Look at your phone. A receiver stands for phone calls; an envelope is for text messages; a gear takes you to the settings of your device.
Listen to your favourite song. A simple triangle means ‘play’, two parallel lines mean ‘pause’, a square means ‘stop’.
Start your car and you will be bombarded by images: shapes, colours, arrows, stick figures, and a whole host of other strange symbols—but you, as an experienced driver, can derive meaning from them all.
How is this possible? In all of these scenarios, you have applied your visual literacy skills.
What is visual literacy?
The term ‘visual literacy’ only dates back to 1969 and not all experts agree on its definition, but the human ability to interpret pictures, both static and moving, has existed long before that. In our minds, pictures predate words: just like our civilisation left its mark in the form of visual arts before the invention of writing, each of us can, as a small child, piece together a story from a picture book with no printed text. In our increasingly technological world, a young digital native can even use a touch screen before learning to read, simply through a rudimentary understanding of icons.
Whether we assign a conventional meaning to a symbol – for example, we all agree that a small triangle pointing to the right will start a video or an audio file – or we derive subjective associations from an artistic photograph meant to elicit an emotional response, visual literacy is a set of skills we use every single day of our lives—and with the advent of technology, we’re doing it more and more.
Taking, uploading and sharing pictures is easier than ever: social media encourage us to use them to document everything from our greatest achievements to our breakfast and express our appreciation for other people’s pictures with yet more pictures—thumbs up, hearts, emojis expressing a wide range of feelings without articulating them in words.
Learning visual literacy
The world is flooded with pictures, and school is expected to prepare students to face the world: it stands to reason that visual literacy should be taught alongside linguistic literacy. In other words, students should be able to ‘read’ pictures as fluently as they read their textbooks and create visual content as effectively as they write.
Visual literacy is not limited to understanding the meaning of visual texts (a broad term that may include pictures, films, and even video games), but encompasses the ability to produce them, a task that is made easier by the use of technology to make pictures accessible to everyone: a multimedia presentation or even a short film are feasible projects for a student with no predisposition for drawing or painting, and even someone who has achieved substandard results in traditional art forms may be more comfortable with digital art and image editing.
A teacher seeking to promote visual literacy should take the opportunities offered by technology. Watching and discussing films with the class and comparing books to their cinematic adaptations can educate students on the differences between written literature and film, both valid artistic expressions with rules of their own; examining pictures hones their visual literacy skills and can serve as a memorable introduction to a new topic; applying the principles of visual literacy to video games makes for an engaging, interactive classroom experience they will be hard-pressed to forget.
Supporting lessons and student projects with pictures and videos, however, is not just a matter of enjoyment: while it is undeniable that using mixed media provides a more pleasant experience, allows students to process information at a faster rate and improves memorisation, visual literacy should not be taught for the sake of ‘having more fun’ in the classroom.
Visually literate students become better informed citizens: in the world of the 24-hour news cycle, they should be made aware from a young age of the ways the media appeal to our emotions and attempt to shape our opinions through incessant, and sometimes intentionally skewed, visual cues. Visual literacy helps us recognise bias in news reporting and uncover the psychological principles of effective advertising, guiding us in making informed decisions in all aspects of our lives.