Teaching Visual LITERACY in the Classroom



For many people, mention the word ‘literacy’ and an image of a library filled with dusty books is conjured up. This is not surprising given the importance the written word has played in all our lives, especially those of us who are too old to be considered ‘digital natives’.

Despite the primacy of the written word in our schools, it is not the only means of widely sharing our thoughts and ideas. In this age of the internet especially, we are constantly bombarded with images - both static and moving. It is more essential than ever that our students develop the necessary visual literacy skills to navigate this image-intense world we all inhabit.

In this article we will look at some approaches to help you come up with activities to use visual texts and teach visual literacy in the classroom. We will also suggest some fun and meaningful activities you can use with your students today.

Firstly however, we need to get to grips with exactly what we mean when we use the term ‘visual literacy’. As a general working definition, we can think of the term as referring to interpreting and creating visual images. As with other types of literacy, visual literacy is about communication and interaction and while it has much in common with those other forms of literacy, it has some unique aspects of its own that students will need to explore specifically.


The basic definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, write and create visual images. Both static and moving.  It is a concept that relates to art and design but it also has much wider applications. Visual literacy is about language, communication and interaction. Visual media is a linguistic tool with which we communicate, exchange ideas and navigate our highly visual digital world.

The term was first coined in 1969 by John Debes, who was the founder of the International Visual Literacy Association:









Why is Visual Literacy Important?

Much of the information that comes at our students is a combination of both written text and images. It is essential that our students are fully equipped to process that information in all its forms.

Considering how visually orientated we are as humans, it is no surprise that images have such a powerful impact on us. Research shows that there are a wide range of benefits derived from improved visual literacy including:

Visual Information is More Memorable

One of the most effective ways to encourage information to make that important jump from the limited short-term memory to the more powerful long-term memory is to pair text with images. Studies show that we retain approximately 10-20% of written or spoken information, but around 65% of information when it is presented visually.

Visual Information is Transferred Faster

Information presented visually is processed extremely quickly by the brain. The brain is even being able to see images that appear for a mere 13 milliseconds. Around 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual in nature.

Helps Students Communicate with the World Around Them

Traditionally, we think teaching literacy as the two way street of reading and writing. We can think of visual literacy as involving the similar processes of interpreting images and creating images. In a fast-moving world, with ever-increasing diagnosis of attention deficit disorders, we increasingly rely on images to quickly convey meaning.

Enriches Understanding

While images can be used in isolation, they often accompany text or audio. Images can greatly enrich the students’ understanding of a text or other media, but to be able to interact with these deeper levels of meaning, students must possess the necessary skills to access those depths.

Increases Enjoyment

Not only does increased visual literacy enrich the understanding of our students of the media they consume, but it can also enrich their enjoyment too - especially of visual art. If you have taken younger students to an art gallery you may have heard protests of ‘This is boring!’

However, when students have a deeper understanding of the ‘meaning’ behind the art pieces, or are familiar with the context around the art, insights into the lives of the artists, or experienced with some of the techniques that produced the pieces, students often derive greater pleasure from their visit.

The same is true of their engagement in terms of visual literacy. As informed readers of images in a range of modalities, students are opened up to an exciting dimension of shape, color and texture and more.

Creates More Educated Image Readers

In an era of fake news and ceaseless advertising, a responsible approach to the duty of educating our students must involve encouraging them to become informed viewers of the world around them, including the media they engage with. Through the teaching of visual literacy we can help students understand the different ways the images they consume can be used to manipulate their emotions and persuade them to act in a given way.

Supports EAL Learners

The use of images in the classroom can be of great benefit to students who come from non English-speaking backgrounds. As these students travel on their road to fluency in English, images can provide an effective bridge in that learning process. While the use of images in the forms of flashcards, writing frames etc for the purposes of teaching EAL learners may be obvious, the creation of images by the students themselves can also be a great way to assess their understanding of more abstract concepts and vocabulary.



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What Forms of Visual Text Are Used in the Classroom?


Students are exposed to a vast array of visual media. When we hear the jazzy term ‘visual text’ we may immediately think of its expression in the digital age, but the roots of visual texts stretch deep into our history; all the way back to our beginnings. Think of the cave paintings in Lascaux!

However, today there are so many more forms of visual text to consider. From cave walls to computer screens and all points in between, students are exposed to billboards, photographs, TV, video, maps, memes, digital stories, video games, timelines, signs, political cartoons, posters, flyers, newspapers, magazines, Facebook, Instagram, movies, DVDs, and cell phones wallpaper - to name but twenty! All these can serve as the jumping off point for a lesson on visual literacy.

The digital age has opened the floodgate on images spilling into our consciousness and unconsciousness alike. The implications for visual literacy stretches far beyond the limits of the English classroom into all areas of our lives. From the math student interpreting graphs to the music student following musical notation, or the geography student poring over Google Earth. For a multitude of purposes, in an array of modalities, visual literacy is ever more important.

Visual Literacy Clues: What Are They and How Do We Read Them?

“Visual Literacy is the ability to construct meaning from images. It’s not a skill. It uses skills as a toolbox. It’s a form of critical thinking that enhances your intellectual capacity.”

Brian Kennedy

Director, Toledo Museum of Art

If visual literacy is about decoding meaning from images of various kinds, we need to teach our students how to set about this intimidating task - just as we do when we teach them how to approach a written text. Regardless of the nature of the image, this process follows three general steps:

1. What Can You See?

To answer this, students must become familiar with Visual Literacy Clues (VLCs). When students are familiar with these clues they will have a method of approaching any image with a view to decoding its meaning. The VLCs are: subject matter, colors, angles, symbols vectors, lighting, gaze, gestures, and shapes. These categories provide an approach to examine the details of the various aspects of the image they are reading.

2. How Does It Make You Feel?

After the students have had time to note what they can see in the image through examination of the VLCs, it is now time for them to consider their emotional response to what they have viewed.

With close reference to the VLCs they have previously identified, students express how the image makes them feel and how it has influenced them to feel this way. They may feel anger, anguish, excited, happy etc. There is no limit to the emotions they may refer to, provided they can point to evidence from the image. Here are some suggested questions to help the students explore their responses:

Subject Matter: What is the topic of the movie? Who and what are in the image? What is the image about?

Color: How is color used in the image? What effect do the colors chosen have on the viewer?

Angles: Are we looking from above or below? What is the camera angle? How does this affect what we see and how we feel about it?

Symbols: What symbols are used in this image? What do you think they represent? Are the colors that were chosen symbolic?

Vectors: Can you see the major lines in the image? Are they broken or unbroken? How do the lines create reading paths for our eyes?

Lighting: Can you describe the lighting used in the movie. How does it affect the ‘mood’ of the movie?

Gaze: What type of look is the character giving? Where is their gaze directed? What does this say?

Gesture: What type of gestures is the character giving? What is communicated by these gestures?

Shapes: What geometric shapes can you recognize in the image? Do they repeat? Is there a pattern? Is order or chaos conveyed?

3. What Is The Image Trying To Tell Us?

This third aspect peels back another level of meaning to get to the overall message underlying the image. This question asks the students to delve into the intentions of the image maker themselves. The genre of the image will be of significance here too, as the student considers the nature of the image as art, entertainment, advertisement or a fusion of the various genres.

What Are Some Activities for the Teaching of Visual Literacy in the Classroom?

1. Caption a Photograph


Photographs are one of the most familiar forms of visual media to our students. Often photographs they see will be accompanied by captions.

In this exercise, give out copies of a single photograph to the class without captions. Their task here is to closely examine the photograph, either individually or in small groups, before writing a caption to accompany the photograph. When students have completed their captions they can compare their captions with each other before you reveal the true nature of the photograph.

Prior to writing their caption you may wish to provide some supporting questions or background information. You may, however, wish them to go in blind to any background other than what they can deduce from the photograph itself.

The purpose of this activity is to reveal to the students how open to interpretation a single visual image can be. The students will gain an awareness to the power of a caption to frame an image’s meaning, even if the caption is not accurate.

Some suggested questions for students to consider:

What people, objects, or activities can you see in the picture?

Are there any clues to when it was taken? What was happening at this time in history?

Are there any clues to where it was taken? Are there any clues to why it was taken or who took it?

Is it a posed photograph? A natural scene? A documentary photograph? A selfie?

Extension: You may wish to use this activity as a lead-in to a bigger topic, as it can make for a great introduction to draw out the students’ background knowledge and lead into a larger discussion or research project. This activity can also be easily adapted for a wide range of different types of images, for example, advertisements.

2. Engage with a Video Game



There is no doubt of two things when it comes to video games:

1. They get a bad rap

2. They are extremely popular among younger people

And while there is no doubt that there are some games on the market of dubious worth, as with any art form, there is much of merit and potential in this relatively new medium.

While there are obvious links that can be made with storytelling activities by examining the narrative of many video games, it may be much more interesting, and useful, to look more closely at how video games ‘work’ in terms of the overall experience.

Video games are immersive, multi-sensory experiences for players. This is a large part of their appeal. While written texts can appeal largely to our imaginative faculties, video games can also appeal to our senses of sight and hearing - and now, even touch can be incorporated. To have students focus on visual aspects of their gaming experience, give them a worksheet to make notes on that experience using the VLC categories listed above. This can make for a great group discussion activity as the movie or game plays with the sound off.

3. Multi-Modal Comparisons

We are long familiar with the concept of movie tie-ins. In days gone by the response to the question “Have you read x?” was often a “No, but I saw the movie.” Nowadays the reply is just as likely to be “No, but I have the video game.” The triumvirate of the book - movie - game tie-in is fertile ground for some interesting text comparison work in the classroom.

Popular tie-in triplets include Harry Potter and the seminal Lord of the Rings. Bring your students’ powers of visual perception to this multimedia experience by selecting scenes from the original book and making a comparison with how the scene is handled in the movie or video game.

Keep the focus on the visual elements in the latter two media. Encourage students to discuss, write, or prepare a presentation on how the movie or video game translates non-visual elements from the text version into visual elements. Again, reference to the VLCs as discussed above will be an important element in this activity. 

4. The Timeline


While the activities looked at so far have been about honing the students’ comprehension skills in relation to visual texts, this activity allows students an opportunity to apply that knowledge to the creation of visual texts themselves.

Encourage the students to plot significant milestones in the course of their life on a visual timeline. The may use a combination of images and text if this is more in line with your learning objectives and students’ abilities. However, do ensure you remind students of how they can incorporate the VLCs into how they convey meaning in their images.

This can also be a useful activity to incorporate various aspects of IT skills. Students can perform advanced Google image searches to locate copyright free images or use websites like The Noun Project to locate Creative Commons icons to help them make slideshow version of their timeline on Powerpoint. There are a wealth of software applications that can assist, many freely available online.

Draw a Line Under It

In this article we have touched the mere tip of that proverbial iceberg. The scope for using visual texts in the classroom is potentially limited only by our own imagination. While we have looked at several concrete examples of visual literacy based activities in the examples above, the opportunity for building lessons around the myriad forms of visual texts is endless.

Whether utilising advertisements, internet memes, or classic works of art as the focus, start with the three broad questions outlined previously: What can you see? How does it make you feel? What is the image trying to tell us? These questions provide the basis for developing your learning objectives and your activities can easily be built around them.

The Visual Literacy Clues provide the strategies with which the students can read any visual texts whether in the form of moving or still images. The more practice students get using these strategies the more fluent their reading will become. And while for some students these skills may take time to develop, remind them too that just as we can refer to images as visual texts, we can equally refer to written text as images themselves as the letters on the page are themselves symbolic in nature.

If they can learn to read the complexities of written language they can be confident they will be able to learn to read the visual world too.

Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh.  A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years teaching and administration experience.  Editing and support content has been provided by the literacyideas team.