Children live in a visual world and the ability to read visual images is becoming a vital skill. Rebecca Jenkin offers guidance on how to help key stage 2 students think critically about visual data

Visual images are fast becoming the most predominant form of communication. Children are surrounded by all sorts of visual media now and according to Mary Alice White, researcher at Columbia Teachers’ College:

‘Young people learn more than half of what they know from visual information, but few schools have an explicit curriculum to show students how to think critically about visual data.’

Visual literacy includes such areas as facial expressions, body language, drawing, painting, sculpture, hand signs, street signs, international symbols, layout of the pictures and words in a textbook, the clarity of type fonts, computer images, pupils producing still pictures, sequences, movies or video, user-friendly equipment design and critical analysis of television advertisements.

This is a vast range of activities for teachers to draw from, but the efforts required to develop visual literacy can be rewarding for both the teacher and the pupils. Visual literacy supports classroom practice in many ways across the curriculum: it builds on children’s home experiences, classroom technology allows access to a huge range of visuals, it is an excellent teaching medium for visual and kinesthetic learners, it supports EAL children in understanding, it is very effective for developing boys’ writing and it deepens children’s understanding of texts.

Visual literacy and writing

Research about writing indicates that there is a need for purposeful writing – writing which motivates, is purposeful, relevant and has an audience. Good practitioners should be developing approaches to engage and motivate children’s writing. Research strongly suggests that there should be a move away from commercial schemes, and that genre-based approaches across the curriculum should be developed where visual images are used to stimulate writing. Recent recommendations develop the idea of teachers as writers: not only teachers modelling but writing for pupils and alongside them. This leads onto the idea of teachers as talkers; modelling talk and valuing talk and its role in writing. Good practice should incorporate and develop the interests of children through the deliberate use of visual texts and visual approaches with explicit links to writing.

Motivating reading and writing

The article, ‘Beyond the frame: exploring children’s literacy practices’ (Burnett and Myers, Reading Literacy and Language, 2002) explored the factors that motivate children to read and write at home. The small-scale research study was based in an inner-city school in Sheffield and found that children are motivated to create their own purposes for literacy in their own private worlds. Researchers set out to explore the literacy events, including visual images, ICT and media texts that children chose to engage in outside school. Eight pupils from Years 3 and 6 were invited to use disposable cameras to capture instances of when they used literacy at home. The photographs that emerged, and discussions that followed, revealed some telling insights into the children’s motivation and creativity with regard to opportunities for reading, writing, visual displays and use of ICT.
Analysis of the data revealed that literacy was used as a means of:

  • cementing relationships – this included sharing books with younger siblings or corresponding with friends and relatives overseas
  • organizing domestic routines – this included using calendars, or notice boards to remember key events such as birthdays or outings
  • exploring and adding to knowledge – this involved both access to information in hard copies of texts or electronically; for example two children used their computers to explore school topics or research areas of particular interest
  • creating a statement of identity – this included displays of pictures, certificates, religious texts, or prayer calendars that helped the children to develop their sense of family identity
  • personal enjoyment – the children in the study all reported reading for pleasure, but also seemed to be including aspects of reading or writing in their play, such as writing notes to themselves or creating props for make-believe play situations.

The project revealed some telling insights into the children’s motivation and creativity with regard to opportunities for reading, writing, visual displays and the use of ICT.

Visual literacy to motivate boys’ reading and writing

Raising Boys’ Achievements in Writing (United Kingdom Literacy Association, 2004) was a project that looked at the continuing gap between boys’ and girls’ writing. The project provides focused and reliable evidence to show what raised boys’ attainment in writing. It was based around a three-week unit of work integrating visual stimuli and drama approaches and focused on attitude and motivation. The project illustrates the point that the use of visual images, such as videos/DVDs/still images, has shown an improvement in writing and attitude to writing by boys. If boys’ writing is a concern in a school then the school should consider developing these aspects to support its improvement.

Using visual literacy can lead to an extension of meta-language. Results from the DfES Raising Boys’ Achievement project (2005) demonstrated that by the end of the project the boys were more able to express ideas about the process of writing and effective writing behaviors and indicated that they saw themselves as much more in control of their own writing. Moreover, the project had a noticeable effect not only on levels of writing attainment but also beneficial effects on reading, speaking and listening.

The impact of the research is powerful if literacy teachers take the findings of the project and act on them to promote the use of visual literacy. Using visual literacy can result in:

  • increased quantity of writing
  • increased quality of writing
  • wider use of vocabulary
  • greater use of imagery
  • increased fluency
  • more adventurous writing
  • improved attitude to writing
  • greater engagement with writing
  • greater commitment to writing
  • improved motivation, self-esteem and enthusiasm.

These are just some of the findings of the impact of this approach with boys in the research schools.

Visual technologies

Recent research by Becta indicates that the use of ICT can have a great impact upon standards. The following list gives examples of the variety of ICT opportunities that can be used. Technologies include:

  • video/DVD
  • digital images
  • ICT texts/web-based texts
  • photographs/images
  • sound.

Images – still and moving – may be a good start for some teachers who may not have access to some of the technologies – all teachers could show a video.

Teaching approaches

So, if visual literacy can make such a significant improvement to the development of writing skills, then what teaching approaches should be used? The recommendations for integrating images are that teachers should develop an integrated approach to speaking and listening, drama, reading and writing and that teaching is clearly linked to children’s experiences and culture. Use of images can be a powerful tool in the teacher’s toolbox. It can stimulate children’s discussion and motivate their interest. Use of images that are relevant will be even more successful. So why not try the following ideas to get visual literacy started in your classroom?

  • Real-life pictures – Consider if there are any pictures that you can share with the pupils to exemplify stories from your life. Can pupils bring pictures in and share a story? This exercise could be linked to drama, role play and speaking and listening. Activities could include a two-minute discussion about a picture using some question prompts.
  • Describing pictures – Using a picture (I recommend ‘The Picnic’ by James Tissot) describe the scene to the pupils. Pupils can then use the description to sketch the picture on a blank A4 sheet. Show the children the picture and ask them to compare with their version. How close was their picture to the real thing? What mistakes had they made? Question the pupils about the picture. Is it a photograph? If not, how was it made? When was it made? What is happening in the picture? Is it a celebration – if so, what are they celebrating? Whereabouts are they? What time of year is it? Allow the children to guide the direction of the discussion.
  • Film and television images – Use a visual image from a favorite film/TV program to develop noun phrases. My Year 5 pupils loved this activity using the first glimpse of Miss Truchball in the film Matilda. Give the pupils an A4 copy of an image and ask them to label the picture. Add adjectives to describe the nouns in different colors.
  • Still images – Take a still from a favorite scene from a film or TV program or use a picture or photograph. Using pre-cut speech and thought bubbles, ask the pupils to think about what the characters/people in the scene/picture or photograph are saying and thinking. The pupils can write out the word and thought bubbles and attach with tape or glue.
  • Hidden images – Use pieces of card to mask the majority of a picture or photograph. Leave a small section of the image uncovered. Ask the pupils what they think is happening in the picture/photograph. As more pieces of card are removed, ideas need to be remodeled and this will be a catalyst for interesting discussions.
  • Pictures for writing – Use a picture as a stimulus for extended individual writing. Stories can be written from different viewpoints of people in the image.
  • Film – Take a look at the Film Education website. This is a website designed for primary teachers in the UK and contains links to free resources. There are lots of ideas and resources for classroom use.
  • Media – Pupils will have been exposed to a range of advertising. All forms of advertising will affect the way pupils interact with the world – and can be used to develop literacy skills. Media shapes the way the pupils communicate – and this can be acknowledged in the literacy lesson. Look at some adverts with the pupils – how do the adverts make them feel? How is any text within the adverts written? How do images and text interplay in adverts?
  • Picture dictionaries – A lot can be gained from creating a classroom picture dictionary. Not only can an understanding of key vocabulary be consolidated, but by using software such as PowerPoint, interactive presentations that integrate words and pictures can be easily created in the classroom.
  • Pictures and sound – Pupils can explore the connection between sounds and images and develop pictures that illustrate the poem. Choose a poem and read it to the pupils; then ask them to draw a representation of the poem. This will consolidate their understanding of the words used within the poem. The pupils can also record the poem and integrate the pictures they have drawn and the recording into a PowerPoint presentation.

Cross-curricular visual literacy

There are also many cross-curricular opportunities to link visual literacy with other core subjects.

  • Charts and diagrams (maths) – There is a wealth of activities that can link non-fiction texts with images. Select a non-fiction text full of facts and figures and ask the pupils to represent the information in a chart or diagram. Once the charts/diagrams are completed, ask the pupils to discuss how well the visual representations match the original text(s). This activity can also be linked to work done in mathematics – ask the pupils to represent visually mathematical data.
  • Man on the moon (science and PSHE) – Show the pupils a picture of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. Ask the pupils to draw the moon and represent pictorially what they know about the moon. Then ask them how the picture made them feel – proud, perhaps?

In conclusion There is much to be gained from using visual media to develop essential literacy skills. So move away from the big book, the phonic focus and the guided reading. A refreshing break from a typical literacy hour will make for a more interesting, engaging lesson, and remember that the majority of information absorbed is actually collected through our sense of vision.