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What is visual literacy and why is it important?

This week marks the start of the annual Big Draw Festival, a huge celebration of the universal language of drawing as a tool for learning, expression, and invention.

As such, and with the fact that it's also International School Libraries Month, we thought this week might be a good chance to explore visual literacy, which is increasingly important with each year that goes by.

What is Visual Literacy?

Visual literacy in its simplest terms is making meaning of the images (both still and moving) around us.

It's something very young children are incredibly good at - using the pictures in storybooks to help them to tell and understand a story is one of the first skills pre-readers need to pick up.

But why is its importance increasing - how is it useful as children grow older, and why do they need to learn it?

When do we use our visual literacy skills?

We are using our visual literacy skills all the time. Those of us who are drivers read symbols on road signs almost as second nature. Those of us with a tumble dryer have to learn the symbols on clothes to work out what we can tumble dry and what we can't! When watching TV and films, our brains are constantly processing and finding meaning in strings of images, both static and moving that come together to form a story. Playing a computer game involves processing visual images in a different way and then using our reaction skills to create movement within the images themselves!

Our children are subject to more visual media that we as parents ever were, especially in the digital age of media sources like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. More and more, young people are being asked not just to interpret and react to visual media, but to create it themselves.

As such, it's more and more important that we enable our young people to make clear-headed judgements about visual media and how they choose to interpret and take part in it.

How can we teach visual literacy skills?

  • Ask children what they can see - describing static and moving images is probably the most basic way of interpreting them - think about colours, angles, signs and symbols, lighting and shapes.

  • Ask children how the images make them feel - this is a more sophisticated way of interpreting visuals, but even very young children will be able to look at, for example, a Van Gough painting and tell you that the bright colours make them feel happy, so it's never to early to start!

  • Add another layer of sophistication to the image by asking your child what meaning you think it is trying to convey. This requires them to consider not only their own reaction to the image, but also the fact that someone may have created it in order to provoke a reaction, which is a trickier concept to take on board.

  • This insight can help children to see more deeply into visual media and ask themselves if its purpose is to inform, manipulate, excite, amaze or something else - very important in the world of social media!

As ever, if you would like to know more, or feel that your child could use some extra assistance and confidence-building in this area, do get in touch at and find out how we can help!

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