George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Do you wish your students could better understand and critique the images that saturate their waking life? That's the purpose of visual literacy (VL), to explicitly teach a collection of competencies that will help students think through, think about and think with pictures.

Standards Support Visual Literacy Instruction

Visual literacy is a staple of 21st century skills, which state that learners must "demonstrate the ability to interpret, recognize, appreciate and understand information presented through visible actions, objects and symbols, natural or man-made." Putting aside the imperative to teach students how to create meaningful images, the ability to read images is reflected in the following standards.

  • Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7: "Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos or maps) with other information in print and digital texts."
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words."
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6: "Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text."
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1: "Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively."
  • National Council of Teachers of English Standards (NCTE)
    • Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts.
  • The Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning Corporation (McRel)
    • Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to interpret visual media.

On their own -- without explicit, intentional and systematic instruction -- students will not develop VL skills because the language for talking about images is so foreign. Ever heard kids debate the object salience and shot angles of a Ryan Gosling meme? To add to the instructional complexity, visuals come in an assortment of formats:

  • Advertisements
  • Cartoons
  • Charts
  • Collages
  • Comic books
  • Diagrams
  • Dioramas
  • DVDs
  • Graphic Novels
  • Graphs
  • Icons
  • Magazines
  • Maps
  • Memes
  • Multimodal Texts
  • Photos
  • Pictograms
  • Political cartoons
  • Signs
  • Slide shows
  • Storyboards
  • Symbols
  • Tables
  • Timelines
  • Videos
  • Websites

How to Teach Visual Literacy: Visual Thinking Routines

The VL strategies described in the sections that follow are simple to execute, but powerfully effective in helping students interpret images.


The think-aloud strategy -- typically used to model how adept readers make meaning from a text (demonstrated in the following short video) -- can be adapted for "reading" a visual artifact. After you model how to do it, have learners try this approach with a partner. Encourage elaborate responses. If you need a crash course in visual grammar before implementing this strategy in class, build your background knowledge with Cindy Kovalik and Peggy King's Visual Literacy module, The Artist’s Toolkit: Visual Elements and Principles and Discovering How Images Communicate.

Model Think-Aloud strategy from Derek Fernandez on Vimeo.

Visual Thinking Strategies

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a specific approach to whole-class viewing and talking about art that primarily uses these questions:

  • What's going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?
VTS encourages students to think beyond the literal by discussing multiple meanings, metaphors and symbols. Used with all ages -- elementary students (see video below) up to Harvard medical students -- implementation is simple. The New York Times'weekly VTS lessons are a good place to start.


Asking the 4WS

Inspired by Debbie Abilock’s Noodletools exercises, I developed the 4WS activity to help students make observations, connections and inferences about an artist's agenda, and develop ideas about a work's significance:


Credit: Todd Finley

Five Card Flickr

In Five Card Flickr, you are dealt five random photos. To promote VL, have students follow these steps:

  1. Jot down one word that they associate with each image.
  2. Identify a song that comes to mind for one or more of the images.
  3. Describe what all the images have in common.
  4. Compare answers with classmates.

During a subsequent discussion, ask students to show what elements of the photo prompted their responses.

Image Analysis Worksheets

To promote analysis of key features specific to different formats, pick an appropriate tool from The National Archives:

  1. Photo Analysis
  2. Cartoon Analysis
  3. Motion Picture Analysis
  4. Map Analysis
  5. Poster Analysis

Step-by-Step: Working with Images That Matter

The following lesson is partially based on Ann Watts Pailliotet's notion of deep viewing, a process that occurs in three phases:

  • Literal observation
  • Interpretation
  • Evaluation/application

Remember the 1957 photo of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan? Eckford was one of the first African-American students to attend the newly desegregated Little Rock High School. In the photo, you see her entering the school grounds while a throng of white students jeer, most prominently Hazel Bryan, teeth barred, enraged. The photo was disseminated worldwide within a couple of days, uncorking new support for civil rights.

Here are the lesson procedures:

Literal Observation Phase

Give students a hard copy of the Eckford and Bryan photo. To help them internalize the image, tell the learners to study it for one minute before turning it over and doodling a version of it from memory. Next have students write what they literally observe (What is pictured? What type of language is used? How is space used?) into a shared Google Doc.

Interpretation Phase

Copy all the student-generated descriptions from the Google Doc, paste them into Tagxedo, and then project the resulting collaborative word cloud for the class to view. Invite students to interpret the word cloud while periodically re-examining the photo. (What are the most important words? Which words do you have questions about? Describe your feelings about the photo. What other images are you reminded of, past or present? What messages are implicit and explicit? How did you analyze the photo? What do you understand now that you didn't before?) Then have students help you summarize the conversation.

Evaluation and Application Phase

Direct students to legibly write about the image's relevance on notecards. (Does the implied purpose of the photo convey ideas that are important? How? Is the image biased? How so?) Take the postcards and pin them around the Eckford and Bryan photo to create an instant bulletin board.

To extend the lesson, show the following six-minute video that narrates how Hazel Bryan, as a twenty-year-old, apologized in person to Elizabeth Eckford. The video features a contemporary photo of both women, mature now, arm in arm, smiling in front of the once infamous Little Rock High School. (Does the video alter your reactions to the original image? How? Will you approach other socially charged photos differently? Why?)

Final Frame

When reading was taught the traditional way, with printed texts, students accepted the authority of the author and received his or her message as a window on reality. In the 21st century, students need to respectfully question the author’s authority, articulate what is represented and how, and infer what has been excluded and why.

Was this useful? (3)
Teaching 21st-Century Skills Aligned with Common Core

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Mary's picture

I am a current student taking a class on general methods in education and technology, and I have been very interested in the effects of visual literacy taught through multimedia. I have had the opportunity to substitute teach in a high school classroom, and though I have only been out of high school for ten years, the cognitive shift technology has produced in the students' brains is astounding. Students think visually now. The access to technology is becoming more rampant, and when students are given an article or pencil-paper assignment they grumble. I feel they have a hard time with the concept of not having visuals, therefore using visual literacy can boost morale and participation. Photo-visual literacy is something that I think teachers need to be aware of in the classroom. Not just teaching students how to use the technology but teaching them how to use it properly and with healthy digital literacy. Students minds think cognitively different than mine did in school, and to keep from eliciting boredom or lack of interest visual literacy is an important component for the classroom.

Veronica's picture
Elementary school ESOL teacher

I use many visuals with my ELL students. I really like the visual thinking strategies presented and agree that they are a great way to get students to think. What may seem as an observation of something simple can become so much more in depth with more detailed observations. Then the students begin to make connections and can deduce certain outcomes all from using thinking strategies. Developing this way of thinking by looking at something visual can help students come up with ideas and draw conclusions.

Tabitha's picture
International School Teacher and Librarian

Thank you for your helpful ideas about integrating visual literacy into teaching. These strategies will be useful in relating visual literacy to inferring and understanding literature.

Jackie Avon's picture

I appreciate the list of activities provided to help facilitate Visual Thinking Strategies in the classroom. It is vital in today's Common Core classroom to give students of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to make observations, connections, and inferences about art. Looking critically at a piece of art builds sharper observers which helps students argue from evidence and build critical thinking skills. I look forward to sharing this curriculum and teaching method with my staff.

darcy's picture

Visual Learning would enhance senses and create a personal connection based on own opinion and perspective of the visual. Students can share their thoughts to create an understanding from multiple perspectives. This is an exciting way to bring visual learning into the classroom. Can't wait to try it.

R Turpin's picture

Thank you for posting the video on Visual Thinking Strategies. The information provided is similar to the way I instruct my students in art classes. Being able to think creatively, critically, make observations, listen to the views of others, and to learn more about oneself through communication with others is an important skill that helps the students make connections to the world. I enjoyed the list of activities for the Visual Thinking Strategies. I plan to try the ideas presented in the worksheet for Motion Picture Analysis in future classes and I will also ask the questions presented in 4 W's. Thank you for the resources.

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