MET:Visual Literacies

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Carmen Chan (2008).

This page has been revised by Jennifer Hanson (2009), Irfan Aaron Kaljanac (2011), Kym Francis (2013) and Sandra Tice (2015).

File:Visual literacy.jpg
Visual literacy includes the practice of: 1) Visual decoding (translating and understanding the meaning of visual imagery). 2) Visual encoding (expressing thoughts and ideas in visual form).

What is Visual Literacy?

Visual literacy is the reading of text and images in conjunction, and requires traditional reading skills as well as ability to read images and graphics. Students need access and interaction with both print and visual literacy in order to be best prepared for the demands of the 21st century. Both literacies require interpretation, negotiation, and meaning making from readers, which in turn supports student ability to interpret the world.

In essence, visual literacy has two aspects: the ability to understand images, and the ability to use them. It is a term first used by John Debes (1969) to describe the ability to construct meaning as well as understand and interpret visual images and messages. In addition to this definition, the International Visual Literacy Association describes visual literacy as the ability to discriminate and interpret visual actions, objects and other images while gaining meaning from these resources.

Understanding and Using Visuals

Visual literacy is also connected to visual thinking, which Wileman describes as "the ability to turn information of all types into pictures, graphics, or forms that help communicate the information" (Wileman, 1993). Visual literacy refers, not only to still images, but also to the multi-media experiences and moving images characteristic of electronic media today. Therefore, a ‘literate person in contemporary western cultures is, first and foremost, someone who is able to recognize, read, analyze and deploy a variety of visual genres and mediums’ (Schirato & Yell 1996).

From this perspective, visual literacy can be defined as one of the New Literacies, which emerged in the context of a highly connected, fast-paced, information-heavy 21st century. Recently, some scholars have argued for a more expansive definition of visual literacy that takes into account the visually-based skills required to participate in a society uniquely characterised by Web 2.0, in which the learner is as much a content producer as she is consumer (Avgerinou, 2008). Sometimes called digital visual literacy, this new literacy is defined in one study as "the ability to critically analyse digital visual materials, create effective visual communications and make judgments and decisions using visual representations of thoughts and ideas." (Brooks et al., 2008, para. 1). These same authors identify digital visual literacy skills as an essential literacy that is relevant to a variety of curriculum disciplines, not just ICT or the visual arts.

Cave Walls to Comic Books: Studying ‘The Visual’ with Comic Books and Graphic Novels

San Cave Painting

There are 6,800 known languages spoken in the 200 countries around the world. The number of human languages spoken and the number of different dialects that exists in the world remain a mystery. Of these different forms of communication only a few languages are understandable to the greatest number of people, one of which is visual language. Paintings found in Egyptian caves, Mayan astronomical glyphs, and the ancient Chinese pictographs are visual images that still continue to communicate to today’s historians. Sequential art narratives are images structured into a sequence to tell a story. Carter (2009) outlines the transition of sequential art, from cave paintings to comic books to the graphic novel. Chun (2009) defines graphic novels as original, book-length fiction or non-fiction stories, with mature themes and complex narratives, published in a comic book style. Graphic novels provide a reading experience with simultaneous images and text, as if the reader is both reading and watching a movie simultaneously.

In more recent years, graphic novels have inspired countless films and television shows. Today, society is dominated by the visual image, and transmedia is becoming more prominent. Television, films, magazines, and the Internet are using images to communicate, entertain, and profit (Gillenwater, 2009). Graphic novels have impacted the images we view daily. Movies such as Batman, Spider-Man, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Iron Man are all based on graphic novels (Behler, 2006). Television shows, such as The Walking Dead, Smallville, and The Human Target are based on graphic novels. Many visual literacy research studies and projects have been conducted to provide further understanding in the importance of developing visual literacy skills in order to thrive in our fast-paced, networked 21st century world.

Why is Visual Literacy Important?

Visual literacy is an essential 21st century literacy

Why is it important to teach visual literacy?

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is truer than ever before. In today’s information age, visual culture surrounds students with images and overwhelms with information. Flynt & Brozo (2010) identify television and technological devices as primary sources for increased visual culture.

“But when visual symbols are used in place of words to express an idea or evoke a feeling or mood within us, it is necessary for the viewer to be able to understand the message” (Oring, 2000:58 in Bamfield). Oring highlights an urgent need to learn how to read visual images in a meaningful way. Because we live in a visual world where images surround us, “understanding pictures is a vital life enriching necessity. Not to understand them is visual illiteracy” (Bamford, 2003).


As Bamford argues in The Visual Literacy White Paper “visual images are becoming the predominant form of communication across a range of learning and teaching resources, delivered across a range of media and formats. The ratio of visual images to text is increasing” (Bamford, 2003). A lack of awareness of visual literacy affects your ability to be able to communicate effectively in today’s society. By understanding the basic principles of visual literacy, people can produce visuals that communicate in a more efficient way.

Visual Literacy Skills

Communication can be improved by developing visual literacy skills. Visual Literacy includes a group of skills which enable an individual to read, write and converse with visual language. These skills allow one to interpret the content of visual images, examine the social impact of those images and discuss purpose, audience and ownership (Bamford, 2003). These skills include the ability to:

Visualise internally

  • Read and make sense of visual objects and images
  • Analyse and interpret the content of visual objects and images,
  • Make judgement on the accuracy, validity and worth of visual objects and images

Communicate visually

  • Create and select images to convey a range of meanings
  • Use gestures, objects, signs and symbols to communicate

Digital Age Visual Literacy skills

With the overwhelming predominance and immediacy of images in our networked world, Avgerinou (2008) suggests that pre-digital age visual literacy skills are no longer adequate to successfully navigate a society in which the very nature of information has changed. The participatory nature of Web 2.0 applications, which she identifies as "social networking in multi-user virtual environments and distributed communities (eg Facebook), wikis, blogs, visual journalism, e-documentaries and digital photography" (2008, para. 8), require more sophisticated visual interpretation and creation skills. She notes a 2007 study by Learning Point Associates that identifies nine essential skills for visual literacy today:

  • Have working knowledge of visuals produced or displayed through electronic media.
  • Understand basic elements of visual design, technique, and media.
  • Are aware of emotional, psychological, physiological, and cognitive influences in perceptions of visuals.
  • Comprehend representational, explanatory, abstract, and symbolic images.
  • Apply Knowledge of Visuals in Electronic Media.
  • Are informed viewers, critics, and consumers of visual information.
  • Are knowledgeable designers, composers, and producers of visual information.
  • Are effective visual communicators.
  • Are expressive, innovative visual thinkers and successful problem solvers.

(2008, para.10)

These findings suggest a pressing need to create technology-supported learning environments that cater to an increasingly sophisticated visually literate audience that has certain expectations of the environments in which they learn. These expectations are dictated by the experiences they have elsewhere on the web, and their increasing Media Literacy. It also points to the need to create educational environments that develop the competencies identified by Learning Point Associates (as cited in Avgerinou, 2008).

Understanding Visual Culture

We live in an era of visual culture, which influences our lifestyle, values and beliefs (Bamford, 2003). The visual image “characterizes our age, because so much of our media and everyday space is increasingly dominated by visual images” (Dallow, 2008, p. 92). Our experience of culturally meaningful visual content appears in multiple forms:

  • print images and graphic design
  • TV and cable TV
  • film and video in all interfaces and playback/display technologies
  • computer interfaces and software design
  • Internet/Web as a visual platform
  • digital multimedia
  • advertising in all media
  • fine art and photography
  • fashion
  • architecture, design, and urban design

Images have become central to every activity that connects humans to each other and to technology. Therefore understanding one’s visual culture is imperative for understanding the world we live in. Understanding the influences that shape our culture, past, present and future, is a worthwhile subject of study in our schools, and only possible with the skills of visual literacy.

Through visual literacy, the viewer will be more conscious of the intentions behind the persuasive images of our visual culture, and resistant to the manipulative uses of visuals in advertising or other contexts (Messaris, 1995).

Why teach Visual Literacy?

Visual literacy must be learned, just as reading and writing are learned. The ability to understand and produce visual messages is becoming increasingly important with the ever-expanding proliferation of mass media in society. As more and more information and entertainment is acquired through non-print media (such as television, movies and the internet), the ability to think critically and visually about the images presented becomes a crucial skill. It is essential to not only obtain and interpret information, but also in constructing knowledge (Bamford, 2003). In other words, visual literacy is required to meaningfully engage and thrive in the visual age.

Historically, visual literacy has been vitally significant to society. One example of this historical significance is the role map reading has played throughout history. People also rely on visuals to better understand complex or sophisticated ideas such as chemical or mathematical formulas or to read complex architectural plans (Bamford, 2003). Adding pictorial elements to linguistic explanations is the best way to represent and comprehend complex conceptual structures, but only if the viewer it visually literate (Bamford, 2003).

Digital literacy is a necessity in the 21st century classroom. In order to develop student capability to understand and interpret visual images in conjunction with text, teachers need to design instruction to develop visual literacy skills in a manner that contains real-world relevance. Flynt & Brozo (2010) summarize Ausburn and Ausburn's (1978) benefits of visual literacy, which are just as relevant today:

  • verbal skills
  • self-expression
  • ordering of ideas
  • student motivation and interest
  • connecting with disengaged students
  • improved self-image, self-reliance, and independence
  • improved confidence

Visual Literacy and Technology in Education

Technology has transformed the nature of information itself (Jakes & Brennan, 2006 cited in Avgerinou, 2008), as well as how it is transmitted and understood. As this wiki has discussed, visual literacy is part and parcel of navigating today's information-rich world. Naturally, technology lends itself both to enriching the learning experience and to developing visual literacy skills in the learner.

Microsoft PowerPoint

It is important for educators to utilize technology in academic literacies, not only in the content but how they teach. Learners connect with others in the classroom as well as in society outside of the classroom: other classes, schools, and the world beyond the school walls (Flynt & Brozo, 2010). Incorporating digital technology in the classroom, in all curricular areas, engages learners, promotes authentic knowledge building, and develops visual literacy skills. The ways of using digital technologies in this way are multifarious and limited only by the educator's resourcefulness. However, lack of hardware, software and teacher familiarity with digital technologies may hamper widespread efforts. More access and opportunities for teacher training are needed to increase teachers' confidence and creativity to use these technologies in their classes.

Software programs as simple as Photo Story, Movie Maker, and Microsoft PowerPoint have transformed classroom communication. Many educators are creating multimedia presentations filled with informative visuals to communicate concepts and ideas to contemporary students with various learning styles. Andre Harrison in the article Power up! Stimulating your students with PowerPoint, writes "because of [PowerPoint's] visual versatility, slides can display information in a way that grabs today's highly visual learners. Designers can use color, sound, and movement to capture students' attention...PowerPoint also can help address other learning styles, such as auditory, visual kinetic, and manipulative" (Harrison 1998-99).

Visual Literacy in the Classroom

Many educators are integrating visual aids in their lessons to enhance student comprehension of materials. Visual aids are commonly used in subjects such as math. The use of symbols, for instance, to teach abstract ideas and concepts is a basic form of visual learning. Learners undergo visual learning processes such as understanding symbolic ways of representing ideas when reading and analyzing symbols. Furthermore, visuals are commonly used in math to explain concepts such as size relationships, order, percentage and when comparing quantities. Without visual aids such as the image below it would be difficult for educators to explain the difference between big and biggest and challenging for young learners to understand the concept and relationship of size.

File:Visual img4.gif
Visual explanation of size relationship

Many research studies indicate when visuals were integrated into lessons students demonstrated a better understanding of the concepts and ideas taught. In Mayer et. al.'s article entitled When Less is More: Meaningful Learning from Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lesson three experiments were conducted to examine which instructional technique would effectively promote students' understand­ing of scientific explanations. Mayer et. al. compared the use of a multimedia summary with illustrations explaining a process with a 600 word summary of the same process. The results suggest that the multimedia summary that contained more visuals than text is more effective because students with limited prior knowledge of the topic demonstrated a better understanding (Mayer et. al., 1996).

Additionally, classroom activities that are based on visual literacy skills lend themselves to creating constructivist learning environments, which can be highly effective in helping students develop an authentic body of knowledge. For example, one study explored the effect of teaching teachers how to incorporate clay animation using iMovie in their classes, which were not ICT or visual arts based (e.g. history) (Witherspoon et al., 2004). Students and teachers worked in teams to research their subject, write the script, sculpt characters, create sets, film and edit their videos. Through these experiences, the students gained curriculum knowledge, developed their creativity and broadened their real life problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Educational Implications of Visual Literacy

Chun (2009) outlines the 2004 PISA 2000 report, which surveyed the teens of 43 countries. Research found that students’ level of reading engagement was more important than socioeconomic background as a predictor of literary performance. Educators with marginalized students, with limited access to resources, can nurture a love of reading to eliminate these socioeconomic barriers to success. Moreover, increasing student engagement in reading provides a gateway into social groups and networks in the classroom, community, and world through book clubs, blogs, chat groups, and other online activities (Chun, 2009).

Visual literacy is the reading of text and images in conjunction, and requires traditional reading skills as well as ability to read frames, gutters, speech bubbles, and other graphic novel features (Monnin, 2010). Students need access and interaction with both print and visual literacy in order to be best prepared for the demands of the 21st century. Both literacies require interpretation, negotiation, and meaning making from readers, which in turn supports student ability to interpret the world. Graphic novels provide the ideal vehicle for both print and visual literacy skill to be developed in the classroom (Gillenwater, 2009).

Griffith (2010) summarizes prior research regarding the effectiveness of graphic novels as an educational tool. Graphic novels support vocabulary development, language learning, motivation to read, and reading comprehension through effective combination of print and visual literacy in a mutually complimentary manner. Because graphic novel text does not describe what is happening in the illustrations, it demands a sophisticated level of literacy from the reader (Gillenwater, 2009). Dialogue and complex literary elements such as symbolism, imagery, and theme are woven between the text and images presented on the graphic novel page; the reader must synthesize these elements to understand the story being told. Readers are drawn into the graphic novel narrative through their own complex visual and print language that requires readers to use imagination and inference. Students incorporate text, pictures, facial expressions, panel progression, color, and sound effects to find meaning. Graphic novels are one example of sequential art, and are considered effective means of engaging reluctant readers and inspiring motivated readers (Carter, 2009).

Ideas for Using Visual Literacy in Curriculum

K-8 Visual provides a wealth of tools for how to incorporate visual literacies into all areas of the curriculum. These are just some of the possibilities:

Reading and Writing

  1. Use diagrams to introduce key vocabulary
  2. Use graphic organizers to play arguments and supports
  3. Summarize text into a diagram or table

Science and Technology

  1. Use diagrams and charts to describe scientific concepts
  2. Summarize relationships with web diagrams and flow charts
  3. Explain procedures with flow charts, storyboards, and timelines

Social Studies

  1. Use web and tree diagrams to show social relationships
  2. Summarize sequence of events in a timeline
  3. Demonstrate visual explorations and changes over time with flow charts
  4. Visualize economic and social changes over time on line graphs
  5. Depict geographic concepts on line, bar, and pie graphs


  1. Show concepts on maps and diagrams
  2. Use bar graphs to depict addition and subtraction steps and results
  3. Use maps and diagrams to interpret problems and visualize problem solving steps

Practical Applications of Visual Literacy

K-8 Visual provides the following applications of various visual literacies:

Tree Diagrams:

  • Organize information, examples, and supporting statements.
  • Organize topics and examples into groups.
  • Show relationships between topics and subtopics.
File:Graphic organizer.jpg
Graphic Organizers


  • Show how an item changes over time.

Flow charts:

  • Sequences events into order.
  • Summarizes plot and subplots of stories and novels.


  • Summarize and compare topics and points of view.
  • Compare alternative solutions to problems.
  • Divide topics into groups and suggest order.
  • Assist in identifying important questions to be answered.


  • Support identification of key vocabulary.
  • Support learning of new vocabulary.
  • Allows for connections to be formed between new concepts.
  • Describe and explain how things work.

Graphic Novel & Visual Literacy

According to Monnin (2010), students must activate reading strategies to comprehend graphic novel text with efficiency and fluency. Carter (2009) states that there is a need “for authentic reading and writing experiences, textual investigations that help bridge the gap between the school world and the lived world” (p. 72). Reading and writing graphic novels can motivate struggling and reluctant readers, support multimodal learning, and foster 21st century learning. It is fundamental that youth develop multimodal literacies, as they are exposed to them on a daily basis. Research shows that students experience greater success when they interact with a wide range of texts, and graphic novels offer a way to encourage multiliteracy skills. (Hughes et al., 2011)

What is a graphic novel?

Visual literacy is becoming more and more important, as visual communication is considered to be more powerful than words. Graphic novels and comic books support this shift from traditional text. “The nature of graphic novels – with frames around moments in the story and the interconnectedness of the text with the image – fits into the definition of new media. It is reminiscent of screenplays and film.” (Hughes et al., 2011, p. 602). Carter (2009) suggests that educators think beyond just encouraging the reading of graphic novels. Instead, students need to be planning, writing, and illustrating graphic novels as authentic writing activities. “By acknowledging that there is a process behind the production of comics and asking students to consider the process and even engage in it, teachers help students build crafting, composing, viewing, and visualizing skills” (Carter, 2009, p. 71). Students hone writing skill and create stories that connect to life experiences and relevant social issues. Visual and spatial learners learn best from materials with a visual element; in addition to graphic novels, educators need to include graphic organizers, picture books, graphic notes, and mind mapping (Kluth, 2008). Computer software and web 2.0 tools are available for students to write, design, and create their own graphic novel stories. When students are encouraged to share text with peers, family, teachers, and the broader public, they grow in self-confidence, self-esteem and community belonging (Cummins, Brown, & Sawyer, 2007).

Tools to Support Visual Literacy

Many multimedia resources are available online for students and teachers. These are just some of the possibilities at your fingertips:

Graphic Novel Creators

Comic Master Web 2.0 tool to create graphic novels online - free and easy to use!

Make Beliefs Comix Online graphic novel creator for students of all ages.

Graphix Graphic novel creator, utilizing Bones, Smile, and Amulet - via

Comixer Create comics on an IPad with this app

Comic Creator Read-Write-Think's online comic creator for students

Graphic Organizing Tools

Interactive Graphic Organizers

Instructional Strategies Online: Graphic Organizers

Graphic Organizers

Printable Graphic Organizers

Visualization Tools

Visualizing the Bible Visualizes cross-references in the Bible

Data 360 Maps and charts local and international issues.

Gliffy: Concept Mapping

Historic Cities Maps and documents depicting the past, present and future of historic cities

MindMeister - Mind Mapping Tool

Our Story: Online Timeline Creator

Paper: Capturing ideas as sketches, diagrams, illustrations, and more!

Simple Mind: Mind-Mapping Tool

Visual Anatomy Lite: Gray's Anatomy Images

Visual Dictionaries

Visual Dictionary Online

Visuwords: Online Graphical Dictionary

Wordflex Touch Dictionary

Online Tools for Visual Literacy









Avgerinou, M. (2008). Visual Literacy 2.0. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2008 (pp. 3587-3591). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

Behler, A. (2006). Getting started with graphic novels: A guide for the beginner. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(2), 16-21.

Bamford, A. (2003). The Visual Literacy White Paper. Uxbridge: Adobe systems incorporated.

Brooks, J., Gibson, J., Friesen, O. & Martin, F. (2008). Digital Visual Literacy: Vital IT Skills for the Education Workforce. In K. McFerrin et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2008 (pp. 3240-3241). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

Carter, J. B. (2009). Going Graphic. Educational Leadership, 68-72.

Chun, C. W. (2009). Critical Literacies and Graphic Novels for English-Language Learners: Teaching Maus. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(2), 144-153.

Cummins, J., Brown, K., & Sayers, D. (2007). Literacy, technology, and diversity: Teaching for success in changing times. Boston: Pearson.

Dallow, P. (2008). The visual complex: Mapping some interdisciplinary dimensions of visual literacy. In J. Elkins (Ed.), Visual Literacy (pp.1-27). New York, NY: Routledge.

Daly, J. (2004). Life on The Screen: Visual Literacy in Education. Retrieved March 1, 2013 from

Flynt, E. S., & Brozo, W. (2010). Visual Literacy and the Content Classroom: A Question of Now, Not When. The Reading Teacher, 63(6), 526-528. Retrieved from,+Not+When.pdf

Gillenwater, C. (2009). Lost Literacy: How Graphic Novels can Recover Visual Literacy in the Literacy Classroom. Afterimage, 37(2), 33-36.

Griffith, P. E. (2010). Graphic Novels in the Secondary Classroom and School Libraries. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(3), 181-189.

Harrison, A. (1998-99). Power up! Stimulating your students with PowerPoint. Learning and Leading with Technology, 7-9.

Hughes, J. M., King, A., Perkins, P., & Fuke, V. (2011). Adolescents and "Autobiographies": Reading and Writing Coming-of-Age Graphic Novels. Journal of Adolescent & Adult LIteracy, 54(8), 601-612.

Kluth, P. (2008). "It Was Always the Pictures...". In N. Frey, & D. Fisher (Eds.), Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills (pp. 169-188). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lightbody, K. (2007). Visual Literacy in Classrooms. Retrieved March 2008 from

Mayer, R.E., Bove, W., Bryman, A., Mars, R., & Tapangco, L. (1996). When less is more: Meaningful learning from visual and verbal summaries of science textbook lessons. Journal of Educational Psychology, 19(3), 323-335. Retrieved February 27, 2008 from EBSCO host database.

Messaris, P. (1995). Visual literacy and visual culture. Paper presented at the Image and visual literacy: Selected Readings from the annual conference of the international visual literacy association, Tempe, Arizona.

Monnin, K. (2010). Teaching graphic novels: Practical strategies for the secondary ELA classroom. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House Pub.

New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 60 -92. Available from:

Schirato, T. & Yell, S. 1996, ‘Communication & Cultural Literacy: An Introduction’, Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd., St Leonard.

The Visual literacy Association. (2007). Retrieved 28 February 2008 from

Wileman, R.E. (1993). Visual communicating. Englewood Cliff, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications.

Witherspoon, T., Foster, M., Boddy, G. & Reynolds, K. (2004). Clay Animation: Encouraging Visual Literacy. In L. Cantoni & C. McLoughlin (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2004 (pp. 4090-4095). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

External Links

International Visual Literacy Association

Teaching Visual Literacy with Film

Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Visual Literacy for K-8 Students

Visual Literacy Toolbox

Stop Motion Artifact on Visual Literacy

The following Wiki Stop Motion Artifact represents the development of Visual Literacy throughout history in an animated visual format.

The Origins of Visual Literacy Added by Sandra Tice, February 7, 2015