Visual Literacy Is Critical for 21st Century Learners - National Council of Teachers of English
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Visual Literacy Is Critical for 21st Century Learners

This post was written by NCTE member Dianna Minor.


One of the major tasks I’ve embarked upon since my initial National Board Certification (NBCT) is collaborating with colleagues to integrate visual literacy in secondary classrooms, giving students opportunities to look beyond the printed text.

Visual literacy builds stronger readers, readers who are able to think about texts in numerous ways through a different lens, an important skill for critical readers and thinkers in the 21st century. Students skilled in visual literacy are able to create meaning from images, which in turn improves their writing proficiency and critical thinking skills. By integrating visual literacy into classrooms, we help students learn to collaborate and to discuss a wide range of ideas while expressing their own.

It is critical for students to be able to evaluate content/texts presented in diverse formats and media, a skill that can require much teacher modeling and independent practice. As students gain experience in interpreting works of art, infographics, film, videos, political cartoons, photographs, maps, advertisements, slide show presentations, and so on, they learn that they can use their imagination to see and think between and beyond the lines to draw inferences and conclusions. Visual literacy encourages student reflection, analysis, and evaluative thinking skills.

I’ve used visual literacy lessons to give students practice in analyzing tone, mood, and details in works of art. For example, in poetry lessons, I’ve modeled the Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS) when looking at photographs from the civil rights era. With this strategy, students focus on key questions:

  1. What’s going on in the photograph/art piece? (making inferences)
  2. What evidence do you see to support this? (looking for supporting evidence)
  3. What more can we find? (analyzing details to see how they connect as a whole)

Through these questions, students have discovered themes and identified main ideas, helping them understand the stories from the photographs.

In addition to photographs, I’ve integrated more works of art and paintings into my classroom so students have opportunities to analyze how two texts are similar and different and to discuss and compare the different approaches the author or artist takes.

Integrating visual literacy also gives quiet or reluctant students more opportunities to feel comfortable in the classroom; these lessons tend to be in small groups, allowing students to practice their own analysis through viewing, listening, and contributing.

With short stories and major literary works (essays, novels, longer pieces of text), teachers can pair texts with photographs and then ask students to draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. One useful tool for analyzing visual texts is the OPTIC strategy, in which the O stands for an overview, a general statement describing the photograph; P stands for important parts of the image, and could include inferences about what they contribute; T stands for how the title (or text) contributes to the meaning; I stands for interrelationships in the image—how the elements work together to create mood or meaning; C stands for conclusion, a statement that interprets the overall meaning. Using this framework, students can discuss the idea of claims and use detail and imagery to identify the central message of the photograph.

Visual literacy is invaluable to reader development in so many ways. It allows gradual development of the student reader’s understanding, slowing down the analysis process by making it more deliberate, and enabling students to build their own interpretation, to rely on their own powers of critical thinking.


Dianna Minor is an educator, writer, and consultant. Her professional experience includes literacy and curriculum and instruction. Twitter: @diminor1




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