A Sample from My new Book: Reading the Visual

Visual Literacy
            Because the centuries old domination of written language texts is being challenged by the rise in importance of the visual image, a focus on visual literacy has come to the fore in literacy research and instruction. Mitchell (1994) has described a pictorial turn, a complexly related transformation occurring across fields of inquiry, asserting visual images are not fully explicable based on linguistic models of written language. His pictorial turn established the fields of visual culture and visual studies as legitimate academic disciplines concerned with multimodality and other hybrid forms of communication.
            Avgerinou (2009) labels the pervasiveness of visual images in the mass media as the Bain d’Images Era, or era of the image bath, referring to the inundation of visual images in contemporary environments. She warns, however, that constantly being confronted by visual images does not necessarily lead to a, “conscious recognition of this phenomenon” (Avgerinou, 2009, p. 28). The proliferation of visual images does not guarantee that students are paying any more attention to their visual environments, nor does it suggest that their ability to navigate, interpret or analyze images are increasing to meet the demands of contemporary society.
As an additional caveat, Avgerinou (2009) warns about, “living by the erroneous assumption that what has long been known as ‘print culture’ still rules the domains of human thought, attitude, and emotion, and still dictates the form of their expression” (p. 28). Continuing to view the world through linguistic and print-based sensibilities limits one’s experiences and narrows the forms of expression and interpretation available in today’s expanding visual culture. Visual literacy is complex, multidimensional, and defined across a range of cognitive and aesthetic dimensions.
Although theorists and educators working in the fields of visual studies have found it difficult and problematic to find consensus in defining visual literacy, it is important to present a brief history of the term visual literacy posited thus far, in order to elucidate the tensions in this ongoing endeavor. John Debes, who worked for Eastman Kodak and published a newsletter entitled Visuals are a Language, coined the term visual literacy, referring to the strategies and skills one needs to make sense of visual images (Debes, 1968). Fransecky and Debes (1972), in their initial attempts to define visual literacy state visual literacy is, “the group of vision competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning” (p. 7). These vision competencies were seen as individually developed, cognitive abilities that were used for understanding visual images regardless of the contexts of production, reception, and dissemination. These early definitions of visual literacy included the ability to decode, interpret, create, question, challenge, and evaluate texts that communicate with visual images as well as words, and the ability to use images in a creative and appropriate form to express particular meanings.
Theorists working to expand the definition of visual literacy beyond cognitive perspectives, combined psychological theories of perception with the socio-cultural aspects of visual design and social semiotics (Chauvin, 2003). More contemporary definitions have suggested visual literacy should be reconceptualized as a set of acquired competencies for producing, designing and interpreting visual images and messages addressing the various contexts in which images are viewed and the production and distribution of images. Selected definitions of visual literacy from recent decades are presented in Figure 2.1.
Figure 2.1: Definitions of Visual Literacy
·      Visual literacy includes a group of skills enabling an individual to understand and use visual images for intentionally communicating with others (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978).
·      Visual literacy is the gaining of knowledge and experience about the workings of the visual media coupled with a heightened conscious awareness of those workings (Messaris, 1994).
·      Visual literacy refers to a group of largely acquired abilities, that is, the abilities to understand (read), and to use (write) images, as well as to think and learn in terms of images. (Avgerinou, 2009)
·      Visual literacy involves developing the set of skills needed to be able to interpret the content of visual images, examine social impact of those images and to discuss purpose, audience and ownership. It includes the ability to visualize internally, communicate visually, and read and interpret visual images. Visual literacy also involves making judgments of the accuracy, validity and worth of images. A visually literate person is able to discriminate and make sense of visual objects and images; create visuals; comprehend and appreciate the visuals created by others; and visualize objects in their mind’s eye. To be an effective communicator in today’s world, a person needs to be able to interpret, create and select images to convey a range of meanings (Adobe Systems White Paper, 2003).
Avgerinou and Pettersson (2011), through a review of relevant research and theorizing towards a consensus definition of visual literacy, suggest a composite theory of visual literacy needs to be comprised of the following five conceptual components: 1) visual perception, 2) visual language, 3) visual learning, 4) visual thinking, and 5) visual communication. In addition, Avgerinou (2009) identified points of convergence among theorists attempting to define visual literacy (p.29). An abbreviated version of these characteristics are presented in Figure 2.2
Figure 2.2: Defining Visual Literacy - Points of Convergence
·      Visual literacy is a cognitive ability, but also draws on the affective domain
·      Visual literacy is described as an ability, skill and competency
·      Visual literacy includes the ability to write (encode) and read (decode) visual communication
·      Visual literacy skills are learnable and teachable
·      Visual literacy skills are not isolated from other sensory skills
·      Visual literacy incorporates theories from a variety of fields of inquiry

Although early definitions of visual literacy often focus on individual cognitive abilities, visual literacy is being reconceptualized as a social practice as much as an individual, cognitively-based ability or set of competences. Sturken and Cartwright (2001) assert, “meanings are produced not in the heads of the viewers so much as through a process of negotiation among individuals within a particular culture, and between individuals and the artifacts, images, and texts created by themselves and others” (p.4). Definitions of visual literacy, therefore, should focus not only on an individual’s perceptual and cognitive abilities, they should include how visual images function in broader sociocultural contexts, and how practices of looking inform our lives and identities (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001).
As we begin to incorporate written language, design features and visual images into multimodal ensembles, our working definition of visual literacy needs to expand to accommodate new social and cognitive practices for making sense of these ensembles. In attempting to bridge this theoretical terrain, my working definition of visual literacy is as follows: Visual literacy is the process of generating meanings in transaction with multimodal ensembles, including written text, visual images and design elements, from a variety of perspectives to meet the requirements of particular social contexts.
I know that is quite a bit to consider. However, a couple of terms and concepts require further explanation before we proceed. First, being visually literate is a social and cognitive process, not simply a discrete set of skills that are accumulated by individuals to apply as needed. The ability to act in a visually literate manner changes over time and context, and requires people to be able to flexibly enact a set of social practices to make sense of the images and multimodal ensembles they encounter. Second, visual literacy is about the process of generating interpretations from the meaning potentials available when transacting with visual images and multimodal ensembles. It is an on-going process, not a static set of discrete skills. Third, being visually literate requires the ability to work across a variety of modes, including photography, painting, sculpture, diagrams, and film, not just written language. In addition, my definition suggests readers need to consider multimodal ensembles and visual images from a variety of theoretical perspectives, for example feminist, critical, socio-cultural, political, historical, and aesthetic perspectives. Finally, it assumes that the immediate sociocultural contexts in which images are produced and disseminated play a central role in the meanings constructed and shared. In other words, being visually literate is about being able to make sense of the images and multimodal ensembles encountered in various settings using a variety of lenses to interpret and analyze their meaning potentials.
            In a further attempt to expand the definition of visual literacy, Rose (2001) proposed a critical visual methodology, informed by critical theories and cultural studies that is founded on, “an approach that thinks about the visual in terms of the cultural significance, social practices and power relations in which it is embedded; and that means thinking about the power relations that produce, are articulated through, and can be challenged by, ways of seeing and imaging” (p. 3). In moving towards a critical visual methodology, Rose (2001) suggests we take images seriously, think about the social conditions and effects of visual objects, and consider our own way of looking at images.
            Visual discourse analysis, proposed by Albers (2007) combines aspects of discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1995), social semiotics (Hodge & Kress, 1988), and the grammar of visual design (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996) to analyze the structures and conventions within visual texts, and how social identities get played out in their production. This approach conceptualizes the visual text as a communicative event that acts as a force on viewers to encourage particular actions or beliefs (Albers 2007).
These visual methodologies bring social contexts, producers and viewers’ identities, and critical perspectives to bear on multimodal texts and visual images. In later chapters, I will bring together various visual methodologies and theoretical perspectives when presenting an analytical framework that blends cognitive perspectives with structural, social, and ideological dimensions for interpreting visual images and multimodal ensembles (Serafini, 2011). It is my tripartite analytical framework that will serve as the basis for the curricular and pedagogical applications offered in later sections of this book.


  1. Doctor Serafini, How do we teach students to discern and expose fakery through rapid and clean editing as in Breitbart videos?

  2. Frank, I've just finished two workshops with SC english teachers (at their annual conference) on the importance of "close reading" of images, ads and moving images. I hope already know about my web site with vast resources: The Media Literacy Clearinghouse:


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