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The Role of Visual Literacy to Enhance Social Studies

by Donna Knoell, Ph.D.


Our world is filled with visual images, and we often feel we are being bombarded by them. When that happens, students frequently 'tune out' and cease to be good observers, missing out on many important messages.

It is important to teach students to observe and learn from the many visual images that surround them. Teachers need to help students identify and recognize the image, its purpose and its meaning.

There is much talk today in education about visualization, and also about visual literacy. It is important to understand these very different, but important concepts.

Visualizing is a process of creating a mental image that helps the reader or learner conceptualize information. This image is created in the mind's eye. So a student might create a mental picture of what someone means when they write or speak about a concept such as community or family.

Visual literacy is very different from visualizing. Visual literacy encompasses the ability to observe, interpret, and comprehend the meaning that is communicated by visual images. Experts emphasize that the visually 'literate' person must be able to create and use images in the communication process, both as the receiver and sender of information. A visually literate student must be able to read, interpret, comprehend, and construct maps, charts, graphs, tables and photographs.

Experts in visual literacy stress that children do not become visually literate simply by looking at images. Visual literacy is a learned skill, acquired by studying the techniques that cartographers, photographers, and the creators of informational graphics use to create images, and by identifying the characteristics of visual images that give them meaning.

How does this all impact content learning, especially in social studies? Clearly, educators must make it a priority to teach students how to 'read' the maps, charts, graphs, tables and photographs that accompany written content text. Readers must be encouraged and guided to read the visuals; not just go breezing through the text while reading. Students who skip past the informational visuals are missing powerful ideas and information and the chance to 'see' ideas more clearly. These informational graphics frequently communicate much more effectively than connected text, and when students are taught to read and study effective visuals, they quickly see how much information they can gain by studying these important tools of communication. These are golden opportunities for teachers, as they enhance students' skills not only for school, but for everyday life.

Let's consider several examples. It is possible to write a description of a person using only words, but to really capture their visual identity, a photograph is the right 'tool' to use. Likewise, a person can give careful, written directions of how to go from Point A to Point B, but clearly a map gives us a better, more understandable 'picture' of where and how to get there. Finally, a person can give factual data or tell how a quantity is distributed. But if the goal is to have the reader truly comprehend quantitative data, a graph is a more effective way to communicate.

Social studies classes are not the only ones where visual literacy matters, however. For the reading teacher who introduces a story set in Thailand or some other place, it is important to show students where the country is on a map. The location and the culture created by the country's geography truly 'set' the story.

Visual images have huge potential for teachers of young children and English Language Learners. The young child can often read visuals before they have the vocabulary or fluency to read complex words. And for ESL and ELL students, the visuals are a kind of universal language that brings meaning and comprehension to an otherwise nearly incomprehensible world of words.

Photographs, maps and graphs are not just tools for the reader, however. Students must be taught and encouraged to use informational visuals to enhance their own writing. They need to realize as they compose their words in writing and speaking, they must also learn the techniques of composing images, and be able to determine which kind of visual image best communicates the information that needs to be shared.

Teachers can help students develop and refine their skills of 'learning to see' and 'seeing to learn', as they teach them how to read, interpret, and create visual images. Visual images are key elements that inform and engage the reader. The beauty and power of learning comes from the synergy that is created when text and visual images work in tandem, to communicate to learners of all ages.

Dr. Donna L. Knoell is an educational consultant and author who works with schools and school districts to improve instructional programs. Dr. Knoell is a former classroom teacher and has also taught at the university level. She lives in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.

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