Developing Students’ Visual Literacy Skills 

“Worldwide visual culture has never been so rich and varied” (Riechers, 2024). Visual Literacy, the ability to interpret and understand the ideas and meanings in what we see, and to communicate our ideas in visual form, is an essential life skill.  To understand more about what visual literacy involves, and the skills students need to develop, take a look at the National Geographic Learning Visual Literacy Infographic

How does Visual Literacy relate to English Language Learning? 

Language learning is about developing the ability to communicate by understanding the structure and meaning of information. Because an overwhelming amount of the information we now engage with is visual, and often presented in a combination of different ‘modes’ (such as text, sound, or image), students need to be able to engage critically with and analyse meaning in a variety of different forms. 

“Twenty-first-century learners live in a visual environment. … Visual images are the most basic form of input to our brains. They are at the heart of language learning”

Newman & Ogle, 2019

“Understanding the structure and meaning of visual language aids our ability to both communicate and comprehend” (Riechers, 2024).  By developing Visual Literacy skills, students are better equipped to think about visual and multimodal information more critically and create meaning from images. As well as making students better readers, this also improves their writing proficiency and critical thinking skills (Minor, 2021). By explicitly teaching students visual literacy skills, we also better prepare them for English language exams such as IELTS (in which candidates need to analyse and interpret visual information in the form of charts and graphs) and Cambridge speaking exams (in which candidates are expected to describe and respond to photographs). 

How can we help students develop Visual Literacy in the English language classroom? 

There are many ways we can help our students become visually literate. Our Visual Literacy Infographic contains some useful questions we can ask to help students develop these skills. In this post, we explore how to help students to engage with, respond to, critically analyse, and evaluate meaning in visual information so that they can better connect with the world, with examples from Life, Third Edition.

Engage with different types of visual content. 

From symbols, icons, diagrams, and infographics, to video, photo, animation and facial expression, visual content comes in many different forms. To help our students develop Visual Literacy skills, we first need to engage them with visual content in a variety of different forms. This can mean bringing different types of visuals into the classroom, and encouraging students to notice and analyse the visual content they encounter in the world around them. National Geographic Learning materials help students to do this by featuring authentic and engaging visual content from around the world. This lesson, from the Intermediate level of Life, Third Edition, invites students to analyse the way an animation is constructed, and the decisions made in creating it: 

Visual Literacy lesson from Life, Third Edition Intermediate
Activities from Life, Third Edition Intermediate

Respond to what we see.

Effectively engaging with what we see includes responding to it — by examining what we like or dislike about it, how it makes us feel, and why this might be.  Our responses to visual information are influenced by the context in which we are viewing it, but also by our own beliefs and experiences.  Different people will have different responses to visual content, and the visual medium also plays a role in shaping these responses. Exploring these responses with students and increasing their awareness of how different mediums evoke different reactions is an essential part of developing Visual Literacy.  This lesson, from the Pre-Intermediate level of Life, Third Edition, invites students to consider their own personal responses to both a photo and a video. 

Visual Literacy lesson from Life, Third Edition Pre-Intermediate
Activities from Life, Third Edition Pre-Intermediate

The Teacher’s Book also includes instructions to help students compare their response to the photo with their response to the video and discuss how their responses are similar or different:  

Teacher’s Book page from Life, Third Edition Pre-Intermediate

Analyse the techniques used to create visual content.

Understanding how visual content is created not only gives us a deeper understanding of how it can impact and influence us, but also helps us to develop the skills to communicate our own ideas in a variety of visual forms. This lesson, from the Intermediate level of Life, Third Edition, invites students to analyse video techniques that support a video’s message. In the video, various techniques are employed to raise awareness of, and sensitize viewers to, the difficulties surrounding lip reading. 

Visual Literacy lesson from Life, Third Edition Intermediate
Activities from Life, Third Edition Intermediate

Explore the meaning behind what we see.

Visual content communicates meaning in many different ways. Exploring the possible intended messages behind what we see helps us to look at information with a more critical eye.  This lesson from the Pre-Intermediate level of Life, Third Edition invites students to explore the possible meanings behind a range of different signs and symbols. Signs and symbols are often used to represent complex ideas, feelings or concepts in a concise way, and many are universally recognised, meaning they can transcend language barriers. 

Visual Literacy lesson from Life, Third Edition Pre-Intermediate
Activities from Life, Third Edition Pre-Intermediate

These are just some examples of how Life, Third Edition helps to develop students’ Visual Literacy Skills.  Throughout the course, carefully scaffolded activities develop students’ ability to interpret and critically analyze a wide variety of visual information, from video and photographic content, to infographics, diagrams, flowcharts, presentation slides, tables, and charts. These lessons build towards an opportunity for students to present their ideas to others and to reflect on them through peer discussion. 

Life, Third Edition also develops students’ ability to communicate meaning through visual mediums by producing visual content of their own, such as in this lesson on infographics from Pre-Intermediate. 

A Visual Literacy lesson from Life, Third Edition Pre-Intermediate
Speaking activities from Life, Third Edition Pre-Intermediate

Competence in interpreting and producing information in visual formats is useful for academic and professional contexts as well as being an important exam skill. 

In today’s world, we are exposed to more visual content than ever before. The tips discussed in this blog post will help your students confidently analyse and interpret the wide variety of visual content they encounter on a daily basis, providing them with the essential skills they need to navigate and interact with the world around them.  

Help your English language learners connect with the world by developing visual literacy skills with Life, Third Edition!

References and Further Reading 

Riechers, A. (2024). The Elements of Visual Grammar: A Designer’s Guide for Writers, Scholars & Professionals. Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press. 

Newman, M. & Ogle, D. (2019). Visual Literacy: Reading, Thinking and Communicating with Visuals.  London, Rowman & Littlefield. 

Minor, D. (2021). Visual Literacy Is Critical for 21st Century Learners. [online] NCTE. Available at: 

Author: Jade Blue

Jade Blue is an English language teacher, trainer, and educational consultant whose primary research interests focus on learner-generated visuals in ELT, learner autonomy, and integrating life skills into classroom practice. Jade has authored a wide range of ELT articles, Teacher Guides and Research Guides, delivers training courses around the world, and regularly creates training content for major ELT publishers. Jade is the lead consultant on Visual Literacy content in National Geographic Learning’s Life Third Edition, and Multiple Literacies content in Trailblazer.

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