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space exploration illustrationVisual Literacy

Visual literacy is the ability to understand and use images. This includes to think, learn, and express oneself in terms of images. Photographs, cartoons, line drawings, diagrams, concept maps, and other visual representations are all important in visual literacy.

In the 1960s, IVLA (International Visual Literacy Association) was formed to help people learn more about visual learning, visual thinking, and visual language. For a more detailed definition of visual literacy, go to What Is Visual Literacy?.

eye means readExplore the Graphic Inquiry online workshop to learn more about visual literacy and graphic representations.

Visual Literacy and Education


Children learn to read pictures before they read words. Unfortunately, we often stop visual teaching once children can read. In this information age, it's important to continue to help people interpret the visual world around them. From books and television to billboards and animation, students are bombarded with visuals. Visual literacy is a critical life skill.

Visual resources are important in all content areas. In social studies, students can learn about history by analyzing historical photographs and posters. Student use photographs to explore scientific processes and relationships. Photographs can stimulate emotions for creative writing.

Explore some of the following ideas from teachers (Thanks to W. Kovach, C. Blake, A. Ashton, S. Sandor):

Many children learn best through the visual channel.

ClipWatch Martin Scorsese discuss the importance of visual literacy at edutopia.

Visual Learning and Graphic Novels

Many teachers are finding that graphic novels are a great way to motivate their students. For example, Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Spiegelman metaphorically uses animals to retell the story of his father’s experience as a Jewish prisoner in a WW II concentration camp. Students of all reading levels will be intrigued by his father’s experience, and the comic book-like graphics will appeal to readers for multiple reasons, one being its use of visual literacy. (Thanks to E. Kaiser for this idea)

When teachers use graphic novels during instruction, it keeps the students more actively involved in the reading process; they must not only understand the text, but be able to mesh the words with their interpretations of the graphics as well.

You might also get students involved with writing their own comics or graphic novels. Or, provide students with photographs they might integrate into the their writing.

Books, Movies, and Visual Learning

Consider using film adaptations of books as a way to provide visual resources for students. Some of the best movies are made by groups such as A&E Biography, the Discovery Channel, and Hallmark. Explore Books and Movies in the Classroom from Multimedia Seeds.

Lamb's LatitudesLamb's Latitudes
I'm a visual learner, so visual literacy has important meaning to me. When I take a test, I can often tell you where on the page the answer is located visually. I may not know the answer, but I can "see" the answer. When I pick up a book I immediately look at the pictures. If I plan a project, I use a concept map and software like Inspiration. As a hobby, I take photographs.

Key Words

Learn More

Visual Literacy

Digital Glyphs: Imaging Ideas for a Visual World at Eduscapes for lots of classroom connections and ideas.

The Function of Images in Text. Lesson related to visual literacy.

A Visual Literacy Exercise. An exercise in visual literacy.

Graphic Novels

Goldsmith, Francisca (May 1, 1998). Graphic novels. Booklist. 1510-11.

Gorman, Michele (August 2002). What teens want: thirty graphic novels you can't live without. School Library Journal, 48(8), 42. (From EBSCOhost, requires IUPUI login)

MacDonald, Heidi (August 2004). Drawing a Crowd. (School Library Journal, 50(8), 20. (From EBSCOhost, requires IUPUI login)

Sequential Art, Graphic Novels, and Comics (2010). Annette Lamb.

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