Visual Culture

Focusing on Visual Literacy

By Jane B. Montero, posted on Dec 14, 2022

Think back to the last image you saw. Was it on social media, TV, a computer screen, your cell phone? Or was it in a museum, library, or on a billboard along the highway? Every time we blink, turn our heads, or get into a car, we are bombarded with visuals. From stoplights to bumper stickers, we have almost become immune to the intended effects of such images. Yet, visual literacy is a 21st century skill and part of the Common Core Standards. Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, recognize, appreciate, and understand information presented visually.

SchoolArts magazine, The Visual Culture Issue, January/February 2023, Focusing on Visual Literacy
Students take turns analyzing an artwork, locating an object of interest, and discussing possible meanings.

Promoting Visual Literacy
In a video for the Toledo Museum of Art (see Resources), museum educator Philip Yenawine stated, “What’s interesting is how the process of education has taken people away from the image towards text to such a degree that people forget how to use their eyes for the complex reasoning that’s possible.”

Knowing this, what can we do to promote visual literacy in our art rooms? Modeling the use of art vocabulary during classroom discussion can set the stage for deeper conversations. Tips adapted from the Terra Foundation for American Art (see Resources) include the following:

  • Model how to “read” an artwork by asking questions. What do you observe? Look at a key detail in the artwork. What do you see here? Why do you think the artist included these elements?
  • Include how to make inferences. What do you think the artist wanted to communicate? What do you see in the artwork that makes you say that? What feeling or mood do you get from this artwork?
  • Understand themes or central ideas. What do you think is the main idea of this artwork? When you learned the title of the artwork, how did you associate the words with what you see in front of you? How do the different elements in this work contribute to a central theme or idea?
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact. How does the placement of objects (people, shapes, etc.) within the work create feelings or communicate ideas? What are the key sections of the artwork? How do these sections interact with one another?

Developing Skills in Visual Literacy
Providing time for class discussions about artwork enriches the art experience and can help to develop students’ abilities to think critically about what they see and ultimately understand. In a video for the Toledo Museum of Art (see Resources), Allison Reid, deputy director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, stated, “In terms of visual literacy and critical thinking, images can be very powerful tools for communicating messages, and people need skills to be able to interpret those messages and have thoughtful responses.”

Developing art curriculum that includes visual literacy strategies is not difficult, but it does take time away from art-making. Since our schedules may not allow enough time for deep discussions about artwork, we need to rethink our teaching to provide opportunities for students to engage in thoughtful conversations that lead to greater visual literacy.

Jane B. Montero is an art teacher at Creekside Intermediate School in Dexter, Michigan.

Philip Yenawine, Toledo Museum of Art
Terra Foundation, Common Core Questions for Discussing Art
Allison Reid, Toledo Museum of Art

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