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A Thousand Words: Promoting Teachers' Visual Literacy Skills [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Mary Burns - Posted Jan 1, 2006
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As early as 1964, Marshall McLuhan spoke of the social evolution from "typographic" man, who relied on text as the primary means of information delivery to "graphics" man,1 whose thoughts, beliefs, and values were forged by images. Within this "revolution," as McLuhan called it, the camera replaced text as the ultimate authority.2 Through television (and now the Internet), the viewer could experience a major event in real time. The danger, McLuhan warned, was that the viewer could become a passive recipient of information, accepting the veracity of all visual representations without critical reflection.3

Our students, among the young­est members of this "graphics" (or, more accurately, "multimedia") world, are surrounded by a plethora of images—on billboards, in magazine, on TV, in films, and in computer games—which they also often passively absorb. The messages and values conveyed by these images define norms and ideals of dress, behavior, and beliefs. In comparison with their earlier counterparts, contemporary American students are probably far more comfortable with, place greater value on, and derive much of their knowledge from images—as opposed to text. Little wonder that so many of our students are visual learners.

In contrast to the society in which they operate, schools continue to be very text-focused places. In almost all content areas, students are consumers and producers of text-based products. Granted, the presence of multimedia technology has caused some shift from text-based to visually based learning within the classroom, but this has spawned a new set of instructional challenges for teachers. Many teachers are more comfortable with text-based instruction and communication and may feel ill-equipped to harness the learning potential of visually based learning. Although advocating "visual literacy," state standards may offer little guidance in terms of instructional specifics. Yet, text-based proficiency—reading and writing—is still the standard by which academic success is measured. The result is that schools often do not help students make meaning of and critically reflect upon the powerful images that so influence their lives.

To succeed in the academic and vocational world, students must be proficient in both reading and writing—they must be literate. But to navigate the real world, they must also be visually literate—able to decode, comprehend, and analyze the elements, messages, and values communicated by images.

Developing Teachers' Visual Literacy Skills

How can teachers help students develop visual literacy skills that complement and deepen phonemic literacy? How can teachers help students develop critical thinking skills so they can analyze, reflect upon, evaluate, and make inferences from the images they see and not be the passive recipients of visual information that McLuhan critiques?

The answer in part is to help teachers develop these conceptual, instructional, and technical skills so that they also feel comfortable incorporating visual learning into traditional learning—and so they too begin to critically evaluate the images to which they are exposed. The remainder of this article focuses a series of professional development activities—some created through Southwest Educational Development Laboratory and at the Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico City—that have been successfully used with teachers and students to help in the development of visual literacy skills. These activities address the following:

* Understanding visual literacy as a counterpart to phonemic literacy

* Helping teachers to "read" images

* Help teachers to "write" visual images

* Understanding how visual literacy techniques can be used across all subject areas4

Each approach is summarized below:

Understanding Visual Literacy

So much of professional development around and in visual literacy immediately leapfrogs to the technology— focusing on software use—PhotoShop, Flash, or PowerPoint—or on overtly technical concepts (pixilation, resolution) while ignoring visual literacy as a concept and a prerequisite for critical thinking. The result? When teachers address visual literacy, they often focus on its mechanics rather than the larger cognitive framework of comprehension, analysis, and synthesis of the messages of visual images.

A better strategy is to address literacy first as a concept that impacts all subject areas. In so doing, we begin by asking teachers to reflect upon and define such terms as "literacy," "text," and "reading." Invariably, those who do not teach reading (that is, most teachers) find this a difficult task, since we are seldom asked to reflect upon such an ingrained cognitive task.

Typically, through discussions, "literacy" is defined as a taxonomy or continuum, with numerous types of literacy—numeric literacy, visual literacy, etc., as components in the classification of overall "literacy." "Text" is explained as a collection of vocabulary organized into some sort of grammar that gives meaning to the text and conveys a message. "Reading" is a process of decoding text into intelligible form, drawing inferences from it, and making interpretations.

Once the framework of literacy is established, we turn to a discussion of symbols. (This is a concept familiar to algebra teachers for which symbols—variables—serve as shorthand for text and mathematical concepts.) Images are merely symbols or representations of concepts or ideals. Like text, these symbols have a number of constituent parts or elements, organized to create meaning.

But both still and moving images, in contrast to text, serve as powerful shorthand for communication. These images are concise. Several pages of text can be encapsulated by one image (thus the aphorism of a picture equaling a thousand words). Images are not bound by language. Their very imprecision renders them more evocative and open to subjective interpretation. Unlike text, the mind does not have to consciously recognize what the eye sees for an image to have an effect on the subconscious.5

We conclude by defining visual literacy as the ability to decode, comprehend, and analyze these images in order to construct meaning from visual representations of ideas and concepts. Just as readers of text draw inferences and construct meaning from written representations of language, viewers of images also draw inferences and construct meaning from visual representations of information, though often less consciously so.

Reading Images

Once teachers are comfortable with the concept of visual literacy and see images as shorthand for communication, they begin to learn to how to "read" images. Typically, for this set of activities we use a series of still or moving images that have educational content such as historical political ads (some of which may be found in the Resources box in this article). As an example of the types of visual images used, you can download the following two political advertisements.6

The Man from Abilene (1952 ad promoting the candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower for president)

Daisy (1964 ad promoting the candidacy of Lyndon Johnson for president)

Like any incipient reader, teachers are at first unsure as to how to interpret the images they see. Therefore, they are initially guided through the deconstruction of these images in a highly scaffolded approach. Questions direct teachers to examine such elements as symbols, props, clothing, color, light, the position of elements on the screen, supers (text over images), code words, and the use of other media to augment the message—sound, music, voiceovers—what we refer to as the "vocabulary" or elements of the ad.

They then discuss the "grammar" or syntax of the ads—the way images are juxtaposed, the manner in which camera angles frame subjects, the myths and themes propounded by the images, and strategies of crisis, opportunity, etc., that help image elements work together to create a coherent message. For example, the Man from Abilene uses a white wooden house "deep in the heart of America" as a symbol of American values and uses military symbols and a booming, male, almost God-like voice to infuse the presidential candidacy of general Dwight Eisenhower with greater authority. Daisy, one of the most infamous political ads in U.S. history, juxtaposes a little girl counting daisy petals with the countdown to a nuclear weapons launch. The symbolism of Armageddon and the mushroom cloud is a powerful message of terror that helped to frighten voters from endorsing the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

As occurs with early readers, teachers move from decoding to reading with fluency, using a series of cues—associating images with their own experiences, as well as shared social and cultural meanings—to infer and interpret the messages of the ads and the images viewed.

As occurs in many conventional reading classes, we discuss the rhetorical devices of the ad—the ethos (appeal based on the character of the speaker; for example, the famous "I am X and I approve this ad" statement), logos (the appeal based on logic or reason), and pathos (the often hidden and real message of the ad—an appeal based on emotion), which, analyzed together, help teachers understand and assess the motivation, veracity, and underlying message of each ad.

This exercise of deconstructing visual images, analyzing the vocabulary and grammar of messages, and examining the author's motives and the stated and hidden appeals helps teachers in the following areas. First, it helps them to become comfortable discussing and analyzing images and to develop the language for doing so. Second, and more important, it promotes teachers' ability to critically reflect upon—versus passively accept—the ad's message. Time and again, teachers state that they had never previously thought about the messages of the images they see but now will never again accept an image or advertisement at face value. Teachers have reported how they now scrutinize billboards and commercials for the subliminal messages communicated.

Writing with Images: A Thousand Words

Once teachers are comfortable analyzing ads and images, they move on to the task of creating images that are worth a thousand words—synthesizing text and speech into a series of visual images—in effect "writing" with images. Teachers are provided with a problem-based scenario in which they must create a series of visual images to persuade a target audience to do, buy, or believe something. These ads or images must employ the vocabulary and grammar analyzed, and teachers must be able to explain the structure and strategy of the ads. Using software such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Flash, and iMovie, teachers must create a series of ads that is visually appealing and successfully communicate a visual message.

The truly challenging part of this activity is not the technical operations associated with PhotoShop, but the higher-order cognitive tasks of applying concepts of visual literacy to communication; synthesizing so many words into a series of powerful visual images that successfully communicate a persuasive and evocative message; and evaluating their own images as effective tools of discourse and persuasion.

Extending Visual Literacy Across the Curriculum

Finally, we discuss how teachers can use techniques of visual literacy across all subject areas to support the visual learning styles of students to help them become critical consumers of visual information. This includes proving time to help teachers begin to use these techniques.

As a result of the professional development described above, teachers have become far more comfortable using a range of activities that employ visualization techniques. For example, we have seen English teachers have their students create illustrated versions of reading texts; math teachers employ drawings, diagrams, and graphics to illustrate mathematical concepts; teachers across a range of subject areas using visual organization tools such as Inspiration; teachers paying attention to the use of appropriate fonts and colors in PowerPoint presentations; teachers focusing on well-designed spreadsheet graphs in which the data tells a complete story; a greater general awareness of how visual literacy complements phonemic literacy; and a recognition that being able to create and interpret visual information is not confined to art or computer science classes but is necessary across all subject areas.


Literacy in any given domain is an involved, ongoing process. Given the plethora of images with which students interact on a daily basis and increased visual displays of textual and numeric information, schools must begin to introduce concepts of visual literacy and methods for understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing visual information. The techniques described here can hopefully help teachers become as consciously comfortable in the world of images as they are in the world of words.


The People's Choice: Digital Imagery and the Art of Persuasion

A good place to start to help teachers gain an understanding of the basic components and techniques of visual literacy. Focuses on decoding, deconstructing, analyzing, and critically reflecting upon visual images. Search Term: The People's Choice.

Point of View: Dissect an Ad

The PBS site Point of View presents a sampling of political ads from the 1960s to the present. Each ad is accompanied by a printed transcript, analysis, and viewer comments.

All Politics All the Time

CNN's Ad Archive houses numerous political ads from the 1950s to the present. In addition, if you are open to patient excavation, you can also find complete libraries of political ads from the 2000 presidential election. Note that many of the political ads can only be viewed on the Windows platform.

Mary Burns is a senior technology specialist at Education Development Center in Newton, Mass. This article is based on visual literacy activities developed for teachers at the SouthCentral Regional Technology Consortium at Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas, and for students at the Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico City. Her e-mail address is



1. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 190. Cambridge: MIT Press

2. Newspaper readership has declined steadily since the 1950s, in proportion to TV news viewing. Newspaper Association of America. Daily Newspaper Readership Trends. Available at

3. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 230. Cambridge: MIT Press.

4. Some, though not all of this approach, can be found in The People's Choice: Digital Imagery and the Art of Persuasion, a free professional development activity focusing on visual literacy. It can be downloaded from SEDL's Web site:

5. Ibid.

6. QuickTime is needed to view each ad. QuickTime is available for free from



Burns, M. & Martinez, D. "Visual Imagery and the Art of Persuasion," Learning and Leading with Technology (March 2002).

Burns, M. & Martinez, D. (March 2002). The People's Choice: Digital Imagery and the Art of Persuasion. Austin: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 190. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Newspaper Association of America. Daily Newspaper Readership Trends. Available at

Rumelhart, D. (1976). Toward an Interactive Model of Reading. Technical Report Number 56. San Diego: University of California for Human Information Processing.

Taflinger, R. F. (1996). What Is Advertising? [].

Tufte, E. (1983). Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Che­shire, Conn.: Graphics Press.

Wren, S. (2000). The Cognitive Foundation of Learning to Read: A Framework, p. 13. Austin: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

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