A visual literacy unit for students in years 7 and 8
A Visual Literacy Unit for Students in Years 7 and 8
We live in a world where visual images are becoming increasing important as most
information is presented as a combination of words and images. It is essential that
students not only have the capacity to derive literal meaning from these texts but also to
develop an understanding of how the texts are produced. Students should learn to
critically analyse the visual texts and the socio-cultural contexts surrounding the
information. The unit I have developed looks at the teaching of skills in visual literacy
through students exploring visual texts and the context in which they occur, through
teaching the codes, conventions and structures of various visual genres and through
students constructing their own visual texts. I use a series of frameworks for reading
visual texts. I move from considering photographs, to comics, to picture books,
television advertising to films.
Reading and Viewing form a single Strand of the English profile because visual texts,
like written texts, involve the use of language to make meaning. Many of the skills and
understandings relevant to the study of written and visual language are the same.
Contextual understandings relevant to the study of both written and visual texts:
Texts can be based on either fact or fiction
Texts are produced for specific purposes and audiences
The use of language depends on shared cultural understandings
Representations of social groups are often based on stereotyping
The meaning of a text is limited by the context in which it is read or viewed
A text may have different meanings for different people
Texts are influenced by the cultural background of their producers.
Linguistic structures and features common to both written and visual texts:
Narrative point of view
Sequence in plot and sub-plot
Narrative structures such as exposition and resolution
Expository structures such as introduction and conclusion
Codes e.g. symbolic, technical and written.
Strategies used in the interpretation of both written and visual texts:
Using the title to establish expectations
Drawing on personal experience or knowledge of a topic to predict events and
Using knowledge of the structure of text types to predict events or information
Predicting plot development based on cause-and effect relationships
Making connections between illustrations or images and written text
Self-correcting earlier predictions or interpretations on the basis of more
experience of the text
Using knowledge of narrative structures to predict the likely endings
Adjusting strategies for different texts and different purposes
Drawing on experiences of objects, clothing, gestures and expressions to
Scanning for information
Making predictions about plot based on setting and character types
Reflecting on the manipulation of chronological order in narratives
Identifying the purpose of a text and using this to guide interpretive strategies.
Discuss with students how they gain pleasure from a variety of visual and audio-visual
texts. Work in cooperative groups to brainstorm the range of texts, e.g., films, comics,
advertisements, videos, magazines, television programs, paintings etc.
Introduce the idea that we interpret what we see, that each text is on a version of
reality. Use the Reading a Photograph or Picture format to demonstrate to students
how they can "read" pictures or photographs.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND PICTURES
Reading a Photograph or a Picture
How do we read Photographs and Pictures?
1. Objects - shapes and figures which could be people, animals, places or objects.
Some objects have been associated with certain emotions and feelings. An object
can be used as a shortcut in a message but relies on the understanding of the
symbol by the audience e.g. a lion is an animal but can also be used to symbolise
bravery. Knowledge of the parts of a photograph (foreground, mid-ground and
background) helps in the identification of specific objects, especially in a crowded
2. Size of the object of interest. Important objects are usually large and located in
the foreground while small objects that are in the background are considered less
3. Settings have symbolic significance and influence our response to a photograph-
dry, country settings denote ruggedness and hardship while soft, green, rural
settings suggest tranquillity.
4. Colour - White denotes innocence and black denotes death in some cultures.
Hindu people mourn in white and marry in red. Colour often represents the
stereotypes for maleness and femininity in popular culture- soft, pastel colours
are associated with feminine stereotypes while dark primary or metallic colours
are seen as masculine by some groups.
5. Position of objects, shapes and figures in photographs gives meaning e.g.
centre, left, right, bottom, top, foreground, mid-ground, background and whether
the objects are close together or far apart.
6. Direction In what direction are the objects, figures, people, animal etc facing? Is
it at the camera, past the camera or at a person or object in the photograph?
7. Angle Where has the photographer placed us in the photo? A high angle shows
dominance by the object that we are viewing while a low angle or us looking
down on the object shows submission by the object being viewed. Equality is
shown through the representation of an eye level point of view.
8. Light Different lighting effects or colours can provide meaning e.g. soft, yellow
light or back lighting creates a halo effect and can suggest innocence.
Overexposed lighting suggests heat while underexposed light suggests coolness
or an enclosed feeling. Settings can be confirmed through time of day clues
provided through the representation of light.
9. Body Language - posture, gesture and facial expression all tell about the way
that we are feeling and thinking. Animals are often portrayed with body language
to develop humour.
10. Clothing reflects or our personality and can also be a symbol of period, culture
(Adapted from: Quin, R., McMahon, B., Quin, R., 1996, Using Visual Texts in
Primary and Secondary English Classrooms, Department of Education,
1. Use the Reading a Photograph or Picture framework to direct a class discussion of
the story told by the two photographs below. Ask the students to write their stories
about the photos to include:
a description of what they see, to include both the subjects and the setting
a description of the era in which the photo was taken as represented by the
subjects, their positions and their clothing. For example, the fur cape
what may have happened just before and just after the photo was taken
what may be happening just outside the frame of the photo
the emotions portrayed in the photo e.g. the smiling faces
their cultural values and assumptions underlying the photo e.g. the role of
marriage, the marriage rituals involving the family, the clothing and the
the audience, both short and long term
2. Students choose three or four pictures that interest them from either newspapers or
magazines and write tell the stories of the pictures to the class.
3. Photocopy the frame below in a number of different sizes and with a selection of
pictures, show the students how the reader's interpretation of the image can change.
(This activity will link directly to an activity on picture books later in the unit.)
How do we read comics?
1. Panels Comics are made up of panels which give a snapshot of the most interesting
parts of the story. The reader must use her/his imagination to fill in the gaps in the
story. Panels come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The shape of the panel can help to
convey a meaning to the reader e.g.
panels to create a feeling of doom
words in the shape of a panel e.g. SMASH
characters bursting out of panels
star-shaped panels to sum up an explosive moment
thin panels for tension
a whole page panel for an exciting moment.
2. Camera Angles Comic artists use camera angles just as in a film, to give variety,
visual interest and to create atmosphere e.g.
wide shots give an overall view of the scene
close up shots create drama, tension and emotion
extreme close up shots increase tension
overhead shots show vulnerability.
3. Closure is what the reader imagines is happening between panels. Closure is used to
emphasise action and humour.
4. Words and Pictures sometimes say different things to give a new meaning or
subtext. Subtext is used to add depth to the story-it makes the reader think about what
the character is thinking and so to empathise with that character.
5. Symbols are simple pictures that mean something else and help to make it easy for
the reader to identify with aspects of the comic.
6. Comic Talk There are three ways in which comics talk:
word balloons are how the characters talk to each other
thought bubbles tell the reader what the characters are thinking
narration boxes tell the reader where we are and what is going on.
Comic characters have their own way of talking. The way that characters talk and
act gives them personality and makes them believable. The choice of words is
important to help the reader identify with character.
7. Mood Lighting, backgrounds and lines in a comic help to create mood and can be
used to cut out unnecessary dialogue
thick, wavy lines give a threatening mood
thin lines give a peaceful mood
darkness makes it scary
wild lines suggest weirdness.
8. Motion lines allow for the creation of movement. The more motion lines, the more
quickly things are moving.
9. Sound Effects drawn so that the words look the same as they sound.
10. Cliffhangers are used at the end of a page or the end of a comic to make the
reader want to find out what is going to happen
1. Introduce the framework on comics to the class. Make a series of posters with
examples of each aspect of a comic. Use the carousel method and mantle of the expert
or alternately conduct a scavenger hunt to reinforce knowledge of how to read comics.
1. Make cards from a selection of comics. Have students use the cards to illustrate:
low camera angle to create an important or strong person or animal
high camera angle to create a weak or unimportant subject
a picture made stronger by verticals
a picture made restful by horizontal lines
diagonal lines used to suggest excitement
colour chosen to add meaning.
Photocopy the following panels from a comic, cut up and distribute to the class. Ask the
students to work with a partner to sequence the panels. Share the different versions
with the class with students giving reasons for their particular sequencing of the panels.
2. Students are then to use their sequenced panels and by adding their ideas on camera
shots, lighting, sound effects and music to complete the storyboard in preparation for
making the comic into a cartoon. It may be possible to animate these panels by making
a simple zeostrope.
(See The Animation Book by Peter Viska)
INTRODUCING PICTURE BOOKS
Explain that the aim of this part of the unit is to investigate picture books to discover
what pictures can do and how the pictures, the words and a combination of the two
make the stories. Distribute a selection of picture books for the students to read and
A Picture Book Vocabulary
Discuss with the class picture books and what the students already know about them.
Use the following to structure discussion:
Cover What does the cover tell us? What predictions can we make about the
Endpapers How do the endpapers take you into the story? What information is
provided here? Do the endpapers set a mood for what is to follow?
Title Page Look at the font used and the illustration-How are you positioned as a
reader? How is your reading of the book directed?
Page Opening is used to describe the two facing pages in a picture book.
Size How does the size affect your response to the book? Does the size
encourage sharing or the private viewing of the book?
Format The picture book will be in a square, vertical or horizontal format. The
format affects the shape that the artist fills with pictures. How does the shape
affect what the artist can show?
Other aspects include: layout, plate, frame, vignette, bleeds, border and
montage. These might best be introduced using examples of art work.
1. Use the picture book, Zoom by Istvan Banyai to demonstrate to the class the effects
of framing. Explain that the book has no text and that you want the students to write the
story to go with the pictures. The audience for the book will be children of about 5 or 6.
Each page of the book is to have one sentence only and the vocabulary must suit the
audience. It may be useful to share a selection of picture books with the class and to
discuss the intended audiences. Show the class one page of Zoom at a time, allowing the
students enough time to write their sentence. Read the different versions of the text to
the class and discuss the reason for the differences. Here is a selection of the first four
pages of text from three students in year 8:
1. This is my picture.
2. It's just like my rooster's hair.
3. I like to look at my rooster.
4. He lives on our gate.
1. My spiky, red hair looks funny.
2. It looks like the top of a rooster's head.
3. We have a rooster in our garden
4. We could see the rooster through the window.
1. There was a red, rocky mountain.
2. The rooster lived on the mountains.
3. It liked to sit on Mummy's fence.
4. We live in Mummy's house.
2. The books, The Two Bullies and Phoenix by Junko Morimoto are excellent examples of
the use of visual images and techniques with a different cultural context. Read the book
to the class and discuss both the story (this is a great source for dealing with the issue
of bullying) and the images. It will be necessary to provide the cultural setting as well as
some background on Japanese art.
Japanese artists strive to achieve balance and unity through simplicity. Artists use
simple lines and colours in a subtle manner.
Junko's illustrations have been influenced by traditional Japanese paintings and
feature a black ink outline filled with subtle water colours. This is very similar to
the techniques used in modern comics.
Japanese art is often concerned with opposites e.g. big/small, angry/happy. Look
at how Junko exaggerated these opposites- Important people have been drawn
bigger than less important people and objects e.g. Ni-oi and the file.
Japanese artists also like to use different types of lines and are interested in the
beauty and rhythm of these lines. The energy of the painting is believed to travel
along the lines. Lines in a painting can show both space and a sense of
movement as well as give the reader an impression of mood. Look for examples
of the use of lines in The Two Bullies. Ask the students to draw their own picture
of a sea using only blue and green lines and to convey the different moods of the
sea by using lines.
Japanese art traditionally uses flat colour and pattern rather than shading. Colour
is often used symbolically e.g. white for death and mourning, yellow for royalty
and red for marriage. Have students make a chart of their own symbolic colour
o a special day such as your birthday or Christmas
o your home
o your pets
o your ambition in life
o your worst dream
Most Japanese art tells a story, often with the action continuing beyond the paper
(this is similar to closure in comics) Discuss how one page leads on to another in
The two Bullies or what part of the story has happened between two pages. Play
a game of Chinese Whispers in pictures. Use a long sheet of paper that is divided
into pages, one for each student in the class. The first student draws a picture on
the first page, the paper is then folded so that only part of the drawing is visible
to the second student etc. The sheet is then unfolded to reveal the continuous
The last two sections of the unit will be available early in 1999.
Department of Education, Queensland, Using Visual Texts in Primary and Secondary
Quin R, McMahon B and Quin R, Teaching Viewing and Visual Texts - Secondary
Travers D and Hancock J, Teaching Viewing: Ten Units of Learning with Visual Texts
South Australia, 1996
The Text Files: Comics (available from the Media Collection, Letitia House