to interpret them and to make sense of the information conveyed by them. 

A picture is worth a thousand words – not many people would argue against this maxim.  You can tell a story more succinctly using pictures than words.  The problem is that two people may look at a picture and read two different stories in it.

Think about the consequences when people interpret images in different ways:

How will we ever find our way if a standard way to read maps does not exist?

How can statistics be understood if different people interpret graphs each one in their own way?

How will advertisers communicate their message to the masses if diverse meanings are read into the images of their advertisements in magazines, on billboards or on TV?

What will happen if we all interpret road signs differently?

At school visual literacy is particularly important in studying subjects such as science, technology, history, geography and mathematics – all of them rely on visual texts such as maps, diagrams, graphs and tables to convey information.

Yet, little attention is given to the teaching of visual literacy.  Within a learning area a teacher may try to explain the meaning of a certain image.  For example, when a mathematics teacher explains to a class how to interpret graphs, learners often find it hard to understand.  When the significance of an image is taught in isolation within a learning area, learners may not grasp the relevance of the abstract concept.  This emphasizes the need for learners to acquire basic literacy skills.

Every citizen of the twenty-first century must know how to read images and make sense of them.  Exposure to computers will help learners in this regard.  How?  Computers change the way in which information is presented – making use of images to a large extent.  When learners are exposed to computers and the internet, they are helped to develop visual literacy skills much faster than without it.

For more technology tips for teachers click here.

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3 Comments to What is visual literacy?

[...] visual literacy [...]

Friday, 10 December, 2010

Interesting. I never thought of “visual literacy” as a distinct cognitive (or 21st century) skill and its application within a learning context. You’ve given me something new to think about.

Kobus van Wyk
Friday, 10 December, 2010

Mike, I also did not view at as an essential 21st century skill until recently. But lately I’ve become painfully aware of how ‘graphic’ we’ve become and how unskilled our learners are to interpret the images we’re bombarded with. Literacy skills can no longer be restricted to the ability to read text.

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