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Teaching Visual Literacy



Visual Literacy: Do You See What I Mean?

"If students aren't taught the language of sound and images, shouldn't they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write?"
~ George Lucas, filmmaker

As educators explore new core competencies for 21st century learning, the importance of visual literacy is a reoccurring theme. How do we teach learners to interpret and create visual, digital, and audio media in a contemporary culture where media dominates, and how is visual literacy in education being redefined through technology? With those questions in mind, I began looking for resources that would help teachers uncover answers and integrate visual literacy into their classroom. It was no surprise that that the three resources that caught my eye most, came from the seat of our media-saturated society--- Hollywood movies!


"If one wants to reach younger people at an earlier age to shape their minds in a critical way, you really need to know how ideas and emotions are expressed visually"
~ Martin Scorsese, director and filmmaker

In Conversation with Martin Scorsese: The Importance of Visual Literacy, film director Martin Scorsese discusses the role of the director, writer, and cinematographer in influencing where we focus eyes our eyes when we watch a movie, and he suggests that that vocabulary is as valid to know as the vocabulary used in literature. Scorsese believes that we need to begin educating young students to shape their minds in a critical way, looking at images in a critical way and [learning] how to interpret these images." He emphasizes that educating students in visual literacy involves exploring how ideas and emotions are expressed in a visual form, the grammar (panning left and right, tracking in or out, booming up or down, close-up, medium shot, long shot), and the use of lighting to create an emotional and psychological point. He proposes that there is a desperate need for our youth to understand the good and bad use of film," which will in turn prepare students to be critical, well-informed viewers.

Scorsese's ideas about the importance of teaching visual literacy have found a home on the Story of Movies Web site. Here, an interdisciplinary curriculum for a middle school audience has been created to teach students how to read the visual language of film. Wondering how that would flesh out in your classroom? The George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF) provides an inspiring example from a sixth grade classroom at Peabody (California) Charter School in. In Reading Film: The Story of Movies, students analyze scenes from such film classics as To Kill a Mockingbird. Using the curriculum from the Story of Movies Web site, the class is introduced to the complexity of movie making and taught to look critically at film. Interdisciplinary lessons also can be found for such movies as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Other activities include

  • an investigation surrounding film piracy;
  • interpreting a short documentary; and
  • writing about history using moving images.

This curriculum can be ordered free of charge from the Story of Movies Web site. Also available is the useful teacher resource Beyond Read-the-Book, Watch-the-Movie.


A wise man once said that a picture is worth a hundred words. But when visual symbols are used in place of words to express an idea or to evoke a feeling or a mood within us, it is necessary for the viewer to understand the message."
~ S. Oring , 2000 from a Call for Visual Literacy

Another excellent site is the American Rhetoric, a web portal that provides 5000+ full text, audio, and video versions of public speeches, sermons, legal proceedings, lectures, debates, interviews, other recorded media events." The resources here can be used to spur students on discussion and thought, to introduce a specific historical perspective and to teach visual literacy skills. In addition to an abundance of famous speeches (in text and audio format), the section Movie Speeches contains links to clips from such memorable movie speeches as:

  • The Great Debaters (Wiley College vs. Harvard University)
  • Amistad (John Quincy Adams addresses the U.S. Supreme Court)
  • Abe Lincoln in Illinois (the Lincoln/Douglas debate)
  • Ali (Mohamed Ali Defends His Decision Not to Participate in Military Draft)
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (Paul Baumer Addresses Students on the Horrors of War)
  • Trial at Nuremberg (Judge Dan Haywood Delivers Decision of the Court)
  • Mr. Holland's Opus (Governor Gertrude Lang Honors Glenn Holland and His Opus)


Many teachers have enlisted the help of movies to explore historical events and famous stories in literature. The Teaching with Movies Web site sets out to connect teachers with resources that will help them connect movies with their curriculum and reveal to students the vast potential of the human spirit." Finding Inspiration in Movies is a movie curricula program that promotes literacy and provoke[s] thought and exploration of pertinent themes and issues, and inspire[s] participation in theme-based activities and service projects." Posted on this site are movie-specific resources for such literature-based movies as Freedom Writers, Charlottes Web, Bridge to Terabithia, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Becoming Jane.


About the Author

Brenda Dyck is a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching preservice teachers, Brenda is the moderator of MiddleTalk, a listserve sponsored by the National Middle School Association (NMSA). Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in NMSA's magazine, Middle Ground. Brenda also is a teacher-editor for MidLink magazine.

Author: Brenda Dyck
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Updated 2/23/2012