Visual Literacy: Understanding the World Through Imagery

While extensive and explicit use of text types and writing in the art room is limited, visual culture pervades much of what is taught.  I find that, as a PYP art teacher, I may not be focused on formal literacy as much as the classroom teacher is, however, there is a “visual literacy” that is taught and overlaps with much of what “academic literacies” cover in a traditional classroom.

Empowering students with the tools to decipher the images and “learning to see” in their daily lives can allow them to express and communicate in much of the same ways that writing can…and it transcends language barriers.  In a time where Instagram, Facebook, and SnapChat are a common form of communication for our youth (and adults), embedding visual literacy into our schools is a necessity for students to interpret and make sense of the world around them.  Increasingly, the modes of formal and informal information gathering for our students is visual.  Here are a few resources that I’ve used to promote a visual literacy in the art room and are quite applicable to classrooms of all subjects, ages, and language levels.

  1. Using photos to build vocabulary, take on new perspectives, or tell stories.  This article shows practical ways to do all of the above using photography in the classroom.
  2. Analyzing and interpreting visual images using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is something we can all do on some level in our classrooms.  This is especially pertinent to using VTS with Common Core.
  3. Art criticism activities can be translated through the lens of any subject matter that has images to describe, analyze, interpret or evaluate.
  4. Using visual literacy techniques to navigate advertisements and propaganda.
  5. Another blog post that explains the value in teaching visual literacy.

TA Language Development as a Tool for Student Success


As I was reading articles about speaking and writing development and trying to visualize where and how this happens in the art room, most of the examples that popped into my head first were of my Teaching Assistant (TA).  I began to think about how her language development has changed over the past 3.5 years we’ve worked together and how it affects the children’s art experience and language acquisition.

Some examples that entered my thoughts:

  • Since my TA does a lot of one-on-one work with students, she needs to be aware of what we’re learning and doing each lesson.  Before a lesson, she’ll ask questions about what we’re doing.  Often, art specific vocabulary comes into the conversation (symmetry, body of work, armature, etc) as well as PYP terminology (function, perspective, inquiry, creative cycle, etc) that she is curious about or needs more clarifying/context in order to help students.  Too often, I assume that she knows some of the key vocabulary I’m using and if I don’t take the time to ask her questions and check for understanding, the vocabulary and concepts I’m teaching can easily become more confusing for students later on.
  • Often, my TA and I communicate tasks in the form of a written log that can be referred to throughout the week.  I noticed firsthand how much of a gap there can be between writing and speaking in this instance.  Often, I cannot think of the words to write and explain a task in a clear and simple way, or I realize that the description words I am using may be confusing without visual cues.  I find myself drawing pictures of certain tasks or just writing “see me when you get to this one” so that communication is more clear or so I can physically show examples.  It’s helped me to rethink the way I speak, write, and present information for non-native English speaking students on a daily basis.
  • Typically, it is me who leads demonstrations with art materials and techniques in the art room.  However, this year, I have asked my TA on several occasions to lead small and large group demonstrations for students.  Each time this occurs, I find her more engaged, asking more questions, and exuding more confidence in the art room.  I can see how the same sense of responsibility leads to student language and art progress.  I need to make these types of formal talks and giving presentations a bigger focus for moving students and my TA along the mode continuum of spoken to written language.
  • Attitude is everything.  My teaching assistant is a motivated and curious person which aides tremendously with our communication.  She asks questions when something is not clear, wants to know more about new words/concepts in our curriculum, and is not afraid to tell me when something doesn’t make sense and could be changed for better meaning (which is a tremendous help because if she can’t understand something, the students surely won’t either).  I like to think that I encourage that same attitude in my students to support their language development.  When she models these traits in front of students, it can only lead to their growth as learners.

Reflecting on this relationship helps me to reflect on similar relationships with my students.  My TA’s proficiency in understanding the meaning in all art lessons directly effects students.  Also, what I learn from her language acquisition helps me to better understand and differentiate for my students.  This knowledge leads me to want to explore the question,”What else can I be doing to assist my TA in language acquisition that will have a direct impact on students’ use of language in the art room?”