ELT Resources/visual and critical literacy

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Visual and Critical literacy in ELT


Language and Literacy


Image courtesy of josef.stuefer

"Who would believe that so small a space could contain the image of all the universe? O mighty process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these? What tongue will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily, none! This it is that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine things. Here the figures, here the colours, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. O what a point is so marvelous!"(Leonardo da Vinci)(1)

Language is both a social tool and a sign system for communicating thoughts, ideas and emotions. Communication is the act of passing and receiving information, an interactive and dynamic process by which meanings are exchanged so as to produce understanding and action. Language and how we communicate both reflect and affect one's world view - they reveal and sometimes reinforce how one perceives, interprets and thinks about the world. (Fantini, 1997).

The knowledge of a foreign language does not only expose us to other words and systems of meanings which expand our awareness of the world, but also allows us to better identify and place our own perceptions as we relate them to other patterns of experience.

Literacy involves developing language, reflecting about and acting on culture and society. It requires a continuum of learning, life experience and a variety of skills that enable individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, to communicate and participate fully in the wider society and ideally contribute actively to creating a new culture. What constitutes literacy, however, has changed throughout history and depends today very much on the cultural context these particular individuals belong to and the technology they have been exposed to.

At the onset of language, aural and oral skills allowed culture transmission through family narratives, folk rituals and storytelling. As the written language became more and more dominant over the oral with the advent of press, the definition of literacy becomes the ability to use language not only to listen and speak but to read and write. New media and technologies are expanding this traditional concept so it now encompasses not only the previous skills but also a whole range of others, among which, the visual and the critical ones.


Visual and Critical literacy

Visual Literacy is the ability to identify, describe, make meaning, interpret, negotiate from information presented in the form of an image and ultimately to think, create, and communicate graphically.

Critical Literacy focuses on the relationship between languages and world views, social practices, power, identity, citizenship, inter-cultural relations and global/local issues.

Both visual and critical literacy are interdisciplinary skills. While visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be communicated through a process of reading the graphic symbols and their particular composition and arrangement, critical literacy shows us ways of looking at the different documents and texts to question and challenge the attitudes, values and beliefs that lie beneath the surface.


A picture is worth a thousand words — but which, whose words, for what purpose and in what context? How can we integrate the teaching of visual and critical literacy skills to those needed to learn a foreign language and why should we?

The great advantage of visual "texts" is that most of them provide information that can be readily accessible to most readers, including very young children who are not yet fluent readers of words, and/or older students, whose native language is not English. At the same time, many of these visual "texts" can also be highly complex and provide many layers of information for more mature students to decode and talk about.

When acquiring a new language, images help contextualize and clarify new vocabulary items and concepts. Image decoding provides an opportunity for joint creative construction of sense and communicative interaction. The learners’ attention is focused on meanings to be communicated rather than on language items to be learnt.

Visual "texts" also enable a more natural, meaningful and lively learning process as they associate not only feelings and memories but also provide cultural background, biases and perceptions, which can be more fully understood by applying critical literacy methods.


This unit aims at providing a methodology and some tools for description, analysis, interpretation and critical deconstruction of visual texts in ELT. Resources and practical examples of activities at different levels will be shared.



A picture, just like a text, conveys information and carries a message that can be inscribed in a particular context. Its aim can be commercial, political, sociological, philosophical or aesthetic. Some pictures combine several of these categories. Therefore, to be able to understand the document, it is important to situate it in its context, identify its theme/function by describing and analyzing the different parts and realize the purpose of the artist/author. Check this example.

The methodology is based on Bloom's revised taxonomy and critical literacy methods.


I – Introduce the document (source, author/artist,period,context)
II – Describe it as precisely as possible (from more general to more specific)
III – Classify the different themes at work and/or interpret the vision of the author basing yourself on the elements from the description.
IV - Analyze and interpret

V – React stating your personal opinion and experience


I - Introduce the document

a) Observe and note down

Example: | The Plumb Pudding in Danger

What kind of document is this? How do you find the elements that allow you to do so?

The clues may be peripheral to the document, like a caption (name of artist, type/name of painting, period) or inside the picture itself (layout, framing, composition, colours, technique).

If not sure, check the most usual kinds of visual documents and vocabulary associated to them, search for more information on the web and note down what may be of interest.

Source:Library of Congress | Info on James Gillray |More info on James Gillray | Information on historical background

b) Identify

Once you have noticed this information, search for more information about the artist, his/her time, the context in which he/she was inserted and you should be able to answer these questions.

  • What kind of document is this?
  • Who is the artist?
  • When was it made?
  • What was the historical/political/social context?
  • What artistic technique(s) is/are being used?
  • What is the main theme?
  • What is the function of the document?
  • What seems to be the objective of the artist/creator?
  • What are the means employed to attain it?

II) Describe

III) Analyse and Interpret

Vocabulary and Structures

Extra Resources



(1) Leonardo Da Vinci's comments on the "Camera Obscura" (Dark Room) from The Amateur Photographer's Handbook by Aaron Sussman Thomas Y. Crowell Company: 1962

(2) Fantini, A. (1997) Language: Its Cultural and Intercultural Dimensions. In A. Fantini (Ed.). New Ways of Teaching Culture (pp. 3-15). Alexandria, VA: TESOL Publications.