Wooden house in forest during Aurora Borealis

Visual Literacy in the English Language Classroom

Here are eight words or terms that either didn’t exist or were relatively unheard of before the beginning of this century. Do you know, or can you guess, their meaning? What do you think the connection is between them?

  • infographic
  • kinetic typography
  • screenager
  • binge-watch
  • emoji
  • meme
  • vine
  • augmented reality

If you are still unsure what they refer to, a quick google will give you definitions and show you lots of examples. The point is that they are all connected in some way to looking or watching. They are representative of the impact that images via screens have had on our lives in the last fifteen years. As a result, there has been a renewed interest in visual literacy and how it might be taught.

Of course, the need to understand and interpret images isn’t new and, for many years, ELT teachers have recognised the importance of visual elements in their lessons (Corder, 1966). But in this century, the information that our students receive in English increasingly comes through a complex combination of text and image. Burmark (2008, p.5) comments: ‘Our students must learn to process both words and pictures. To be visually literate, they must learn to “read” (consume/interpret) images and “write” (produce/use) visually rich communications’.

As a language teacher and materials writer, I’m not going to suggest that it’s our role to ‘teach’ students how to be visually literate (though you may agree with a number of educators who think it is). But I do think that a better understanding of visual literacy can help us to consider how we can make effective use of images in the classroom. Let’s look at three levels of visual literacy and how these relate to classroom teaching.

Basic comprehension and understanding

At a basic level, visual literacy is about looking at an image and answering the question, ‘what does it mean?’ So if we are driving along the road and see a red sign with letters in a language we don’t understand, we can probably guess that it’s telling us to stop. We’re able to read and understand the road sign because of its colour, shape and the context. We use this kind of visual literacy every day. So too, in the classroom, we help students understand and remember words by showing them pictures. For example, in this exercise, students match the words to the pictures.

Activity - Visual Literacy

We can also help students with their comprehension by making use of images in other ways. For example, we might show students a newspaper article with a picture and, before reading the text, we’ll ask students to say what they see in the picture and predict what the text is likely to be about.

Critical thinking

One of the first books I used as teacher was The Mind’s Eye (Maley, 1980). It was a collection of black and white images and for each image there were questions and tasks for language students. The book aimed to get students ‘to think beyond the frame’. In other words, not simply to describe what they could see but rather to speculate about what the person in the picture might be thinking, or to suggest what could happen next. Quite often, these kinds of task make use of images where the photographer (or video maker) is sending out a message which is not instantly recognisable. They therefore generate discussion or requires some level of critical thinking.

Typically, images that can be used in this way are ambiguous. They engage students because they encourage questions from the viewer. Take this example of a photograph by Ira Bloch which appeared in a course book. It’s used to lead into a unit on the topic of the Earth. The surprise element of an inuit man holding a large photograph instantly asks us to speculate on why he’s holding it, what the connection is between the two locations, and what the photographer is trying to say. After students have considered these questions, they discover through a listening task that Bloch wanted to contrast how the Arctic Circle would have looked millions of years ago (like a swamp) compared to the cold place it is now. The man is holding the photo to send the message that if we don’t halt climate change, he will lose his home.

Unit 12 image - Visual Literacy

Creative thinking

So far we have seen that visual literacy in the language classroom is about using images for comprehension and for tasks that require greater critical thinking. Both uses tend to treat the image as something you ‘read’ and require students look at and respond to them. But visual literacy is also about developing the ability to ‘write’ or ‘create’ your own images. Twenty years ago, I could have asked students to take their own photo or make a video and bring it to class, but it was logistically difficult and often unproductive and time-consuming. Fast forward to the present day, and setting up a homework exercise where students take an image, upload it to a website like Fotobabble.com, and record their own narration is relatively straightforward – and useful. And having students write a mini-script and make their own animated movie using a free online tool like Dvolver.com is a simple but powerful combination of imagery and text (Sadowsky & Paivio, 2013).

These days, visual literacy at the creative level is very much linked to digital literacies (Dudeney, Hockly & Pegrum, 2013) and the reasoned use of technology in the classroom. Here’s a real classroom example from a lesson reported by Nicky Hockly on her blog e-moderationskills.com. In it, she draws on her students’ own creative visual literacy.

To introduce the topic of ‘Water’ in a new course book unit, students were invited to go outside and use their phones to take their own photos of something related to ‘water’. Some of their pictures are shown here:

Student Photos - Visual Literacy

Students returned to the class and presented their images to the group, explaining in each case the connection with ‘water’. This activity provided an introduction to the course book unit, also showing a photo related to water (below), and it’s a good example of students using their own creativity and productive visual literacy along with their creative use of language.

Life Unit 3 - Visual Literacy

Reflecting lower order and higher order thinking

So we’ve seen how visual literacy in the classroom can take students from basic comprehension and understanding, to developing their analytical skills, to engaging their creativity. In this way, it reflects a natural progression from lower order to higher order thinking in the classroom (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2000). My own feeling is that in the past teachers and materials writers tended to focus on the use of images for lower order thinking (i.e. showing a picture with a word on a flashcard) and for critical thinking. But now, we have more opportunities than ever before to allow students to draw on the creative side of their visual literacy; to create, share and combine their own images as part of their language learning.

Now you’ve read this – why not listen to John Hughes’ accompanying interview here?

References and further reading:

Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl, D.R. (Eds.). (2000). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Longman

Burmark, L., (2008) Chapter 1. Visual literacy: What you get is what you see. In N. Frey, & D. Fisher (Eds). Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills. Corwin Press

Corder, P. (1966). The visual element in language teaching. Longman

Dudeney, G., Hockly, N. & Pegrum, M. (2013). Digital literacies. Pearson

Hughes, J. (2016) Visual literacy activities in language learning https://www.myetpedia.com/visual-literacy-activities-language-learning/

Maley, A., Duff, A. & Grellet, F. (1980). The mind’s eye. Cambridge University Press

Sadowski, M., & Paivio, A., (2013). Imagery and text. (2nd ed). Routledge.

The coursebooks extracts with images are from:

Dummett, P, Hughes, J., & Stephenson, H. (2013). Life Elementary. National Geographic Learning, p.22, p. 141

Dummett, P, Hughes, J., & Stephenson, H. (2013). Life Intermediate. National Geographic Learning, p.33

Read the complete description of Nicky Hockly’s lesson on ‘Water.’

Author: John Hughes

John Hughes is a teacher, teacher trainer and course book author. He currently combines a variety of roles including part-time teaching, running online training courses, and lecturing on ELT methodology at Oxford University. He is an author of many National Geographic Learning titles including Life, a six-level general English course, Spotlight on First, Practical Grammar, Total Business, Success with BEC Vantage, and Aspire. He lives near Oxford, United Kingdom.


  1. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Many thanks, However I am encountering issues with your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I cannot join it. Is there anybody else getting similar RSS issues? Anyone that knows the answer can you kindly respond? Thanx!!

  2. I am a current student taking a class on general methods in education and technology, and I have been very interested in the effects of visual literacy taught through multimedia.

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