I See What You Mean
Visual Literacy K-8
Chapter 1 (new edition)
Do I need this book?
This book is for the teacher who believes that literacy is more than reading stories; literacy also includes reading and writing information. Similarly, information literacy is more than communicating with words, because many information texts also include visual elements, such as diagrams, graphs, maps, and tables. To provide a complete literacy program, therefore, we need to include opportunities to draw information as well as to write it.
Visual Literacy Is Our “Other Language”
We are all bilingual. Our second language, which we do not speak, but which we read and write every day, is visual. This second language goes unnoticed until we ask ourselves how we read the news (now more than ever with the aid of graphs and maps), use our smartphones (in which we navigate from one application to another by icons), or even drive to work (by means of graphics on street signs and our GPS devices). Visual literacy is not a cute new toy for children to play with; it is the means by which we manage in the everyday world.
Many Information Texts Use Visual Elements
Whether we are thinking of school textbooks, Wikipedia, the TV weather report, science books, or ticket vending machines, we are surrounded by information that uses graphics and symbols as well as words. We are reading these texts, both in books and beyond books, all the time. Students of all ages encounter these visual texts as frequently as adults do and are expected to understand them, both at school and in everyday living. To reflect this range of literacies, a classroom program needs to include explicit instruction in how visual information works.
Many Visual Texts Are Accessible to All Readers
One of the great advantages of visual texts, such as maps or diagrams, is that most of the information they provide is readily accessible to all readers, including very young children who are not yet fluent readers of words and older students whose first language is not English. Similarly, students who are judged to be “poor writers” (when asked to write in sentences) are sometimes discovered to be excellent communicators if they are allowed the option to write the same information in a visual form, for example, as a diagram, graph, or map.
Some Visual Texts Are Complex
However, visual texts are not always simple to access. They follow conventions that do need to be learned. They are not just pictures to look at. Reading and writing visual texts is not merely a transitional phase which is later discarded in favor of reading and writing sentences; visual texts are used at all levels of learning; they are found in university textbooks and postgraduate research papers. Visual texts are not an academically “soft option” to words-only texts, as they can be equally demanding to produce. Nor are they offered here as an alternative to words-only texts; rather, the two are seen to be complementary, as is demonstrated by the combining of the two in many reference books and textbooks at all levels. Because a visual text uses conventions that are not always obvious to children, it is necessary to provide explicit instruction in what these texts mean—and don’t mean—by explaining how they make their meaning.
Visual Texts Communicate Certain Information More Clearly
Consider a diagram of a honeybee. Suppose we remove all the writing from the diagram—its labels and captions. There is still meaning in the diagram. The graphic tells how many wings and legs a honeybee has. It tells us their shapes—something that is almost impossible to do with sentences. It also shows us the symmetric relationships of all these parts—in particular we see that the legs and wings are paired. With difficulty and at great length we could transfer most of this information into sentences. The point is that the diagram would still be more concise, more accurate, and more memorable. There are times when it makes sense not to write information in sentences. Visual texts sometimes do the job better.
Visual Literacy Is a Complementary Skill
No one is suggesting that visual literacy can replace the traditional literacy of words and sentences. Visual literacy is rather a complementary skill. Graphics are strong where words are weak. Words are strong where graphics are weak. Visual texts tend to be a more concise, a more vivid, and therefore a more memorable way to organize information. On the other hand, visuals tend to simplify, to summarize more generally, and to lose some of the nuances of ideas expressed in sentences. This is why graphics cannot entirely take the place of sentences and paragraphs. Rather, the two “languages” support each other. This is why the best information books and websites usually bring the two together: on the same page we find that the paragraphs are supported by graphs and maps, while diagrams need to be interpreted by captions.
Which Is the Best Text for the Purpose?
Students need opportunities to learn when one kind of text is better for their writing purpose than another. Suppose we want to explain the difference between an insect and a spider. Shall we draw a diagram of each? Or summarize the differences in a table? If we use diagrams, we can see differences of shape and position as well as the number of parts. All these things define what makes an insect or a spider. But we have to go searching for those differences, detail by detail. On the other hand, if we use a table we can match up those differences under headings— number of legs, number of eyes, and so on. This helps us focus on the differences. But then, if we summarize the same information as a Venn diagram, we can focus on the similarities. Each visual text highlights a different aspect of the information. Each visual text will bring some details to the foreground and obscure others. By noticing these unique properties of a labeled diagram, table, and Venn diagram, students become aware of how visual literacy can work for them. Students will learn to choose the best text for their purpose only if their literacy program provides both practice and explicit instruction in using a variety of kinds of texts.
All Children Need Visual Literacy
Over the last two decades the teachers who gathered the students’ work in this book found that visual literacy was an effective way of engaging certain students (often, though not always, boys) who were said to be “not reading” or “reluctant readers.” Many of these children find information books more interesting than fiction, and graphics more engaging than “slabs of text” (paragraphs). But over the same period I have worked with teachers of children whose first language is not English; some who are labeled “falling behind” and others who are called “gifted”; those who attend a school for the hearing impaired and those who have been noticed by their teachers as having exceptional “visual intelligence.” I see no pattern here. In fact, most of the examples in this book are from what have been described by their teachers as mainstream classrooms. It seems, then, that all children benefit from visual literacy. Incidentally, it is not necessary for the children to be “good at art.” Visual information literacy is about making meaning with a mix of visual elements—lines, boxes, outline-drawings, arrows, labels, grids, numbers, and so on. A high level of skill in drawing is not needed. In fact, when drawing is required (as in a scale diagram or a cross section), it is worth reminding the students that a simple outline is all that’s wanted.
Visual Literacy Helps with Science
Perhaps the worst-kept secret in early education is that science is the worst-taught subject. In a society where science and technology increasingly drive our economy, this is rather unfortunate. Many K–6 teachers who struggle with science can benefit from visual literacy, since diagrams and graphs are the tools with which science can be most readily understood. Not only does visual literacy help students learn science, it helps us teach it. Most of the examples of visual texts in this book are on science topics.
Visual Literacy Is a Way of Thinking
What happens when we take information in a paragraph and summarize it as a diagram or table? At first we might say it is the same information, though it “looks different.” In fact the information has changed. Some details have become highlighted, while others have been lost. But most important, a visual summary tends to reveal patterns in the information that were obscured in the paragraph. A tree diagram organizes the information into its main categories. A flowchart sequences steps in an explanation that were introduced out of order in a paragraph. Moreover, we are apt to remember information differently when we see it as a graph, or a diagram, rather than as sentences. Consider the pattern the lines make in a daily temperature graph or tide chart and compare that with a paragraph of numbers giving the “same” information. The pattern is hidden in the sentences. What the graph tells us at once (temperature peaks in the afternoon; there are usually two high tides a day) is lost in the paragraph’s cacophony of numbers. We recall the idea as a pattern rather than as a set of numbers. Some students learn information more vividly if it is presented in a diagram or a similar graphic. And for all of us, perhaps, certain connections and insights are easier to teach and to imagine if they appear as a visual text.
Visual Texts Develop Research Skills
Students can extend their range of research skills if they use visual texts, first to summarize what they read, and second to organize what they write, using the diagrams discussed in Chapters 7 and 8. For example, if we summarize an information report as a tree or table, we do more than compile a list of useful facts; we organize those facts in a structure that helps us to see connections between them and to notice what details have been overlooked (they show up as blanks in the table).The visual summary also helps us improve our writing; when we use, for example, a flowchart to plan an explanation, we give the necessary attention to sequencing our thoughts and locating gaps in our research. A crowded page of “interesting points” will not do that. In short, certain visual texts (those discussed in Chapters 7 and 8) are useful aids to developing comprehension and essay writing.
Visual Literacy Is a Life Skill
We need visual literacy in order to get by in our everyday lives— when we read a magazine, go shopping, visit a museum, catch a train or bus, browse the Internet, text a friend, check today’s weather, or plan a vacation. The visual texts associated with these tasks include diagrams, maps, graphs, and tables. We take for granted that they are a part of everyday literacy; but we don’t yet take for granted that they should therefore be a part of a literacy program.
Some Outcomes of a Visual Literacy Program
The intention of this book is not to provide busy work in writing diagrams, maps, and so on, for their own sake. Instead, by focusing students on matching form to purpose, we can show them that writing is above all communication with a reader who will expect our text to be accessible, memorable, concise, and clear. The strategies offered in the following pages are intended to do the these things:
• Integrate literacy with other curriculum areas, such as math, science and technology, history, health, and social studies
• Motivate students (often they are boys) who are judged to be “nonwriters” and “nonreaders”
• Develop initiative and independence in learning, especially in the areas of research and writing
• Extend the repertoire of young writers: there are many ways of writing, not just with sentences
This book is available from Stenhouse Publishers.