What is Visual Literacy?

Visual literacy is the ability to read and write through images or visual information. This includes the ability to interpret information from images, and to communicate effectively using images too.

As film makers, we work with moving images all the time. Visual literacy is a huge part of what we do. We’re continually teaching our young film makers the art of creating meaning and stories through images.

Visual literacy isn’t a new idea, but it is talked about increasingly now within education.

Technological advances and access to digital methods of production, such as smart phones and YouTube, mean that there are more creators of visual content than ever before and so having the visual literacy skills to make sense of and engage with those technologies is becoming ever more relevant. 

James Elkins, author of The Concept of Visual Literacy and its Limitations, describes visual literacy as, “understanding how people perceive objects, interpret what they see, and what they learn from them”.

Why is Visual Literacy important?

As creators, we can work to improve our visual skills to make content – such as photos, videos or presentations – more engaging, more effective and more likely to cut through all the ‘noise’.

In an educational context, higher levels of visual literacy impact on an individuals reading and writing ability and improves their traditional literacy skills. Generally, this contributes towards higher levels of overall academic achievement. It also helps to develop valuable stronger critical thinking skills.

Working with visual media also offers another route into learning that can increase accessibility for children who naturally visual learners, but may struggle with other learning styles.

Beyond education, higher levels of visual literacy are important for employability and for engagement with the media world.

High levels of visual literacy contribute towards stronger communication skills, which are amongst the most highly valued employability skills. The ability to convey information compellingly using visual formats is incredibly valuable. According to studies, images are processed 60,000 times faster than text and presentations using visual aids are likely to be 43% more effective that those without.

People with strong visual literacy skills can also interpret visual media, such as news reports, assessing for accuracy, credibility, value and bias. In a world where “fake news” can dominate the headlines (or not, as the case may be), these skills are incredibly useful. People with highly accute visual literacy can even read and interpret signs such as body language to indicate if a person is lying.

As the world of information and content continues to increase and we’re exposed to ever more visual media than before, improved visual literacy skills will become more and more important to our ability to process and evaluate information effectively, as well as to taking on an active role as creators of visual media too.

6 Easy Ways to Boost Visual Literacy with Children

If you’re interested in some activities you can do at home to help boost visual literacy, there are lots of easy activities you can try out that will help to encourage visual literacy skills. Take a look at our six suggestions below:

Visual Literacy - Art Gallery

1. Visit an art gallery

Art galleries are a great way to experience images. There will often be a range of material to engage with, and often collections by the same artist, which can allow for more detailed considerations too.

Spend a good amount of time with a number of artworks. Consider each piece and ask questions: what colours have been chosen? What shapes? What might these mean? How do these make us feel?

Visual Literacy - Photo Book

2. Read a photography book together

If you’re short of time, or unable to visit a gallery in person, a photo book can be a great alternative to spend time with at home.

Photographs can also open up different discussions: what’s been included and what hasn’t been included in the frame? Has there been any editing done? What has the photographer chosen to include and why?

What is the story?

Visual Literacy - Build a Collage

3. Build a collage

Making a collage image requires children to choose which images or items to include, which will encourage their editing skills. Ask them why they’ve included or excluded certain elements. Ask what they would like somebody seeing their collage to think or feel? Are there ways to emphasise this?

Consider the layout of the collage as well. Which items are given pride of place? What does this mean?

In filmmaking, there is a term called ‘Mise-en-scène’, which translates roughly to ‘things in their place’. Directors will consider how to compose their frame, thinking about their set, their actors, any props, any movement etc, all to tell the best story possible in that single frame.

Try to ‘Mise-en-scène’ your collage. What happens if you move any of the elements around?

Visual Literacy - Poster Making

4. Make a poster

You might already make posters at home, or at school. They’re a great way to start thinking about persuasion in visual images.

Choose a topic or subject for your poster. What is the purpose of it? What information are you hoping to share? What action do you hope to inspire from the audience?

Think the different elements of a poster: will you include images? Text? Different fonts and colours? What about blank space?

Ask about their choices and why they’ve built their poster this way. Does it help to persuade the person looking at it? What can be changed to make it more impactful?

Visual Literacy - Make a Photo Blog

5. Start a photo blog

With a photo blog, you can add as many photos as you like and keep updating it.

Each photo represents a chance to visually express an idea, a moment or a point of view. The blog is a chance to keep curating the photos and reflecting them as it grows. The blog can also capture and reflect progress in photography skills over time.

Include photos of anything you like – items around the house, family photos, nature photos, landscapes… the list is endless. Annotate your photos and describe your inspirations.

We recommend Tumblr as an easy way to start this project off. 

Visual Literacy - Camera Angles

6. Explore High and Low Angles

Film language is one of the things we look at in our classes. How you use angles can share a lot of information about a character in relation to their world, as well as their status.

Typically, filming from a low angle can suggest a character is of high status. If using an extreme low angle, it usually suggests an imbalance of power, such as an intimidatory character.

Using high angles usually suggests the opposite. You can show vulnerability using a high angle, causing the subject to appear small in the screen.

Experiment with using different angles and consider how they impact your understanding of the image. Include them in your photo blog too.

Remember…

Don’t worry about getting anything ‘right’.

These suggestions are designed to be easy to work with. This is all about exploration and giving children the space to think critically about images and visual media.

They will have their own ideas that may be different to yours, this is absolutely fine. It’s OK to do things differently or to have ideas that break the mould.

Practise these things regularly. Just like reading, or learning to play a musical instrument, skills don’t magically appear overnight. If you regularly read text-books with your child, try to include some photo books once in a while, or find some more artistic activities to get involved with.

If you’re interested in more ways to help boost visual literacy, keep an eye on our blog, where we’ll be sharing more activities to try out at home. You can also take a look at our classes, where we help develop stronger visual literacy through filmmaking activities for children.

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