Visual Literacy with English Learners

by Valentina Gonzalez

When you look at a piece of art or a photograph, what happens in your mind? Images like these often tell a story. There’s a message, the main idea, and the details. How do we decipher one from the other? What do we infer? How do we interpret imagery? The truth is, our own personal lived experiences and background knowledge come together as we meet an image, forming an idea and creating an interpretation. It’s at this intersection that we synthesize.

What Is Visual Literacy?

The term “visual literacy” was first coined in 1969 by Jack Debes, founder of the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA). But is visual literacy itself a new concept? Think about cave paintings that date back over 30,000 years. They, too, communicate through visuals. The visual literacy definition continues to evolve as the world around it does. The IVLA currently uses this definition:

Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture. (Visual Literacy Standards Task Force, ACRL, 2011) 

Why Is Visual Literacy Important?

We live in a visual world. It has become increasingly more visual with the invention of the internet, tablets, and smartphones. Being able to interpret visuals and use them as a way to communicate messages to viewers is critical. Pictorial representations are common in all content areas. Visuals surround us in daily life, making it essential for students to understand their uses and incorporate them into their work. 

Even more importantly, visual literacy provides an accessible platform for critical thinking. Images carry meaningful messages that we can leverage to help students communicate their thoughts and ideas with one another. We can use images to guide powerful peer-to-peer conversations that push students’ thinking, language development, and concept attainment. 

Take a moment to reflect on your day-to-day routines. Think about the visuals that surround your daily life (advertising, infographics, texting, television, social media, street signs, communication, aesthetics, etc.). Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Are visuals used? 
  • How much are they used? 
  • When and why are they used? 
  • What message(s) does the creator want to convey? 

How Does Visual Literacy Fit into EL Instruction?

Visuals enhance learning, memory, and comprehension. Studies on the impact of pictures on memory have shown that pictures are superior to words alone. The theory is called the pictorial superiority effect. Many teachers of English learners (ELs)already use images, pictures, and multimedia to help ELs comprehend challenging English curriculum. We can use the opportunity to increase student engagement and critical thinking, to probe and ask for evidence. In Mastering Vocabulary with Visuals, Dr. Fleenor describes how visuals can support vocabulary development. 

Many state standards include students’ abilities to read, analyze, and deconstruct visual images. For example, one of the Common Core third grade reading standards asks students to “explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting).”

In this video for Edutopia, director and actor Martin Scorsese shares the importance of visual literacy and why we should teach it in our classrooms. 

Here are three practical ideas for using visual literacy with ELs: 

Word Clouds

Create Word Clouds as warmups to a lesson or at the end of a lesson or unit. After creating a Word Cloud as a class, analyze it using the questions and sentence stems below. Here’s an example of how that might look and sound. 

  • What do you see? The word ___ is larger/smaller than all of the other words.
  • What do you think? I think a lot of people agree that…
  • What makes you think that? I think the word ___is larger/smaller than all of the other words because…
  • What surprises you? I’m surprised that…because…


Post a distorted map or cartogram of your community, the world, or your state, and start a discussion. 

Image from

  • What do you see? I see a map of …
  • What do you think? I think the map is showing a representation of…
  • What makes you think that? I know that ____, ____, and ____ all…
  • What surprises you? It surprises me that ____ is…


Have students take visual notes/sketchnotes while reading, viewing a video, or listening to a lecture. Then pair them up and have them talk with partners about the notes they made. 

Skectchnote by Valentina taken at Adrian Mendoza’s Sheltered Instruction in Math Training

  • What do you see? I see images of…
  • What do you think? I think the main idea is…
  • What makes you think that? The words ___ stick out big and are repeated in …
  • What surprises you? I’m surprised by the quote…

Picture Books

Take a picture book with illustrations and one with actual photographs on the same topic that you’ve previously read as a class. Open each book to a page with an image. Use them to discuss the author’s purpose and message.

Eg. Diary of Spider by Doreen Cronin and Spiders by Seymour Simon

  • What do you see? In the ___ book, I see…
  • What do you think? The drawn illustrations make me think…but the real photographs…
  • What makes you think that? I think the illustrator/photographer wants to make viewers believe that…
  • What surprises you? I’m surprised that…

It’s easy to see that visual literacy promotes higher-order thinking skills and language development through a low-stress entry point. I remember first hearing about visual literacy as a teacher. It seemed like such a vague concept, and I really couldn’t wrap my brain around how it fit into the curriculum in my classroom. As our team planned, we tried to understand why it was important. It took a while to see that visual literacy is more than taking pictures at face value. Visual literacy is about critical thinking and seeing the world through multiple perspectives. 

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