Visual Literacy

Wednesday, 11 March 2015


When it comes to reading, schools tend to focus on textual literacy—digits and letters, but everything we see is an image. Text is an image that we decode, and images and art are a language that construct meaning.

The optic nerve has 1 million nerve endings and takes up a whopping 30% of the cortex, with touch at just 8% and hearing at a mere 3%. Essentially, what this means, is that 90% of all information we absorb is taken in by the eyes.

Visual literacy is our prominent literacy sense yet we continue to neglect sensory literacy in general. Since learning to walk upright and moving away from the ground, humans can no longer rely on taste and smell. We instead use hearing but predominantly sight.

Exposure to art and the use of picture books and graphic novels for older children is a prime way to hone visual literacy. Wordless picture books and exposure to art for the very young child is also a glorious way to 'switch on' their visual decoding ability--in essence, to effect meaning and interpretation from image.

What are the benefits of visual literacy? Can it aid reading literacy?

  • images act as text prompts and provide subsequent comprehension
  • they help interpret meaning and develop an understanding of nuance, conjecture and, ironically, analytical thinking
  • images expand vocabulary via association—indeed, as text is really image, developing visual literacy helps children decode words and develop reading proficiency
  • pictures can provide a much-needed break from text overload, especially for children with visual processing disorders
  • images are particularly important in our multi-media, image-driven world where scanning information is becoming increasingly prevalent, and where we are rapidly losing the ability to engage with large chunks of text; images help kids engage with text more deeply, so when we lament the proliferation of heavily illustrated junior fiction, we need to remember that children are reading differently now; it’s only children with a solid love of reading, a strong ability to engage, plenty of patience, focus and reading skills, who would happily tackle and enjoy books of yesteryear, such as Anne of Green Gables or Wartership Down
  • of course, images do speak a thousand words, and our visceral response to them is extremely powerful, as the context can be absorbed in an instant
  • images hone imagination and most important of all—they bring pleasure

The powerful thing about visual literacy is that it is so open to interpretation and meaning. Education and reading literacy is often focused on analytics, and as many children simply do not learn well under an analytical construct, visuals are an excellent source to effect meaning.

Even the very young--babies and toddlers--have a profound ability to absorb nuance and subtlety, and abstract visual narratives. Even if they cannot openly explain what they are seeing or feeling, we simply cannot underestimate their ability to connect with such concepts in a deeply visceral way.

To encourage visual literacy, use picture books, comics, non-fiction texts, illustrated fiction or graphic novels. Use maps, diagrams, charts and paintings. Have children look for story in paintings.

Wordless picture books are also an extremely powerful storytelling medium that can enhance reading skills and foster an intrinsic love of books because they’re non-threatening text-wise--and are often overpoweringly beautiful.

Film, while visually evocative, does not generally leave room for interpretation and conceptualisation the way still image does.

See Wordless Picture Book titles on Kids' Book Review. See KBR's Consultant Librarian Sarah Steed's post on Wordless Picture books here. For ways to encourage kids to read for pleasure, see my articles here.

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