What is visual literacy?
The basic definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, write and create visual images - both static and moving. This is a concept that applies to art and design, but there are also much broader applications. Visual literacy is about language, communication and interaction. Visual media is a language tool with which we communicate, exchange ideas and navigate our highly visual digital world.
Given how visually oriented we are as human beings, it's no surprise that images have such a strong impact on us. Research shows that there are a wide range of benefits deriving from improved visual literacy, including:
Visual information is more memorable
One of the most effective ways to encourage information to make this important leap from limited short-term memory to more powerful long-term memory is to pair text with images. Studies show that we retain approximately 10-20% of written or oral information, but about 65% of information when presented visually.
Visual information is transferred faster
The information presented visually is processed extremely quickly by the brain. The brain is even able to see images that appear in just 13 milliseconds. About 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual in nature.
Helps students communicate with the world around them
Traditionally, we believe that teaching literacy is a two-way street for reading and writing. We can think of visual literacy as involving similar processes of interpreting images and creating images. In a rapidly evolving world with an ever-increasing diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, we are increasingly relying on images to convey rapid meaning.
Although images can be used in isolation, they often accompany text or audio. Images can significantly enrich students' understanding of text or other media, but in order to interact with these deeper levels of meaning, students must have the necessary skills to access these depths.
Creates more educated image readers
In an age of fake news and constant advertising, a responsible approach to the obligation to educate our students must include encouraging them to become informed viewers of the world around them, including the media they engage with. By teaching visual literacy, we can help students understand the different ways in which the images they consume can be used to manipulate their emotions and persuade them to act in a certain way.
Supports learning English as a foreign language
Using images in the classroom can be very helpful for students who come from non-English speaking backgrounds. As these students travel on their way to fluency in English, images can provide an effective bridge in this learning process. While the use of images in the form of flash cards, writing frames, etc. for the purposes of teaching EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners, it may be obvious that creating images by students themselves can also be a great way to assess their understanding of more abstract concepts and vocabulary.
What forms of visual text are used in the classroom?
Students are exposed to a wide range of visual media. When we hear the jazz term "visual text", we can immediately think of its expression in the digital age, but the roots of visual texts go deep into our history; until our beginning. Think of cave paintings!
Today, however, there are so many more forms of visual text that need to be considered. From cave walls to computer screens and all the dots in between, students are exposed to billboards, photographs, television, video, maps, memes, digital stories, video games, timelines, signs, political cartoons, posters, flyers, newspapers, magazines, Facebook, Instagram, movies, DVDs and wallpapers for mobile phones - to name just twenty! All of this can serve as a starting point for a visual literacy lesson.
The digital age has opened the door to images that spill over into our consciousness as well as the unconscious. The implications for visual literacy extend far beyond the English classroom in all areas of our lives. From the math student who interprets graphics to the music student who follows music notation, or the geography student who browses Google Earth. For many purposes, in a number of modalities, visual literacy is increasingly important.