Friday, October 13, 2017

Visual Literacy

Luis Francisco Dantas
(Final assignment for the course Writing for Teachers)

According to Kress & van Leeuwen (2006), expressing something verbally or visually makes a difference. Thus, in an era of multiliteracies, teaching ELLs how to read, interpret, analyze and synthesize information via visual input is imperative. Individuals use a variety of means in order to communicate.  This way, skills in the realm of visual literacy have proven to be essential.  In modern times, they may tend to be a matter of survival, especially in the workplace and academic environments. This is not different in the field of language learning.

Despite all the appeal means of communication dispense to imagery and visual design, EFL/ESL students still need to be aware that images, written language, and speech are realized differently. More and more, visual literacy is seen as an essential part of instruction for multimodal learning. Like linguistic structures, visual structures point to particular interpretations of experience and to forms of social interactions (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006, p. 2).

It is also essential to analyze visual literacy from a neuroscientific perspective. According to Zull (2002), our brain is a "seeing" brain, so educators need to understand the power of visually-rich classes to facilitate learning through concrete examples that rely on the many different sources of imagery.

Along more than twenty years in the field of teaching English as a foreign language, I could notice that the ability to read images was something my students seemed to benefit a lot from. But where to start? How to introduce this kind of teaching into our pedagogy? Would the syllabus and the tight schedules allow me to introduce these notions into our teaching programs? I must confess these were my biggest worries at the time I started teaching English through art and visuals, along with regular course books and handouts. Confessions apart, I admit it was a tough decision, but at the same time, I must say it was also the best I have ever taken in my career. At the beginning it was mostly an attempt to explore the world of culture and the beauty of visual arts. Eventually, it became a desire to show my students that a language is much more than its written or spoken expression.

Through the use of art in the classroom, learners are taught that by reading images, they can explore different kinds of messages and their meanings. Moreover, in many occasions, pupils are free to create their own narratives regarding what they see and explore their knowledge of the world and creativity in meaningful tasks. They are encouraged to understand that art pieces are also seen as texts to be analyzed and understood.

Teaching through visuals is deeply rooted in the idea that images are also seen as complex visual signs (SANTAELLA, 2012), whose elements are initially perceived simultaneously, but that need a gradual and more detailed analysis in order to have their meanings unveiled. According to Santaella (2012), images are cognitive elaborations that need to be interpreted and read. Taking this notion of text into account, I have been working with a variety of images and exposing my students to pieces of work encompassing different fields of the arts.

We have experienced classes with the livelihood of Kandisnky’s shapes, traveled through the surrealism and dreams of Salvador Dali, the mystery of Da Vinci’s Monalisa, the appeal of Picasso’s Guernica and the piercing colors of Frida. Above all, we have done all this promoting the use of English as our main means of communication. Throughout the years I can also notice how much we can do for our students in order to make them widen their horizons in the sense of acquiring general culture, as well as expressing their own feelings and impressions more openly and confidently using the lens of art. I have also seen children shifting from boredom to impulses of joy and creativity while exposed to pieces of art such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night, being also able to create their own representation of it and share this experience with their peers.

One of the theoretical constructs in which this teaching approach is based has to do with the concept of multimodality. According to Iedema (2003), this term was introduced aiming at reaffirming the importance of taking into account the semiotic modes that go beyond written language, such as imagery, music, gestures, among others. This way, images contain a series of aspects which can be perfectly explored in a language class and that will make students learn more effectively and experience meaningful communicative situations. This has been true in all the classes in which I proposed the study of imagetic representations. Students are able to explore the colors, the various characters in the paintings, the perspective and different angles chosen by the artists to tell their stories through art works.

The concept of ressemiotization, which consists of the transference of the works of art from their original context, such as art galleries or museums, and  their consequent adaptation to teaching environments, has made the process of teaching and learning English as a foreign language more colorful, more meaningful and, consequently, more effective in terms of learning results.


Iedema, Rick. Multimodality, resemiotization: Extending the analysis of discourse as multi-semiotic practice. Visual communication, 2003

Kress, G, & Van Leeuwen, T. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge, 2006

Santaella, L. Leitura de imagem. São Paulo: Melhoramentos, 2012

Zull, James E. The art of changing the brain enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology. Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC ,2002.