Using multimodal texts for visual literacy

We’ve been looking at visual literacy in our English course at university. The tasks you could develop around visual literacy just seem so rich to me, and can help students to develop important skills in critical analysis and code breaking. Looking at multimodal texts, with a mix of words and images, can also be highly engaging, as the types of texts you look at can be quite different to the usual. They may include analysing advertisements, considering factual texts and diagrams, or even looking at picture books (which may seem novel to some Stage 3 students). In fact, children’s picture books are also the best way to introduce critical literacy in lower years too, as students are likely to be more confident starting in this medium.

Visual literacy is something that can easily be done on an IWB jointly, with students going off to brainstorm their own double page spread using post-it notes or even iPads. Here are two examples that I produced:

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You should be encouraging students to use the following metalanguage in analysing a multimodal text:

Theme – the central meaning or message of a story i.e. courage, friendship, solidarity

Plot – the narrative structure (what happens at the orientation, complication, resolution and coda)

Characterisation – the characters and their roles (heroine, anti-hero, villain, mentor, enemy)

Points of view – first person, second person, third person?

Salience – using colour, size and position to draw attention

Framing – where images are located on the page and why

Word placement and reading path – where the reader’s gaze is drawn. Text can be used in really interesting ways to convey meaning or emotion

Angles – used to emphasise power and weakness, relationships between characters or between the reader and characters

Gaze – where characters are looking and how this draws reader attention

Shot distance – mid-shots can be used to make characters appear close to the reader, building a personal connection. Close shots can build intimacy. Long shots can create distance.

Colours – neutrality, black and white, meaning of colours

There are just so many activities you could develop that focus on visual literacy. Here are a few from Callow (2013):

  • Based on the current class topic, provide a selection of images from a focus text, magazines or advertisements. Students discuss personal preferences and what appeal to them and why
  • Label a character from a story to show the choices the illustrator has made e.g. princess who wears particular clothes, or a character with exaggerated expressions. Discuss the role of stereotypes.
  • Using and IWB or tablet, draw significant vectors that show character actions and gazes. Compare visual to written text, discussing similarities and differences
  • Redraw a character that attracts the viewer’s attention with their eyes (demand) or deflects view attention (offer)
  • Sort a selection of images into categories (close, mid or long), discussing the effect
  • Look at angles and what this tells us about power relationships
  • Take digital photos of classmates and experiment with angle, shot distance and gaze. Discuss what effect this has on the viewer

Callow, J. (2013). Working with visual and multimodal texts In The Shape of text to come. Marrickville: PETAA. pp98-127.


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