Building Visual Literacy Skills

By Carme Escorcia, Media Literacy teacher

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with thousands of images, from our social media feeds or binge-watching on Netflix. In this scenario, it is fundamental to help our students develop critical thinking skills, by formulating the right questions when decoding and constructing images and multi-media messages.

This is why we decided to introduce the Media Literacy and Visual Semiotics subject in Year 7.  The core concepts we wanted to work on with our students were the following:

  1. Authorship: All media messages are constructed
  2. Format: All media images and messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
  3. Audience: Different people experience the same media message from a diverse perspective
  4. Content (message): Media has embedded values and points of view.
  5. Purpose (or motive): Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power. 

Our first intention was to explore these concepts as we learned to decode and interpret visual messages, but very soon we realized that it was also essential to encourage the students to create their own visual representations.

Knowing how to decode and interpret an image would help us become aware of our own productions. Therefore, we used Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) in both phases: decodification and creation. Our final goal was to help our students build visual literacy skills.

At the heart of it, there is always the principle of inquiry.  This is why,  following the IB MYP method, the statement for our research was: “Visual communication includes subtext, connotations, and meanings that require interpretation by the audience”. After exploring the meaning of signs, underlying the difference between denotation and connotation, the students began to grasp that there is always a subtext underneath or behind what we first see.

This poster was used in one of the activities to understand signs (indexes in this case):

Linked to the above mentioned five concepts, we started by analyzing images, campaigns and propaganda to encourage a critical interpretation of visual communication. We used the following questions:

During the process of learning how to interpret visual messages, we tried not to tell the students what the message was. We focused on developing skills to help them find their own interpretation yet, always backing up their conclusions with evidence on what they saw. The following is an open interpretation by two students who looked for advertising campaigns that support diversity:

Developing skills to decode and interpret visual messages was not the only goal. This was just the beginning. After mastering it, we started exploring our production skills. We used different tools, programmes and devices, in order to create our own messages: a logotype, a billboard, propaganda, a marketing campaign, or a personal branding account for Instagram focusing on the students’ hobbies and passions.

In this case, the fundamental questions were:

One of the students’ creations:

As the unit of inquiry progressed, the students became more aware of the different layers of meaning that any visual communication might have. Subtext and connotation can intentionally hide meanings that try to convince, seduce or manipulate us.

In a world in which we can be exposed to deepfake images, visual/media literacy skills are fundamental. This is why my colleagues in Foundation Years are already introducing visual thinking strategies in their classes, through activities such as I see, I think, I wonder, or simple questions linked to the core concepts we work on later in Year 7*.

References

Donaghy, Kieran (2020). Slowing down and being more deliberate. Retrieved from https://www.eltimagemakers.com/news/tag/Kieran+Donaghy

Thoman, Elizabeth and Jolls, Tessa (2008). Literacy for the 21st Century. An overview of & Orientation Guide To Media Literacy.  Education. Part I: Theory CML MediaLit Kit™. A Framework for Learning and Teaching in a Media Age. Published by Center for Media Literacy. Retrieved from  https://www.medialit.org/sites/default/files/01a_mlkorientation_rev2_0.pdf

Learning Visual Thinking Strategies. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-YVvNiAm6Q