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April 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 7
Show & Tell: A Video Column

Teaching with Visuals

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Analyzing images gives students opportunities to think critically.

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Credit: SEVENTYFOUR / SHUTTERSTOCK
People can consume and communicate an astonishing amount of information purely visually—by creating and observing images, infographics, and various forms of art. National, state, and provincial standards acknowledge the importance of visual literacy by requiring the use of multimodal texts in K–12 classrooms. The term visual literacy describes the skills and competencies needed to think critically through photographs, illustrations, and moving images. (Note: Students with visual impairments also demonstrate a form of this literacy using assistive technologies.) And although we begin interpreting information visually from birth, visual literacy is a learned skill, not an intuitive one. When coupled with discussion, visual literacy also provides crucial opportunities for critical thinking.

Building New Knowledge

A central principle of teaching is that we move from the known to the new; that is, we seek to anchor new knowledge in existing schema. Using strong visuals in lessons can help students activate prior knowledge and engage with new information. In a 2021 EL article, Pollock and colleagues note that using visual representations can be a powerful teaching strategy because visuals offer another channel for knowledge-building.

Using strong visuals in lessons can help students activate prior knowledge and engage with new information.

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A display of a visual at the beginning of class can spark discussion about previously learned material. For example, a U.S. History teacher might use a Matthew Brady photograph of wounded soldiers in a hospital to recall learning about the state of medical treatment during the Civil War. The National Archives offers maps, photographs, cartoons, and other artifacts that teachers can incorporate into lessons.
For another example, a middle school science teacher who wants to introduce new concepts on environmental protection could use photographs, diagrams, and video from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to teach about data collection and the health of coral communities. Time series photographs taken at three research sites during the disaster can assist students in exploring the negative impact on coral in ways that text alone could not (Koval et al., 2021).

Selecting the Right Images

Teachers select written texts carefully, considering their content value, developmental suitability, and potential to offer just the right amount of challenge. Visual texts deserve the same deliberation. An important criteria when choosing visuals is that they are sufficiently complex to offer opportunities for engaging in critical thinking, not just information consumption. Guidance about the qualitative factors of written text complexity require examining a text's structure, coherence, and audience appropriateness (Fisher et al., 2016). These same characteristics can inform teacher selection of nonlinguistic representations.
Cappello (2017) offers criteria for image selection in lesson planning that aligns with recognized measures of linguistic text complexity:
  • Levels of Meaning and Purpose: There are multiple levels of meaning that require critique, include symbols that invite students to draw conclusions, and convey ideas or concepts.
  • Structure: The compositional devices challenge perception and the supplemental information provided, such as the caption, title, or key, offers further ways to understand the visual.
  • Language convention and clarity: The visual register may be formal (e.g., art, scientific diagrams) or informal (e.g., a child's drawing) but represents the subject clearly.
  • Knowledge demands: The background or prior knowledge needed to make meaning of the visual may be discipline-specific, such as understanding a math concept, or may reference texts or personal experiences.

Quadrants and Questions

To encourage deeper thinking and discussion when evaluating an image, teachers can use a quadrant approach and divide the visual into four sections. Each quadrant should spotlight details that might otherwise have been overlooked in the whole image. Then teachers can ask students what they notice, what is surprising, or what might be missing.
Another useful protocol is to cycle through these three questions (­Cappello, 2017):
  1. What's going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can you find?
We developed a visual literacy lesson for use by American literature teachers at the school where we work to activate prior knowledge and engage in critical thinking. We used Carrie Mae Weems's 1991 photograph "Thoughts on Marriage" to foster discussion among students who were preparing to read the 1892 feminist short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The photograph shows a close-up of a woman in full bridal regalia (the familiar) with clear tape over her mouth (the mystery). Teachers initially paired this photo with a single line from the Gilman story: "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage." While the initial exploration of the image used Cappello's three questions, subsequent interrogations involved both the photograph and the text, which students compared for similarities and differences in representations of marriage a century apart. In doing so, the students learned something about early feminist literature and its discussion of traditional roles for women in marriage.
Visual literacy isn't just for secondary students. In the video that accompanies this column, kindergarten teacher Lisa Forehand uses a two-page spread in The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt (Philomel Books, 2013) to discuss how Duncan, the protagonist, used his creativity to resolve disputes between the crayons. The image contains no words, but rather illustrates how Duncan addressed the crayons' complaints. Forehand applies a close reading protocol to the visual content, asking students to write arguments about how well Duncan listened to other characters. To do so, the students draw on evidence from the complex visuals and accompanying written text.

Elevating Critical Thinking

Since an emphasis on linguistic knowledge prevails in schooling, nonlinguistic information often ends up taking a back seat. Yet the images selected in textbooks and other teaching materials can offer a broader lens for understanding the academic, social, and emotional concepts we teach each day. With the right implementation, visual literacy instruction can elevate critical thinking and discussion in your classroom.
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Show & Tell April 2023 / Teaching with Visuals

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References

Cappello, M. (2017). Considering visual text complexity: A guide for teachers. The Reading Teacher70(6).

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2016). Text complexity: Stretching readers with texts and tasks (2nd ed.). Corwin.

Koval, J., Grossman, S., & Usselman, M. (2021). Under the sea: Promoting visual literacy through image analysis. Science Scope44(6).

Pollock, J. E., Tolone, L. J., & Nunnally, G. S. (2021). How innovative teachers can start teaching innovation: Three ways to enhance your lesson planning to generate creative thinking. Educational Leadership78(9).

Nancy Frey is a professor of literacy in educational leadership at San Diego State University where she focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Staying true to her belief that it is critical to remain deeply embedded in the life of a school, she also teaches at Health Sciences High and Middle College, an award-winning open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, which she cofounded with Ian Pumpian and Doug Fisher.

For over two decades, her work has been dedicated to the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders needed to help students attain their goals and aspirations. Frey’s interests include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. She is a recipient of the Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Early Career Award from the Literacy Research Association.

Frey has published many articles and books on literacy, instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning, including Student Learning Communities: A Springboard for Academic and Social-Emotional Developments.

 

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