Table of Contents
2 Visual teaching and visual literacy
2.1 Definition of terms
2.2 Reasons for and possible benefits of visual teaching
2.3 Strategies and Methods for visual learning
The 21st century is an age in which images in various forms without doubt play a dominating role, be it in magazines and newspapers, TV and cinema, or the Internet. As a consequence, children growing up in this media age are inevitably confronted with a flood of images from early age on. This fact makes it necessary to address such topics as visual learning and visual literacy also at school.
This seems important for at least two reasons: First, in an age where visual communication plays a vital role, children are required to acquire visual literacy already at an early age in order to be able to learn to judge, interpret and communicate with images in the right way. Second, visual media, like, for example, photographs, films, comics, and graphic novels, are calculated to make lessons more attractive and motivate students, and thus make learning easier and more fun.
This is not only true for subjects taught in the mother tongue, but also for English as a foreign language (EFL). Since in Germany English is already taught in primary school, visual learning may provide a way to facilitate EFL by offering a playful approach and, furthermore, by profiting from children’s interest in visual worlds.
Thus, as underscored by Stafford (2011: 2), visual teaching is not just another trend, but rather bears witness to a highly necessary adjustment of the curriculum to reality, i.e., new forms of communication, especially the Internet and smart phones.
The work at hand deals with the question, why visual learning should be taught in primary school, and will provide an overview of the various reasons which are relevant in that respect as well as the most important strategies of visual teaching.
In the first chapter, the concepts of visual learning and visual literacy will be looked at and their most important characteristics will be dealt with. Furthermore, the various reasons for teaching visual learning in primary school will be discussed. Furthermore, a short overview of possible strategies to be used in visual teaching is offered.
In the second chapter, there will be a critical discussion of the topic, including the use of new media like Internet in the classroom.
2 Visual teaching and visual literacy
This chapter will first provide definitions of the most important concepts, and a discussion of the most important characteristics of visual literacy. In addition, possible reasons for visual teaching will be dealt with. Then, some strategies of visual teach will be illustrated.
2.1 Definition of terms
Visual teaching and visual literacy are fairly new concepts as far as their application in the classroom is concerned. Thus, the use of a multimedia approach in the classroom, involving, for example, podcasts, the Internet or cartoon storyboards, has gained in importance only in the last two decades (Stafford 2011: 3).
However, as pointed out by Rakes, “The educational value of graphics has been generally recognized for many years” (1999: 14). Thus, the “first illustrated instructional” (ibid.) was published already in 1657 by Comenius.
Nevertheless, the term visual literacy did only come into existence in the twentieth century. It was coined in 1969 by the writer John Debes (Riddle 2009: 4) in analogy to literacy referring to the ability to produce and comprehend words, and, thus, texts (Stafford 2011: 1).
However, for a long time this concept primarily referred to art students and their ability to “read” works of art, and hence did not concern the school curriculum (Baker 2012: 44). The importance of visual learning at school has only been recognised at the end of the 20th century in connection with the rise of the Internet and new forms of communication (Riddle 2009: 5).
Visual teaching means teaching visual literacy to students. As visual literacy has recently become a “buzz word”, there is great number of different definitions of the term. As underscored by Stafford, “Visual literacy is a fluid term which can change depending on its context” (Stafford 2011: 6). In the following, a few definitions of the term will be presented.
A concise definition is offered by Giorgis et al.: “Visual literacy is the ability to construct meaning from visual images” (1999: 146). Stafford, in contrast, prefers a more process-based view, for, as he stresses, “visual literacy is not simply an ability that we possess; it is something that we ‘do’ and requires us to develop a set of quite specific skills and abilities” (2011: 1). Hence, he defines the term as “the active process of reading, interpreting and understanding images and visual media” (ibid.).
In fact, most authors stress the fact the visual literacy has to do with making meaning out of images or, more general, visual messages. Thus, for example, Frey and Fisher offer the following definition: “We think of visual literacy as describing the complex act of meaning making, using still and moving images” (2008: 1). Rakes also underscores this aspect, but adds a focus on “the ability to create and communicate with such [visual] messages” (1999: 14). Thus, as with the reading and writing of words and texts, both comprehension and composition are of importance (Bamford 2003:1).
Another feature of visual literacy concerns the ability to “master [the] intermediality of images and text” (Frey/Fisher 2008: 1). This bears witness to the fact that we live in a world of multimedia with a high degree of intermediality.
Among others, visual literacy may encompass the following skills and abilities:
Visual literacy involves developing the set of skills needed to be able to interpret the content of visual images, examine social impact of those images and to discuss purpose, audience and ownership. It includes the ability to visualise internally, communicate visually and read and interpret visual images. In addition, students need to be aware of the manipulative uses and ideological implications of images. Visual literacy also involves making judgements of the accuracy, validity and worth of images. (Bamford 2003:1)
Similar aspects are also stressed by Frey and Fisher (2008: 1). Thus, visual literacy involves a whole range of skills and abilities in relation to creating and making sense of different visuals. As will be shown later on, this also includes the ability to protect oneself against being manipulated by images. The various reasons why it seems advisable to teach visual learning at school and, above all, already in primary school, will now be dealt with in some detail.
2.2 Reasons for and possible benefits of visual teaching
As pointed out by, among others, Riddle and Bamford, the ability to make some sense out of images is developed at a fairly early age. Thus, for example, Riddle states that “As early as fifteen months of age, humans learn to connect images to the objects they symbolize” (2009: 14). The next step occurs at about three years of age, when children “become deliberate producers of visual imagery and understand that graphic forms can be used to communicate” (Bamford 2003: 2; cf. Riddle 2009: 14).
Thus, the ability to create, interpret, and communicate with images is part of the natural development of children. However, this ability is not to be confused with visual literacy as defined above, which has to be actively learned: “To some extent visual literacy skills develop automatically with little input required from teachers. Yet the automatic learning to read visuals tends to be only the lower order thinking skills” (Bamford 2003: 4).
What makes visual literacy so important is the fact that we are living in a media culture, which means that children will most surely encounter media images already at an early age. As pointed out by Riddle, this might entail some dangers, if they just act as passive consumers:
Media images saturate our students’ lives, yet children often sit passively in front of televisions, movies, and computers, receiving and absorbing the ‘language’ of the screens without developing critical awareness of what they are seeing. They are bombarded with images whose purpose is to entertain or persuade young audiences that the product is desirable, perhaps essential. (Riddle 2009: 14)
Thus, media literacy is calculated to endow children with an ability to critically judge what they see, to interpret its purpose (e.g. manipulation) and thus become critical viewers and consumers (Baker 2012: 44). A similar pointed is made by Bamford, who points at the importance of images in the “information age” (2003: 7).
As illustrated by Baker, due to new technologies like the Internet and smart phones, children are confronted with a flood of pictures already in early school age are even prior to that. This makes it all the more important to teach them visual learning in order to prevent possible abuse and manipulation (in this regard, for example the uploading or sharing of nude pictures by school children might be mentioned, which is a virulent problem in many schools) (Baker 2012: 44; cf. Giorgis et al. 1999: 146). The fact that we live in a “visual world” is also stressed by Burmark (2008: 5).
Despite that, visual teaching has been rather neglected at school only recently. Thus, as pointed out by Frey and Fisher, the focus was rather on those four abilities, which are commonly associated with literacy, i.e., “as reading, writing, speaking, and listening” (2008: 1, emphasis in the original), while viewing was just “mentioned in passing” (ibid.). However, as argued by Frey and Fisher, as it is “a fundamental goal of education […] to teach effective communication” (ibid.), visual literacy cannot possibly be ignored, especially in light of the above mentioned facts. Thus, it can be stated that “Students need to develop the skills necessary to used and learn from visual images“ (Rakes 1999: 14).
The above-mentioned points belong to the most important reason for teaching visual learning in primary school. However, there are also other reasons which make this form of learning worth while considering. A second reason refers to the fact that visual literacy is a prerequisite for being able to work with and “apply technology meaningfully and substantively” (Riddle 2009: 1). Thus, it seems important to develop these skills, which children will undoubtedly need in later life, at school as well as at home. As pointed out by Bamford, “Contemporary culture has become increasingly dependent on the visual especially for its capacity to communicate instantly and universally” (2003: 2). This makes it all the more important to achieve visual literacy as early as possible.
Apart from that, visual learning has also to offer some benefits from the pedagogic point of view. Thus, as remarked by Giorgis et al., “Well-crafted and creatively conceived illustrations in children’s literature […] provide an opportunity to stimulate aesthetic thinking in readers” (1999: 146). Furthermore, as pointed out by Riddle, under the influence of the current culture, which, as expounded above, favours visuals, the “learning modalities” of children are become “overwhelmingly visual” (2009: 2).
Thus, it seems only natural to pay attention to the fact that ” today’s literacy is multidimensional” (ibid.: 4), and put a stronger stress on visuals and visual literacy also in the classroom: “New learning standards reflect these broader views, incorporating technology, visual, and communication skills into benchmarks for traditional subject disciplines” (ibid.: 3f.). As argued by Riddle, visual literacy plays an important role in this respect (ibid.).
Another point in that respect, which is mentioned by many scholars, is the fact that visual learning may be a means of increasing students’ motivation and engagement. Thus, for example, Stafford states that “Personal experience has demonstrated that using such material with the majority of children will almost always generate a high level of pupil excitement and engagement” (2001: 3). Equal points are made by Burmark (2008: 9) and Drolet (2010: 135). However, as underscored by Stafford, this should not lead to the conclusion that visual learning’s raison d’être is purely having fun (2011: 2).
A further pedagogic reason for using images in instruction is pointed out by Burmark. She argues that images are generally more apt to be remembered than texts or numbers, because they are stored in long-term memory. This makes them particularly useful for use in the classroom (Burmark 2008: 11; cf. Rakes 1999:15).
Legutke et al. put the stress on the possibilities offered by the interaction between visual elements and language (2009: 78). However, as they point out, especially with regard to EFL, it is important to choose the right material, taking into consideration the students’ level of intellectual maturity (ibid.) The fact that visual literacy skills “can reinforce other basic literacy skills” (1999: 17f.) is also underscored by Rakes.
Thus, there are quite a few arguments for introducing visual learning into the curriculum. In the next chapter, a few methods and strategies for applying visual learning in the classroom will be looked at.
2.3 Strategies and Methods for visual learning
Due to the fact that visual learning has become fairly en vogue recently, there is, of course, an abundance of materials available concerning possible teaching methods and strategies. Generally speaking, it can be said that teachers should strive after “ensur[ing] […] a balance between visual and textual literacies in the classroom” (Bamford 2003: 4). Hence, visual learning should be not lead to neglecting other forms of literacy. As pointed out above, rather a meaningful interplay between different forms of literacy should be aimed at. This point will be further discussed in the next chapter.
As far as visual teaching methods are concerned, Stafford suggests that visual literacy should be taught in familiar contexts:
Ideally, any exploration of visual literacy should be situated in the context of our existing English work while allowing for the fact that integrating new media and concepts into our teaching will necessarily take us into some previously unexplored educational territory. (2011: 8)
Thus, he argues, while it should add something new to existing abilities, it should also serve to “consolidat[e] the skills we have always taught” (ibid.: 8f.). Stafford himself has worked as a drama practitioner for some time and therefore suggests combining visual learning with drama: “Drama […] offers a safe environment in which students can explore a range of feelings and attitudes and witness how characters interact with one another and to learn how gesture and posture can be decoded to give insight into relationships” (ibid.: 12).
Riddle points to the fact that, in analogy to the ability of learning to read, visual literacy is a sequential process, which should be taken into account in visual learning. Furthermore, she argues, it must be kept in mind that “visual literacy skills do not necessarily develop at the same pace as their reading levels” (2009: 10). According to Riddle, this makes it particularly important to focus on the activities of comparing and contrasting:
As a higher-thinking exercise, comparing and contrasting involves examining the characteristics of objects, people, or ideas – identifying both similarities and differences and investigating possible patterns and classifications from which we can draw general conclusions. (ibid.)
Riddle supports her argument with describing some of her own lessons, in which she used a picture book about the friendship between two quite different animals, a tortoise and a hippo (Owen & Meeze), for this purpose (ibid.). Another aspect which Riddle recommends as being very helpful in visual teaching is the Venn diagram which she used as a “visual organizer” (ibid.: 13).
Furthermore, Bamford suggests that “children [should be] given the opportunity to experiment with graphic software” (2003: 5). However, as her work is commissioned by software maker Adobe, this suggestion has to be viewed rather critically, although this method might offer some possibilities for older children, provided that the teacher him-/herself has some skills in working with such programs, although Bramford points out that “it is NOT important that the teachers be themselves technical ‘whizzes’” (ibid., emphasis in the original).
Another factor, which might be of particular importance with regard to younger children, is the use of colour, whose importance is stressed by both Bumark and Giorgis et al. Thus, according to Bumark, “Recent research” has pointed to the following “benefits of using color” in visual teaching:
- Color visuals increase willingness to read by up to 80 percent
- Using color can increase motivation and participation by up to 80 percent
- Color enhances learning, and improves retention by more than 75 percent. (2008: 15)
Also Giorgis et al. stress that “Color is one of the most emotionally evocative artistic elements” (1999: 148).
Furthermore, Riddle stresses the importance of using activities which “fuse literature, technology, and creative and critical thinking skills” (2009: 22). These activities can be performed in various constellations, thus, for example, involving the whole class, bigger or smaller groups or each child on its own (ibid.). The importance of various forms of group work and single work is also underscored by Brien with regard to literacy lessons in general (2012: 2).
Thus, as has been shown, visual teaching offers a range of possibilities and leaves room for a great deal of creativity and improvisation. In the next chapter, the points made above will be critically discussed and conclusions will be drawn.
First, in light of the reasons for introducing visual learning in the classroom which where enumerated above, it can be stated that principally there is no question whether it is reasonable to apply visual learning in the primary school, as visual literacy simply is a skill which has to be acquired by children living the media age.
When entering primary school, children will be six or maximally seven years old. Apart from a negligibly small number of children who have neither a TV-set nor a computer at home, up to that age most children already will have a certain experience with TV-watching and surfing in the Internet (ideally under parental supervision; however, from a realistic point of view at least some programmes or games will have been consumed alone or with coeval friends). Some children will even have mobile phones or smart phones with internet access.