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Supporting Literacy Through the Visual Arts 1


Supporting Literacy through the Visual Arts:

Developing New Literacy Skills for the
21st Century Learner
Monica Moyano
Western Oregon University

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For 21st century students, visual images and social media are an integral part of their
language and learning medium. Students communicate and share knowledge through images,
symbols, video and interactive interpretation using a wide range of media from text messages to
snapchat, and video diaries on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to using the World Web as their
textbooks. Although we live in an exciting time of information technology, traditional structured
literacy programs often stifle students motivation to read and learn in an effort to hold on to the
lost art of reading. Visual art has the potential to invigorate and support literacy development for
todays students who are acculturated in a society that learns through the universal language of
images, symbols and icons. This literature review strives to answer the question how can the
imaged based literacy practices of the 21st century learner be integrated into classroom practices
to support critical literacy skills.
To understand how visual arts support critical literacy skills, the current use of visual
images in technology and social media should be analyzed to understand how students today are
using the medium for communication and learning. Prensky (2001) describes todays learners as
digital natives who process information differently and have new thinking patterns. Cramer
(2014) states that an arts-based literacy curriculum that integrates multiple way of knowing helps
students develop creative thinking skills and nourish the imagination. Sweet (1997) pointed out
the possible handicapping effect that a narrow definition of literacy can have on children with
varying competencies. Broadening the definition of literacy to include the representation of
visual and communicative arts can make school relevant across cultures and various
backgrounds. In researching the topic of using images as a cognitive and aesthetic approach for

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enhancing literacy skills, four distinctive themes became apparent. These themes include reading
images in multimodal text, the relationship between visual arts and literacy, thinking critically
about representation and meaning, and implementing arts-based strategies in the classroom. Each
theme discussed in this paper reflects a key component in understanding how the visual arts
support literacy skills for 21st century learners according to researchers to be of the highest
Reading is the process of forming a perception based on the imagery, form, and language
of the text, translated through the experience of the reader (Cramer, Ortlieb, & Cheek, 2007).
However, we read much more than just traditional printed text. We also read images. Students
today live in a visually rich multimedia world. They regularly encounter and create meaning and
knowledge through images and visual media. However, merely participating in a visual culture
does not prepare students to engage critically and effectively with images and visual media in an
academic environment. Students across all levels and disciplines are required to use and produce
images and visual media in their academic work and they must be prepared to do so (Hattwig,
Bussert, Medaille & Burgess, 2013). Visual literacy competencies should be developed in
conjunction with textual literacy skills. Cramer (2014) refers to this comprehensive method of
multimedia learning as the semiotic approach to learning.
Picture books are multimodal texts that have been a stable feature of elementary
classrooms for many years (Kress, 2003). By learning to read images in picture books, students
develop greater literacy comprehension skills. Picture books tell stories in both words and
images. Authors and illustrators frequently exploit the interaction, or synergy (ONeil, 2011), of

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the two media as a means for relaying a complex and meaningful story to young readers. Shelby
Wolf (2014) describes the intent of picture book authors and illustrators as:
They want to guide us in how to feel, and they use a number of pictorial elements
including size, color, shape and line as well as a varying media and artistic styles to
enhance the feeling. From the very first look at a book, you get a message about its
content. (p. 234)
This means that the image and text are completely fused. The visual elements and printed text
work as a singular unit to convey the entire story line. Illustrations are an important method for
conveying and developing meaning in picture books whether its the physical appearance of the
character and how they relate to the events unfolding in the story, an atmosphere to enhance the
story line or a discrepancy between the text and images that leads to an understanding of a larger
message. According to Serafini (2011) for several years, various reading educators and
researchers have recommended the use contemporary, complex and postmodern picture books
with adolescent readers (Sipe & Pantalelo, 2008) to help students develop visual literacy skills.
Anstey and Bull (2006) claimed that contemporary or postmodern picture books provide a bridge
from the text-based literacies of the traditional middle-high school classroom to the multilieracy
skills necessary for the future. Learners today are becoming more reliant on the internet using
multimodal texts to learn and communicate.
Harry Broudy (1987) suggested that the ability to decode the elements of an image is
central to the capacity to think. Broudy claimed that from a phenomenological epistemology,
the capacity to generate, analyze, and synthesize concepts requires cultivation of the imagination
as an instrument for learning (p. 278). This means that by learning to understand and analyze

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what you are looking at you are able to extract meaning to form new ideas and perspectives.
Educational researchers are in support of the arts as a catalyst for thinking and learning. Eisner
(2002) endorsed the arts in education as a means of enhancing imagination and creative thought:
We do indeed see in our minds eye (p. 4). Moreover, Eisner claims that the arts help us create
our lives by expanding our consciousness, shaping our dispositions, satisfying our quest for
meaning, establishing contact with others, and sharing a culture (p. 4). Research shows that for
children of all ages, examining and understanding how art and text interact contributes to the
readers ability to visualize while they read which is essential to being a proficient reader.
By teaching students knowledgeable perception of artwork, they will learn how to be
more skeptical and informed viewers of all visual media. Perkins (1994) has a brilliant
explanation of the educationally beneficial relationship between literacy and the arts through his
examination of works of arts as a means of learning to think by looking at art. He explained how
the visual arts support the development of habits of mind through a sensory or aesthetic
connection because works of art call forth our personal involvement Looking at art requires
us draw on various types of cognition and encourages us to make connections with other
domains of human experience (p. ix). This means that by practicing the visual examination of
art, students will learn to think more critically about what they are seeing and that critical
thoughtfulness will translate into other cognitive skills for learners.
Like literature, visual art is a system of meaning. We need to consider that there are facts,
principles, rules, and ways of making and understanding art that are learned through an
educational system and/or a social structure that determines how a culture sees and experiences

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the world (Chanda, 2004). At a fundamental level, examining an image for clues to nature of
character or for a deeper notion of setting is no different from the daily observations students
make throughout their minutia of life. However, artists use illustrations to carry deeper and more
subtle connotations portrayed through choices of style, media and the formal language of art
known as Elements of Art and Principals of Design. This visual language stems from the culture
in which the artist lives and works and communicates meaning to members within the culture. In
a similar way that authors use language to create texture and mood, artists also employ a set of
techniques a visual languagewith which they can evoke emotions and conjure up specific
settings. When students become more adept at decoding the implications of works of art and
illustrations through shared readings and discussions with educators, they can derive increased
levels of nuanced complexity in the literature.
In addition to the technical process used to render various elements in a picture, the way
the elements are composed can also affect the overall impression. For instance, an object or
character depicted in a highly intense hue against a dark background will become the focal point
of the composition. Moreover, the size and placement of the character in the setting can imply
tone and predict narrative elements; whether a character is represented large and in the
foreground of the setting or smaller and overlapped by these same setting elements can affect
how well the viewer relates to the character (ONeil, 2011). The setting itself can play a role in
establishing the tone of the story. Schwartz (1982) wrote,
So, too natural landscapes in the illustrations in childrens books are an important
symbolic means of expression. They offer depth to childrens imaginary experience; they
strengthen their sense of beauty, belonging, and identification with their small intimate
world; beckon them in the shape of landscapes presented as ideal or open for the
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liberating vistas of faraway sceneries where elemental forces range. They may serve as
symbols for abstractions such as tension and direction (flowing water), rhythms of
change (the sea, the seasons), and for the seemingly eternal (mountain ranges, the desert).
(p. 55)
Schwartz is referring to the fact that pictures provide students with the necessary tool to help
them develop the setting and storyline in their minds which is particularly important since the
child may not have the life experience to understand abstractions or relate to the setting.
By learning to identify the visual elements and understand compositional techniques used
to illustrate a visual message to communicate thoughts and emotions in addition to objects and
actions, students can develop visual literacy skills and thus generate a greater comprehension of
the text in picture books. Whether building vocabulary or developing an appreciation for irony,
readers can benefit from a greater sense of the meaning derived from illustrations. Reading
comprehension increases when students become aware of the culturally connected meanings of
visual elements and level of interaction pictures have with the text.
Evidence of this is documented in The Champions of Change: The impact of the Art on
Learning (Fiske, 1999) which is a compilation of research that involves seven major studies
including research teams led by Shirley Brice Heath of Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching, Steve Seidel with Harvard Universitys Project Zero, and James
Catterall with the Imagination Project at the University of California. Catterall worked with over
25,000 students to provide evidence of how learning is enhanced through involvement in the
visual arts. His study specially referred to the potential of the arts to offer different ways of
thinking and representing knowledge (Catterall, Chapleau, & Iwanaga, 2009). Findings indicate

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that a discourse of literacy is created as students think through, share, and discuss their
interpretations of images for communicating in role as an artist using common language and a
disposition for thinking, creating and interpreting. Evidence shows that students have stronger
personal connection to the learning experience when new text and concepts are introduced with
with visual images followed by a negotiation of meaning through discussion.
Symbols and images are a universal language therefore; the visual arts provide a
means for multiple cultures to find common ground for understanding each other and the world.
According to the National Visual Arts Standards, the visual arts provide an aesthetic environment
of learning, seeing and creating where individual emotions, intuitions and feelings matter which
allows students the opportunity to learn with their whole being through their body, voice, mind
and imagination (National Art Education Association, 2008). The visual arts can teach students to
think by using multiple literacies to express themselves and communicate with others in a
meaningful way through a common language -the image which is particularly important for
todays 21st century visual learners.
Students today are exposed and interact with texts that contain elaborate visual images,
unusual narrative structures, complex design elements and unique formats. Moreover, websites,
expository texts, magazines, textbooks, advertisements, and graphic novels require that students
simultaneously process written text, visual images and graphic design elements to construct
meaning. The visual art can provide a platform for developing thinking dispositions for 21st
century learners by providing a canvas of thinking routines that teach students to think through
the use of visuals and multiple forms of communicating and representing meaning. Cramer

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(2014) claims that incorporating the visual arts in literacy education elevates art in education
from a past time or interest to a meaningful method of learning and provides multiple ways of
knowing and understanding across the various disciplines.
Research shows that particular cognitive strategies such as visualizing, summarizing,
questioning and predicting are successful tools in supporting readers comprehension of written
text. Pedagogical frame works for teaching cognitive strategies have been proposed in
conjunction with this collection of research. Nevertheless, the complex messages contained in
visual art require readers to use different strategies for constructing meaning than the
aforementioned cognitive strategies. Students today need to use visual literacy skills
simultaneously with text.
Distinct logics govern written text and visual images. Written text is governed by the
logic of time or temporal sequence. Visual images are governed by the logic of spatiality,
composition and simultaneity (Kress, 2003). Due to these differences, the cognitive strategies
that focus on comprehending written text will not be sufficient to help learners comprehend the
various modes of representation and meaning incorporated in multimodal text. Therefore,
educating students to the various components of multimodal texts is an essential aspect of
contemporary literacy instruction. According to Anstey and Bull (2006), as students begin to
work more frequently with these multimodal texts in school, educators will need new
instructional strategies, vocabularies and knowledge to support critical thinking about visual
representation and meaning.

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In order to maximize on the benefits of integrating visual arts into literacy instruction,
educators need to create a learning environment conducive to interactive meaning construction
where critical thinking is visible. Critical thinking should be developed as a disposition which
defines the character of the student as learner, reader and scholar (Ritchhart, 2002). The
cognitive act of critical thinking involves developing a perspective, questioning an assumption,
casting doubt, seeing something through the eyes of another, reflection, wondering, inquiring,
creating and visualizing. Research shows that literacy skills increase when educators implement
an effective arts-based literacy model. Data indicates that Beth Olshanskys (2008) art-base
literacy model proved to increase literacy achievement and standardized test scores especially for
at risk readers. Her extensive studies with over 12,000 students indicated that the language of
pictures and the language of words are equally important languages for learning (p. 11). This
means that when images and words are used simultaneously, students develop more
comprehensive communication skills.
The understanding of the visual images begins with the perception of the visuals that
artists, illustrators and graphic designers use to communicate to a reader. If readers cant
understand particular elements, they cant draw from them during interpretive processes. Once
particular elements have been identified and named, teachers should ask students to consider and
discuss what these elements mean within the sociocultural and compositional context of the
image. Kess and van Leeuwen (1996) created an extensive taxonomy of the grammar and
structures of visual design. This provides educators with various lenses for attending to and
interpreting visual images. The National Art Education Association (2013) identifies three
components of visual grammar that are essential for comprehending visual images and
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multimodal text these include composition, perspective and visual symbols. By teaching student
how to identify and understand each of these components and communicate them using visual
grammar, students can develop the skills needed when navigating or interrogating the complex
visually dominated multimodal text of today internet.
Figure 1 illustrates a question guide for educators to use to when teaching the three components
of visual grammar; composition, perspective and visual symbols (Serafini, 2011).
Figure 1 Guide for Analyzing Visual Structures
What is foregrounded, and what is included in the background?
What catches your eye first?
What are the dominant colors? What effect do they have on you as reader?
How is white, or negative, space used? Are the illustrations framed or full bleed? How does this
you as a viewer?
Is the image symmetrical or does one section (top-bottom, left-right) dominate the image? How does
add to the meaning of the image?
What is the artist trying to get you to look at through leading lines, colors, contrast, gestures, and
How are size and scale used? What is large? Why are certain elements larger than others? How does
this add to the meaning of the image?

As literacy educators move from the traditional text of novels and standardized testing
passages used in the classroom to the visually dominated text of the internet today, they will need
to be more intentional in their instruction to address new strategies and theories that will be
useful for making sense of multimodal texts (Gillenwater, 2014). Readers need to draw from a
new set of strategies, vocabularies and processes for interpreting the visually dominated texts
used to communicate and make sense of their world. Using the perspectives of visual art theory,

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criticism, and language and media literacies provides educators with an alternative set of
strategies and interpretive processes for expanding their students literacy development.
In order to teach literacy skills necessary for 21st century learners, educators need to use a
progressive literacy model. The function of a contemporary literacy model is to open up the
interpretive spaces educator provide through the expectations they set, the responses they
endorse, the texts they select, and the strategies they demonstrate in order to expand students
multimodal literacy skills (Walsh, 2010). In todays classroom, teachers need to extend their own
understanding of a variety of perspectives, theories, and practices used to comprehend visual
images, graphic design, and multimodal texts. In addition, its essential to understand that each
visual medium has a language, structure and syntax which needs to be understood in order to
effectively communicate (Harste,2014). Visual art theory and criticism, the language of visual
design, and media literacies direct the readers attention on various aspects of multimodal texts.
These perspectives also provide a variety of analytical tools necessary for interpreting and
interrogating multimodal texts. Integrating new visual literacy theories and practices in the
classroom can expand readers perspectives and support multimodal literacy skills necessary for
the 21st century learner.

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