What is Visual Literacy?

Research shows that Visual Literacy, “a person’s ability to interpret and create visual information—to understand images of all kinds and use them to communicate more effectively,” is a successful strategy for all learners  (Burmark, 2002, p. v).

But what does this really involve?

In the preface to Burmark’s book Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn (2002), Tad Simons defines visual literacy as “a learned skill, not an intuitive one. It doesn’t just happen. One becomes visually literate by studying the techniques used to create images, learning the vocabulary of shapes and colors, identifying the characteristics of an image that gives it meaning, and developing the cognitive skills necessary to interpret or create the ideas that inform an image, be it a television show, photograph, painting, chart, graph, advertisement, Power Point slide, animated GIF, or monster movie” (p. v).

Today the IVLA defines visual literacy as “the ability to discriminate and interpret visual actions, objects, and other images, while gaining meaning from them” (Brear, 2005, Visual Literacy section, para. 1).

Another description has been supplied by literacy professor Claudia Cornett (2003) in her book Creating Meaning Through Literature and the Arts. She states that, “When we teach for visual literacy, we involve children in thinking about and expressing in images what is often beyond linguistic capabilities” (p. 157). Visual literacy can help children connect to each other and the world, develop their critical thinking skills, and “gain new ways to make meaning” (Cornett, 2003, p. 155).

So what does this look like in the classroom?

One way I have found to specifically incorporate visual literacy practice each day is with the Daily Visual Challenges I created. These encourage students to be observant, train them to strengthen their memory recall, and provide them with opportunities to dive in and explore meanings of visuals. You can find out more about them here.


Listed below are some of the books and articles I have read in my search to learn more about visual literacy.

Albers, P. (2007). Finding the artist within: Creating and reading visual texts in the English language arts classroom.  Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Alberto, P. A., Frederick, L., Hughes, M., McIntosh, L., & Cihak, D. (2007). Components of visual literacy: Teaching logos. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 22(4), 234-243.

Avgerinou, M. (2008). What is “visual literacy?” International Visual Literacy Association. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://www.ivla.org/org_what_vis_lit.htm.

Bell, N. (1991). Visualizing and verbalizing: For language comprehension and thinking (Revised ed.). Paso Robles, CA: Academy of Reading Publications.

Borgia, L., Horack, D., & Owles, C. (2008). Terrific teaching tips. Illinois Reading Council Journal, 34(3), 46-50.

Brear, D. (2005). Visual literacy. Internet Sites that Work for Students and Teachers. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://members.shaw.ca/dbrear/visualit.html.

Burmark, L. (2002). Visual literacy: Learn to see, see to learn. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Burns, M. (2006). A thousand words: Promoting teachers’ visual literacy skills. MultiMedia & Internet@Schools, 13(1), 16-20.

Chancer, J., & Rester-Zodrow, G. (1997). Moon journals: Writing, art, and inquiry through focused nature study. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Clyde, J. A. (2003). Stepping inside the story world: The subtext strategy–a tool for connecting and comprehending. The Reading Teacher, 57(2), 150-160.

Cornett, C. E. (2003). Creating meaning through literature and the arts: An integration resource for classroom teachers (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Gallas, K. (1994). The languages of learning: How children talk, write, dance, draw, and sing their understanding of the world. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Jones-Kavalier, B. R., & Flannigan, S. L. (2008). Connecting the digital dots: Literacy of the 21st century. Teacher Librarian, 35(3), 13-16.

Kiefer, B. Z. (1995). The potential of picture books: From visual literacy to aesthetic understanding.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

McDonald, N. L., & Fisher, D. (2002). Developing arts-loving readers. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Education.

McDonald, N. L., & Fisher, D. (2006). Teaching literacy through the arts. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

McVicker, C. J. (2007). Comic strips as text structure for learning to read. The Reading Teacher, 61(1), 85-88.

Olshansky, B. (2008). The power of pictures: Creating pathways to literacy through art, grades K-6, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Teacher.

Palmquist, N. N. (2008). Creating images to understanding visual literacy. Knowledge Quest, 36(3), 20-23.

Riddle, J. (2009). Engaging the eye generation: Visual literacy strategies for the K-5 classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Riesland, E. (2005). Visual literacy and the classroom. New Horizons for Learning. Retrieved September 15, 2008 from http://www.newhorizons.org/strategies/literacy/riesland.htm.

Schirato, T., & Webb, J. (2004). Understanding the visual. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Simpson, A. (2005). Visual literacy in the primary classroom: Talking out the text. Screen Education, 39, 55-58.

Sinatra, R. (1986). Visual literacy connections to thinking, reading, and writing. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Van Horn, L. (2008). Reading photographs to write with meaning and purpose, grades 4-11. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Vincent, J. (2007). Writing and coding: Assisting writers to cross the modes. Language and Education, 21(2), 141-157.

Walsh, M. (2003). ‘Reading’ pictures: What do they reveal? Young children’s reading of visual texts. Reading, 37(3),123-130.

Williams, T. L. (2007). “Reading” the painting: Exploring visual literacy in the primary grades. The Reading Teacher, 60(7), 636-642.