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All about Visual Literacy

Last updated on 20th December 2023

In today’s digital age, visual literacy has become more important than ever, as visual information is everywhere around us, and from various sources. Having visual literacy skills means we can better understand and engage with the modern world and communicate our ideas effectively.

What is visual literacy?

Visual literacy is the ability to understand, interpret and analyse visual information. It is often related to art and design; however, it has a much wider meaning than this.

It involves having the skills to communicate and comprehend visual information, which can include:

  • Graphs.
  • Charts.
  • Images.
  • Photographs.
  • Drawings.
  • Artwork.
  • Diagrams.
  • Map reading.
  • Signs.
  • Advertisements.
  • Recognising logos and branding.
  • Creating digital media to communicate information and ideas.
  • Creating storyboards or visual plans.
  • Understanding political cartoons.
  • Understanding how camera angles, framing and editing are used in the television industry.

Digital technology has greatly impacted our understanding of visual literacy, as we now see children growing up with tablets and computers which are highly visual.

Digital technology impacting visual literacy

What are visual literacy skills?

Visual literacy skills, put simply, is the ability to understand and create visual messages.

This includes:

  • Understanding visual language – this involves being able to interpret the details and message within a visual image. This can include being able to interpret colour, shape, line, texture and pattern.
  • Creating visual messages – this can include a variety of visual aids, for example designing logos.
  • Analysing visual language – this includes analysing the meaning behind the visual image.

The Association of College & Research Libraries describe visual literacy skills as the ability to:

  • Understand images.
  • Analyse the meaning of images.
  • Understand the sources of images.
  • Use visual media and images successfully.
  • Design and create meaningful images and visual media.
  • Have an understanding of the wider context surrounding the creation and use of images and visual media. This includes the ethical, legal, social and economic issues.

An example of a visual literacy skill in everyday life would be having the ability to read a visual advertisement in terms of what is being sold, and using critical thinking skills to understand whether the product is good or beneficial to us.

This highlights that good visual literacy skills also involves having critical thinking skills, which helps us to work out when something may be misleading or fake. This is particularly important in today’s world as we are often bombarded with information, particularly online, some of which may not be accurate.

Why is visual literacy important?

Visual communication has become an increasingly important and common way of sharing information in today’s society.

Visual literacy is important in order for people to be able to:

  • Understand complex information.
  • Be critical thinkers.
  • Be effective communicators.
  • Be culturally diverse.
  • Bring important skills to the workplace.
Children learning visual literacy

How to teach visual literacy in school

Infants are able to understand images before they are able to talk and can often use sign language before they are able to speak using words. This shows the power of visual images and how useful they can be. Interactions between infants and their parents before language is developed are vital for healthy brain development and show that young children already, without being taught, have the skills needed to be visually literate.

Visual images are often easier to digest, especially for children. This is why children’s books are often filled with pictures, alongside the words. This can help children understand the words more easily. Images are often most effective when they are used with text to explain the image, as pictures can have different interpretations, therefore it helps to clarify meaning.

The importance of reading for children cannot be underestimated, in terms of learning and language development. The importance of the pictures that accompany the written text, however, is almost just as important, in terms of their learning and capturing their imagination. For further reading about the importance of reading for children, please see our knowledge base.

Visual literacy is important in school settings as it has been shown to improve learning outcomes. Oral teaching without visual aids may not be as effective in getting the point across, and may not be as engaging or interesting for the pupils.

Teaching visual literacy in schools involves helping pupils to develop their ability to understand and create information in a visual way. This may be done by using technology, or in another creative way, for example through art.

Encouraging visual literacy in the early years and building on this throughout the key stages will help to develop visual literacy skills throughout childhood, and into adulthood.

A helpful starting point is to help pupils understand what visual literacy is and give them real-life examples. Modelling the correct vocabulary will also be helpful; for example, when looking at a visual image describe the colour, shape, texture and meaning behind the image. Technology can be a useful tool when teaching visual literacy, for example using graphic design software, or viewing and analysing digital images.

Other examples to develop visual literacy include:

  • Picture analysis – this could involve looking at pictures in a book and asking the pupils to describe what they see in the picture. This will be most effective when using open-ended questions.
  • Taking a colour related personality test – these are available free online and can be useful to get children to make a connection to colours and what they represent in images.
  • Note sketching – this involves asking pupils to draw diagrams when they are learning something new.
  • Memes – these can be a good way to teach children as they often find them to be a fun way to learn.
  • Watching short animations – analysing and discussing afterwards is an important part of this.
  • Analysing TV adverts.
  • Analysing photographs.
  • Analysing stills from films or computer games.

In order to get the most out of this type of learning, it may be useful to consider questions, such as:

  • Describe who or what you can see.
  • Describe what happened in this section of the film/animation.
  • What is being advertised and what purpose does it serve?
  • How do you think the character may be feeling?
  • What do you think might happen next?
  • What do you think happened just before this clip?
  • How does this particular visual make you feel?
  • If you were creating this would you do anything differently?

Examples of specific activities include:

  • Asking them to write a short story based on a picture.
  • Drawing something based on a written description.
  • Creating a presentation using imagery.
  • Creating concept maps or a knowledge organiser of things they have been learning about.

Even without directly teaching children visual literacy skills, it is likely that this is being done on a daily basis within the classroom. Examples of this may be photo labels, and classroom organisation with the use of images, visual learning aids, arts and crafts, story time with pictures and using a whiteboard or a slide presentation. These are examples of resources that are used on a daily basis within classrooms, and are all part of teaching children visual literacy skills.

It is good practice within schools for pupils to be offered a range of ways to record their learning, for example drawing a picture, recording a video, creating a presentation or drawing a concept map. This may be particularly useful for children with special educational needs or children who are neurodivergent.

Visual literacy is something that needs to be taught if it’s a skill that we want children to understand and use well in their daily lives. The more variety you incorporate, the more opportunities you will have to develop, and build on, their visual literacy skills.

Benefits of visual literacy

Processing visual language and understanding the meaning of images has become essential to overall media literacy.

Visual messages routinely appear in:

  • Newspapers.
  • Magazines.
  • Online news platforms.
  • News channels.
  • Any form of art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings.
  • Street signs.
  • Phone apps.
  • Use of body language/facial expressions when communicating with another person.

Visual literacy learning within schools has many benefits, including:

  • Unlocking other forms of learning – important subjects can be taught using visual learning and can reinforce pupils’ learning in many different subjects. Learning English is a good example of how visual literacy learning can enhance teaching in this area, for example using pictures alongside words to enhance memory.
  • To support wider literacy skills – visual literacy can help to reinforce reading and writing skills. It can be helpful in stimulating imagination when learning.
  • Developing important life skills – the world around us is rich in images and therefore to understand and interpret the world effectively will be vital for daily life and work opportunities.
  • Supporting the development of verbal language – using visuals, signs or gestures can support speech and language development in young children as well as being helpful to those whose first language is not English.
  • Encourages critical thinking – this may be particularly useful when discussing issues of online safety with children and young people and how they can identify risks.
  • Inclusive practice – supporting children with disabilities and special educational needs. This may include image-based speech and language interventions and other visual-based learning tools. Utilising visual literacy can form part of the reasonable adjustments that you should make in order to support the individual needs of children. For example, children who are neurodivergent, such as a child who is diagnosed with ADHD, may find visual information and resources more accessible for learning. For further reading about how to support a child with ADHD in school, please see our knowledge base.

Inclusive practice aims to minimise or remove barriers to learning, facilitating the success of all learners, whilst ensuring that teaching standards remain high. The design and delivery of learning can unintentionally present a range of barriers that affect some children more than others, and this can result in some children being unfairly disadvantaged.

By understanding what works well for the individual child and implementing this, it can ensure that all children are receiving an education which suits their specific needs. To reduce barriers within the education system, it is important to provide appropriate support, making information equally accessible to all by presenting the same content in a variety of ways. For further reading about inclusive practice, please see our knowledge base.

Good visual literacy skills can also help you to be able to:

  • Interpret emotion and intention – this can be done by studying body language.
  • Interpret narrative – even without the use of words, a visually literate person can have the ability to understand a message or story from an illustration or motion picture.
  • Think abstractly – the ability to understand that the message may go beyond what you can see directly in front of you.
Playing imagination game

Visual literacy for different age groups

Children of different ages and stages will require a different teaching approach based on their ability and understanding.

With preschool children ages 0-5, some learning ideas include:

  • Identifying and describing shapes and colours.
  • Through arts and crafts and asking them to describe in words what they have made.
  • Using picture books with words. Instead of just reading the story to them, ask them to describe what they can see on the page.
  • Encouragement to be aware of their surroundings and what they see. I spy is a useful game where the child has to guess objects within their sight based on visual clues.
  • Role play and imagination games, for example pretending that objects are something else within their imagination.

Visual literacy for primary school age children may include:

  • Using technology to design something.
  • Learning to tell the time.
  • Writing short stories based on a picture.
  • Creating artwork based on a story.

Visual literacy with secondary school age children may include:

  • Using graphs and pie charts to record their findings.
  • Analysing more complex information, for example from news outlets.
  • Understanding the ethical considerations of visual media, such as copyright laws, permissions and fair use.
  • Developing an understanding of their rights and responsibilities as digital citizens, including online safety, cyberbullying and responsible social media use.
  • Evaluating the quality of visual media, including its accuracy, reliability and credibility.
  • Learning to create visual media, for example images, videos and presentations, that effectively communicate their ideas and messages.

Literacy Shed offer free visual literacy resources for teachers.

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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