Weekly Teaching Note
Oct 04 2010
Visual Literacy: What do you see?
Visual imagery can be used in many disciplines not only to increase students’ content knowledge, but also to build their visual and media literacy skills.
The term “Visual Literacy” was first coined in 1969 by John Debes, who offered the following definition: “Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences.”   In his 1997 article “Thoughts on Visual Literacy,” Philip Yenawine describes visual literacy as “the ability to find meaning in imagery” involving “simple identification (naming what one sees) to complex interpretation on contextual, metaphoric and philosophical levels.”

Strategies for Analyzing Visual Images: questions for your students

1.     Examine the image holistically
        What does it represent? What is your initial reaction? Does it convey a message?
2.     Consider the nature of the image
        Is this a professional portrait or a candid press shot? 
        Was this video taken at a prepared ceremony or a spontaneous event?
        Were people, images, or objects deliberately posed to make a statement?
3.     Examine perspective
        Is the subject depicted n close-up or at a distance?
        Does the subject appear in control of the environment or does the background clash or dominate the frame?
4.     Analyze contrasts and contexts
        Is the background supportive, neutral, or hostile to the subject?
        Does the image depict conflict or harmony?
5.     Examine poses and body language of human figures
        How are human figures depicted? What emotion do they seem to express?
6.     Look for bias
        Do you sense the photographers were trying to manipulate the people or events depicted, casting them in either a favorable or negative light?
7.     Consider the larger context
        Does the image offer a fair representation of a larger event or an isolated exception?
8.     Review the image for possible manipulation
        Could camera angles or retouching have altered what appears to be a record of actual events?
9.     Consider the story the image seems to tell
        What is the thesis of this image? What visual details or symbols help tell the story?
Source:  http://www.frankwbaker.com/doc_vislit.htm  (accessed October 4, 2010)

General Strategies for Using Video

  1. Preview the entire video to judge appropriateness and length and to create in-class and homework assignments.
  2. Discuss the film in advance of the students’ viewing it; explain your rationale for viewing it and the connections to your learning objectives.
  3. Provide guiding questions.
  4. Pair the video with a reading assignment.
  5. Stop the video and conduct a short discussion or ask for predictions of outcomes.
  6. Conduct a follow-up discussion or activity: hold class or group discussion, assign and share a writing activity, ask students to create their own video as a response using their cell phones and cameras.          


  • Critical Reading, “The Sundance Reader” (4th Ed, 2006) Mark Connelly, Thomson/Wadsworth. Chapter 3, page 50.
  • Davis, Barbara. Tools for Teaching. 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.
  • What is Visual Literacy? International Visual Literacy Association. http://www.ivla.org/org_what_vis_lit.htm (accessed October 4, 2010)
  • Yenawine, P. (1997) Thoughts on visual literacy, in J Flood, SB Heath, and D Lapp (Eds) Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts.
To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.
Taimi Olsen, Ph. D.
Assistant Director, Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
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