Can You See what I Mean?

The Importance of Teaching Visual Literacy Skills

Visual content is on the rise in print and in digital media (Bolter, 2001). This statement was true in 2001 and still is, what with the increasing use of technology around the world making it easier than ever to transmit visual information. While some might think that literacy will suffer as a result of this trend, the combination of words and text can transmit more information than text alone (Bolter, 2001). However, not everyone on the receiving end is fully equipped to interpret the content. This post aims (1) to show that students lack visual literacy skills and that it is up to teachers to fill the gap and (2) to provide methods for developing visual literacy skills in a variety of contexts.

To begin, visual literacy can be loosely defined as the ability to interpret, analyze, design and create visual content, in combination or not with text (Avgerinou, 2001; Brumberger, 2011; Coleman, 2010). Some components of visual literacy are visual reasoning, visual discrimination, visual association, knowledge of visual vocabulary, knowledge of visual conventions, and interpretation of visual jokes and metaphors (Avgerinou, 2011; Coleman, 2010).

Some of the goals of visual literacy education that have been listed in the literature are to develop comprehension of visual content in diagrams, graphs, and other formats; to detect visual misrepresentation; to appreciate visual aesthetics; and to use and create visuals for intentional communicative purposes (Avgerinous, 2011; Messaris, 1994, as cited in Newfield, 2011).

There are many valid reasons for teaching visual literacy skills. For example, research has shown that development of these skills leads to stronger abilities in creativity, innovation, communication, and flexibility and fluency of thought (Dake, 2007). Additionally, visual information is better retained in the memory than text or speech, according to the pictorial superiority effect (Branch & Bloom, 1995; Haber & Myers, 1982; Paivio, 1983; all references as cited in Avgerinou, 2011). In turn, the combination of text and visual information is retained better than words or visuals alone (Haber & Myers, 1982 as cited in Avgerinou, 2011).

Unfortunately, exposure to images alone is not sufficient for students to learn to be visually literate; they need guidance (Brumberger, 2011). This view is in strong contrast to that of the “digital natives” argument whereby students are thought to learn visual literacy by simply seeing a vast amount of online pictures. To verify the validity of this claim, Brumberger used a survey to determine the visual literacy skill level of 485 undergraduates in writing courses at Virginia Tech. Despite having extensive exposure to images online and on television, students were found to have difficulty extracting factual information from images and determining whether they had been altered. The general conclusion was that the students had poor visual literacy skills despite having seen great amounts of visual content. To explain this finding, Brumberger wrote “Living in an image-rich world…does not mean students…naturally possess sophisticated visual literacy skills, just as continually listening to an iPod does not teach a person to critically analyze or create music” (Felton, 2008 as cited in Brumberger, 2011, p. 45).” Clearly, the “digital natives” argument is invalid.

Further, the students involved in this research are more privileged than those of their age in the general population, and therefore likely have greater access to technology. This means that visual literacy skills of young adults in general may be even lower than the results indicate in this research.

Avgerinou, (2011) stated that yet another reason for visual literacy education is the lack of objective interpretation of images. That is, people tend to lend more credibility to images than is warranted, and they filter images such that they see what they expect. This effect is worse in children and adolescents, who are emotionally influenced by colour and imagery in visuals, rather than factual information.

How to Improve Visual Literacy Education

Having discussed the definition, justification and benefits of teaching visual literacy skills, the next step is to describe methods for introducing these skills in the classroom. Teacher training is one solution that will be examined immediately. Another solution is the use of visual literacy strategies, which will be discussed further below.

According to Coleman (2010) pre-service training for teachers in visual literacy must be developed because images are often misused in instruction. Coleman reported that when teachers referred to images during lessons, it was in a cursory fashion; they would not guide students in examining the graphs or illustrations in such a way as to interpret their contents. When they did use images in more pedagogically-minded ways, it was only with graphs that they felt comfortable and competent using, such as Venn diagrams (Coleman, 2010). Conversely, teachers with more experience were more likely to use graphs in complex ways.

Visual literacy education should not be learned on the job, but rather before entering the profession. Visual literacy training should become a standard part of pre-service teacher training. In addition, Peeck (1993, as cited in Coleman, 2010) recommends that instructions be provided in books for specific use of the illustrations. Additionally, he suggests that students be asked to analyse the visuals with scrutiny, to describe the images in summaries and to explain the relationship between the images and the text.  More importantly, teachers need to learn how to develop students’ meta-cognitive skills for analysing visuals. Instructional strategies include modelling, giving think-aloud presentations, scaffolding, reciprocal teaching, and providing immediate feedback (Coleman, 2010).

Besides a lack of teacher training in visual literacy, another problem with image use in education is the time needed to prepare images and how to interpret them. The diagrams that teachers used the most were those found in books that they used in their instruction. The reason is most likely that these illustrations involved the least amount of preparation. To encourage teachers to use images properly and more often, creators of instructional materials could include explanations and activities for analysing the visual content used therein.

There are a variety of teaching strategies that teachers can use to develop their students’ visual literacy. Starting here, approaches to visual literacy will be described and accompanied by exercises that can bbe practiced immediately.

According to Solso, (1994 as cited in Dake, 2007) one approach to observation is that when a person first looks at something, be it a landscape or a painting, she makes broad scans, forming a rough image in her mind. Then she starts to pick up details by focusing on specific areas of the object under observation. When a student is given instructions for directing her gaze, she will focus on certain areas in more detail than others.

Training in visual literacy influences how people interpret visual information. Eye tracking experiments compared scan paths of inexperienced (naïve) and experienced art viewers looking at abstract art.  The naïve subjects made quick scans of details. Meanwhile, the experienced viewers made more local and global scans which allowed them to examine details and zoom out to place them in context (Dake, 2007). Given that more mental processing is going on for the experienced viewer, the visual analysis takes longer than for the naïve viewer. Indeed, “A visually literate brain that receives more information has more with which to work” (Dake, 2007, p. 12).

Thus, it is suggested that when an image is introduced in a course, the students be instructed to scan the image with broad sweeps. Then, they should have their gaze directed toward relevant details. They should “zoom out” once again, as necessary.


Click on the link below and a map will open. Keep this window open on one side of your screen and allow the map to fill the other half. View the image by making broad scans and detailed ones to obtain information about the location. Then, slowly zoom out to learn more.,-135.021973&spn=1.018432,5.410767&t=h&z=8

Hint: The coordinates of this location are: 69.1977° N, 135.0220° W and, for perspective, the coordinates of Vancouver are: 49.2505° N, 123.1119° W


Jin and Boling (2010) argue that how visuals are used is just as important as what information they contain. More to the point, they found evidence that visuals can hurt or help learning depending on how they are used because the intended meaning is not always that which is actually conveyed. The authors pursued this idea further by having an instructional designer explain her reasons for using eight different images in an e-learning course. Jin and Boling then had 29 undergraduate students in a convenience sample answer open-ended questions where they were asked to determine the functional purpose of each image.

The authors used a classification system devised by Clark and Lyons (2010, as cited in Jin & Boling, 2010) to categorize the images according to the way they support learning: psychological (support attention; activate or build prior knowledge), cognitive (minimize cognitive load; build mental models, support transfer of learning), and affective (support motivation).

The students’ answers were compiled and a percentage of responses congruent with the designer’s intention was assigned to each image. Only four of the images were found to be correctly interpreted by students, but the percentage values varied from 38 – 65 %.

Instructional designers can increase the relevance and correct use and interpretation of the images they use by learning about the target learners, by having a specific purpose for including each image, by making the use of the images explicit and by writing captions for their images, where this is useful to do.


Select an image you’ve used in a recent lesson. Ask yourself what your reasons were for using it. What message was it meant to convey? What was its role in supporting learning? You may want to ask your students for their perspectives on these matters for comparative purposes.


O’Neil (2011) provides explanations of the impact of illustrations in picture books. She describes the use of design elements like line, colour, composition, setting, character, and cultural context. She also explains a few functions served by the combination of images and text.  For example, some images serve a descriptive purpose by providing a more detailed depiction of the story than is conveyed by the text. O’Neil outlines activities designed for young children that help them to analyze the images and how they’re used in texts. Even though the article is directed at teachers of young children, the theory is relevant for teaching visual literacy at all levels and the activities can be adapted for older students.


Read Ben’s New Friend

Considering the explanation above, how would you present this story to young children in a class or at home?


Newfield (2011) analyses worksheets in two books used for in visual literacy and media education courses. The goal was to educate students so that they could better interpret the sources of information in their environment that were being increasingly based on visual content.   These worksheets were published for use in South African schools and relate very strongly to its history. She offers suggestions for developing critical visual literacy, which involves questioning the context, biases, credibility, historical accuracy, breadth, editorial choices, relevance to current society, perspective taken on a topic and other characteristics of illustrations used for instruction. Because of the specificity of the topics covered in these worksheets, the content will not be discussed. Rather, the interest lies in highlighting this reference as a model of how to analyse course content to determine how well it can be used to develop visual literacy, and how it can be improved.


Similar to the exercise above, how would you use the editorial cartoons in a high school or university course? How would you explain them to your teenage children?


Extra resources

Site of International Visual Literacy Association

Resource page of

Resources for teaching visual literacy in levels K-8

An article published by Educause titled Visual Literacy in Higher Education

Resources for teaching visual literacy in undergraduate humanities courses

Site of Information is Beautiful, containing visual data

TED talk by David McCandless showing innovative ways of presenting data visually



 Avgerinou, M. D. (2011). Toward a cohesive theory of visual literacy.  Journal of Visual Literacy, 30(2), 1-19. Retrieved from:

Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space:  Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Brumberger, E. (2011). Visual literacy and the digital native: An examination of the millennial learner. Journal of Visual Literacy, 30(1), 19-46. Retrieved from:

Coleman, J. (2010). Elementary teachers’ instructional practices involving graphical representations. Journal of Visual Literacy, 29(2), 198-222. Retrieved from:

Dake, D. M. (2007). A natural visual mind: The art and science of visual literacy. Journal of Visual Literacy, 21(1), 7-28. Retrieved from:

Jin, S. & Boling, E. (2010). Instructional designer’s intentions and learners’ perceptions of the instructional: Functions of visuals in an e-learning context. Journal of Visual Literacy, 29(2), 143-166. Retrieved from:

Newfield, D. (2011). From visual literacy to critical visual literacy: An analysis of educational materials. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 10(1), 81-94. Retrieved from:

O’Neil, K. E. (2011). Reading pictures: Developing visual literacy for greater comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 65(3), 214–223. DOI:10.1002/TRTR.01026

Pettersson, R. (2007). Visual literacy in message design. Journal of Visual Literacy, 27(1), 61-90. Retrieved from:

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