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What is Visual Literacy?

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

What is visual literacy? When we have the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from an image, or information presented in the form of an image, it can be said that we have visual literacy. It can also be considered a vision-competency, says John Debes. Many are familiar with the value of linguistic literacy, as found in the printed word through books and journals, but the importance of visual literacy is growing as it delivers information without the need for the print.

When traveling, we see a sign with a bicycle and a red diagonal line through it. As someone who is visually literate, a traveler knows that the sign means something to the effect of “Please do not ride your bicycle here.” Likewise, if we see a sign with the picture of a child and a ball, with no red line through it, we understand it to mean “Children playing; please watch out for them.”

Several 21st century scholars, including Courtney Cazden, Allan Luke, and others advocate for the importance of both linguistic and visual literacies as modalities in the process of meaning-making. Implications, then, for classroom or home-schooling would be to incorporate the written word with visual information to provide a rich teaching and learning environment. For example, one might give kids a picture and asking them to write a caption or an empty cartoon and asking them to fill in the speech balloons to see what kinds of different interpretations emerge.
Exciting fields effective in visual literacy training include art history in all its glory: paintings, drawings, sculpture, architecture, even textile design and furniture design. Of particular delight to students in these fields are uses of color, texture, style, shape, size, and form. Who is not visually delighted when confronted with patterns of colors, which convey excitement, cheer, and suggest lively festivities?

In terms of learning tools, one visual tool used in teaching environment is PowerPoint, intended to present information visually. One expert on visual literacy, Edward Tufte, a Yale professor and an expert on the presentation of information graphics, offers us a challenge: Do the slides communicate? His interest focuses on the efficacy of the tool rather than simply the happy opportunity to have the tool.

Thus, visual literacy not only refers to learning through the visual experience but learning useful, helpful, and usable information! It is easier for a student to make meaning when not only information is provided but information that a child can use to make meaning of her or his world.

Learning is delicious in whatever form. In capable teaching hands, linguistic and visual literacy make wonderful partners. For the learner, integrating these with other modalities—such as music—continue to expand learners’ meaning-making capabilities.

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