What is visual literacy?
As defined by Wikipedia: Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text . Visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be communicated through a process of reading.
So how do we go about teaching students to use observation to notice the details and nuances in illustrated stories? As we learn how to ask questions and to infer to deepen our understanding of stories, I also want my students take time, slow down and really focus on their observation skills with the illustrations in picture books.
What do we see when we look closely at an illustration vs. quickly flipping the page? I remind students that these books are picture books for a reason – the story is told through a partnership between author and illustrator. Both pictures and words are important – together they make the story whole.
Wordless books are great to practice these visual literacy skills with but I wanted to have students use these strategies with picture books with text. The trick? Cover the text! So armed with sticky notes, and some fantastic picture books, we began to practice paying close attention to the illustrations and asking questions, inferring and predicting based on what we noticed.
Note: What is described below is what took place over a series of lessons with my Grade 2 reading group
We started with two picture books that I shared with my reading group and I charted our observations and questions as we discussed what we saw. Then the students went through the same process working with a partner and writing their own questions/predictions/inferences. It is always so interesting to go back and read the text to see how close our predictions were and which questions got answered.
The first picture book we practiced with was The Cloud Spinner by Michael Catchpool, illustrated by Alison Jay. This book has so much going on in the pictures – we could have spent half the class just on the cover. Students wondered about the birds flying in all different directions. They wondered whether the boy was making clouds from his loom or making fabric/material from the clouds themselves. We noticed a castle in the background, birds flying in multiple directions, things looking one way but actually not what they initially seemed (for example the faces on the hillsides that are just objects temporarily grouped a specific way). Students had many questions and each wrote a prediction about the story before we sat down to read the book with both text and illustrations. Many of the children commented that we might have missed some details in the illustrations that were clues had we just read the text.
With this story, each student had their own notepads to list their questions as we explored the pictures and we stopped frequently to discuss what we thought might be happening with this story.
For those who don’t know this classic Anthony Browne tale, a quick summary: In this story, Hannah wants to see a real live gorilla at the zoo but her busy father never has time to take her there. He gives her a toy gorilla on the night before her birthday. Hannah is upset and disappointed. But in the middle of the night, Hannah and her “toy” gorilla have an amazing adventure.
Some of the students questions included:
- Does Hannah have a Mom?
- Did her Mom die?
- Does Hannah’s Dad have a job? Is he worried because he doesn’t have one?
- If he does have a job, does he work too much?
- Does her Dad never have time for her?
- Is the gorilla lonely too?
- Does the gorilla love Hannah?
- Does the gorilla have magic?
- Will the Dad freak out if he finds out Hannah is gone all night?
- Will the gorilla save all of the apes and monkeys at the zoo?
- Why does the gorilla seem sad?
- Is this just all a dream?
- Is it just in Hannah’s imagination?
- Why are they out dancing in the middle of the night?
- Did the Dad and Gorilla change places?
At the end, even when we read the story, we realized that the author does not tell us what is actually real. “Well,” one clever child observed, “if the author doesn’t tell us, we can choose. That’s the magic of books.” Again, students felt that we got so much more from the story by focussing first on the details in the pictures, asking questions and talking about what might be happening. Students loved listening to the story after this to see how close their idea of the story was to what actually happened.
Now we were ready to begin to go through this process with more independence! Working in partners, the students chose a picture book, markers, chart paper and scrap paper to cover the text and got to work exploring just the pictures and noting down their questions. These students used the book Woolbur by Leslie Helakoski and illustrated by Lee Harper.
Questions started out quite simple, but as the children began to have a sense of the story, they started asking more complex questions. the questions below are about the book Hurty Feelings by Helen Lester.
The story A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham inspired a lot of questions! There was so much in the details of what was happening inside and outside of this bus. The students who used this book read it two times through after exploring the illustrations.
I was impressed by how focussed the students were. All of them were engaged with their books, their partner and the discussions that they were having.
Snippets of conversations I heard as I circulated:
- “Quick! Cover the text!”
- “We have so many questions I can’t believe it.”
- “We know so much!”
- “We’re sure predicting so much stuff.”
- “Look really closely. You will notice more.”
- “I think I see better when I don’t get distracted by the words.”
- “I think this makes us smarter.”
Really . . . what more do you want to hear during a lesson?
As I share picture books in whole class lessons, I have noticed that students who are in my reading group are raising their hands to share details they notice in illustrations. This keen attention to detail has become contagious and the whole class has been paying more attention to pictures. We have to stop frequently to share with those around us what we notice and what we predict! I love all of the talking this has inspired!